On May 25, 2020, 46-year-old George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin — yet another unarmed Black man killed by a white officer of the law.
Floyd’s killing sparked protests around the world, including on Martha’s Vineyard, where activists held rallies and marches — from daily kneel-ins at Beetlebung Corner to events at Five Corners, Dennis Alley Park, and Cannonball Park. The protests demanded policy change to prevent incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against Black people, and to hold those who perpetrate these crimes fully responsible.
After 10 hours of deliberation over two days, an anonymous jury on Tuesday convicted Chauvin on the charges of unintentional second-degree murder while committing a felony, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Floyd’s civil legal team called the outcome “painfully earned justice” in a statement released after the verdict was announced.
Islanders reacted passionately to the news of the verdict.
“As I heard the verdict being read,” Lisette Williams wrote in an email to The Times, “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, not because I’m not happy with the outcome of the trial, but because I was expecting the verdict to be like the others: not guilty … and not because there wasn’t enough evidence for conviction, or that the prosecution didn’t do an amazing job at presenting the facts of the case, but because a not-guilty verdict is what we’re conditioned to expect. Still, I’m feeling a mixture of emotions: relief that George Floyd’s family got the justice they so deserve, personally satisfied with what I’ve done to advocate for justice for George Floyd, grateful for Darnella Frazier having the courage to film George Floyd’s lynching and release it for the world to see, appreciative of all the witnesses who testified against Derek Chauvin, and hopeful that going forward, police officers who cross the line and kill unarmed people will be held accountable.
“Today, more than anything,” Willams continued, “I’m feeling motivated to continue advocating for the families of D.J. Henry, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, Janisha Fonville, Ryan Twyman, and countless others who have been killed by the police; I also have a renewed energy to continue fighting for justice for Pervis Payne, an innocent Black man with an intellectual disability whose life literally hangs in the balance while he awaits a new execution date.”
The charges brought against Chauvin, the trial, and now the verdict are in stark contrast to other tragic deaths of Black people at the hands of police that did not receive a trial, much less a murder conviction.
In 2014, Eric Garner was put in a chokehold by New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, and later died in the hospital. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” were immortalized on picket signs and posters, and reverberated through the mouths of millions of protesters.
The disturbing similarity to the pleas made by Floyd in his final moments are a harsh illustration of just how common these violent incidents are.
“I’m through, through. I’m claustrophobic. My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts. I need some water or something, please. Please? I can’t breathe, Officer,” Floyd said, according to a transcript of the murder. “They’re going to kill me, man.”
On April 11, 2021, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by Police Officer Kimberly Potter during a traffic stop and attempted arrest for an outstanding arrest warrant in Brooklyn Center, Minn. People who demanded justice for Floyd are demanding the same justice for Wright.
Chauvin faces up to 40 years in prison for the charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter.
In an email to The Times, the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP wrote, “While we … are pleased that the jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of the highest charge they could, George Floyd is not coming back no matter what the jury decided … We are further saddened by the passing of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who was killed due to being shot by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer at 4:30 pm, shortly before Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. Our work is not even close to being done.”
The Times spoke to a number of Islanders who were featured in our Voices on Racism project to hear their reaction to the verdict, and what it will take to prevent violent incidents and killings like this from happening in the future.
Take the win. That’s a sports reference, but it also applies to today’s verdict. In the immediate aftermath of the televised reading of the guilty verdict, there were commentators who chose to downplay what most of us, George’s family, and the American family alike are calling a hard-won victory. Justice is a rare commodity in too many of the communities that make up the greater American community. Today that rarest commodity soared in value. Take the win. We should accept that 10 police testified against the bad cops in their department. And we should be awed by it. Don’t allow bitterness or cynicism to cloud the importance of that simple fact. Ten police, including the chief, testified against the bad cops. For generations, that simply didn’t happen. Take the win.
Of course there is work to be done. But today, 12 Americans from across the rainbow of our population said, “Enough.” They and the incredibly courageous witnesses and experts and cops and attorneys and the amazing, dignified, kind, loving Floyd family took a stand for justice in the wake of four years of a president who was as depraved as Officer Chauvin, the Georgia voting laws, the anti-riot bill in Florida, voter suppression in Texas and some 40 other states, and who knows what else the shameless have crafted in a vain attempt at holding back Dr. King’s arc of justice as it slowly, but inexorably, bends toward justice. Today, take the win.
George Floyd should be alive right now, and as one of George Floyd’s brothers (Philonise Floyd) said not too long ago during a live press conference on MSNBC, “Justice for George means freedom for all.” Today, for me, represents the beginning of holding police officers accountable for their actions. While we can celebrate today’s historic conviction, it’s important that we roll up our sleeves tomorrow because there’s still a lot of work to do. Speaking of which, it’s critically important that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passes in the Senate if we truly want to see change, and help restore some faith in the community. Now that we know that one person can change the world, imagine how far we can move the needle if we all work together? I, for one, am ready to do what I can, and am thankful to know many amazing people who feel the same way.
Today’s verdict was a step in the right direction for police brutality accountability. I hoped for a guilty outcome with nine minutes of murderous video as evidence, but historically, white police officers who kill Black people for sport get off on technicalities. Or they were “just doing their job” with some type of justified fear.
Now we wait to hear how he will be sentenced. Hopefully they throw the book at him, but more importantly, hopefully this will be the start of systems changing. Turning a corner for justice for Black lives. Maybe other racist officers will think twice before killing Black and brown people, and fear that their actions may actually have lifelong consequences for them. This case only came to the forefront because a smartphone captured the encounter and people marched around the world to bring awareness to this injustice for months. That’s what it took to get to this point, and it’s exhausting. I hope George Floyd can rest a little easier and more peaceful now.
Today, as the verdict has come down and Derek Chauvin has been convicted on all counts, I am reminded of the night Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers. I lived in Los Angeles the night of the beating, was there through the trial, the exoneration of the police, then the riots that followed. This guilty verdict is long overdue. Justice was served today. People are celebrating justice instead of rioting against injustice. We all know there are mountains that still need to be moved. But today, a huge mountain was moved with the strength of all who believe in truth and justice.
I’ll be totally honest with you, I was afraid to be happy because I did not understand all of the degrees. And somebody had said third-degree manslaughter as guilty doesn’t always mean that you’re going to get what you want. So I was very hesitant to be happy, and my daughter was actually supporting me. She went to college when she was supposed to go, and she was a political science major at a Black university. We watched it together, and I was happy, but I was also very measured, and understanding the verbiage. I think the real flood of it came later, you know, when I was putting the picture up. I was sure the rest of the world understood that this was full-on guilty. It took a while for it to sink in, because I know there’s legal technicalities that I don’t want to be unsure about.
Honestly, what was going through my head was all of the Black and brown people that I know personally on this Island. I was thinking about them. I was thinking about the trauma that they have to constantly go through when these things happen. Yes, we’re happy that it’s a guilty verdict, but I think that the pain and suffering that we put our brown and Black people through on a daily basis is really, really terrible.
For Martha’s Vineyard, if I could bring it down to the local level, we have a lot of work to do when we talk about representation in our governing bodies. We have so much government on this Island due to our six-town debacle. We need our folks that do serve to look for an aid in support of diverse voices. Even if it only represents a very small part of the population, that population matters immensely. The whole reason that I didn’t really understand what was going on in the real world was due to the geographical situation of Martha’s Vineyard. We need to support diverse voices on our governing bodies, and that is currently not the case. From a governmental point of view, we need to encourage diversity, no matter what it takes. We don’t want to be a whitewashed government.
It’s nearing one year since I first planted myself at Beetlebung Corner, and so much has transpired in that time. I don’t own a cellphone, but I’ve been witness to the power of that little lens in changing the course of history. The adage “Seeing is believing” has never been proven so true. Until the violence against people of color was caught on film, it was unreal to so many people; it was happening somewhere else, and certainly not to their kindred. Having it shoved in our faces made it much harder for people with at least a smidgen of conscience to continue looking away, painting their nails and breaking their toys. With the hundreds of people who joined us at the daily vigils on the corner and the twice-weekly conversations at the Yard over the summer, I watched the awakenings and transformations of so many, myself included.
The verdict in the Floyd case was truly a surprise to me. My friend Awet Woldegebriel is fond of the Rev. Parker/Rev. King quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Being the pessimist that I am, I feel that the quote is pithy, at best, but in reality bending this world toward justice for all is like forging metal: hot work, and not for the faint of heart. It’s not going to change on its own, no matter how much time you allow it, and certainly not if you’re sitting on your hands.
To say I was shocked was a bit of an understatement. My friends and family sent me joyous texts about the event, and I was washed over with this feeling of what I can only describe as relief. This type of accountability is something POC could only dream and pray for. I only hope this is the stepping stone to a greater path for this nation. I don’t watch the news anymore, because I can’t keep watching men, women, and children, little girls that look just like me and my little sisters, taken from this world because we’re seen as anything but human. Derek is just one of many men in power that needed to be taken down. I hope George Floyd’s family can have some sort of peace knowing his killer has finally been convicted. I just can’t wait to see where this moment in history leads us.
Kyra Steck and Lucas Thors contributed reporting to this story.