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'Justice won': Detroit leaders, experts hail guilty verdicts for Chauvin


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Community leaders in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan hailed Tuesday's guilty verdicts against a former Minneapolis police officer in the death of George Floyd but said they didn't lessen the need for police reform.

A jury deliberated less than a day to find Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. It followed the playing of a 9-minute video showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck last May.

"Justice won," said the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network. “But we must ask ourselves the question: How long must we continue to watch these cases of police brutality on our social media feeds?"

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III said it was long overdue to get justice in such a clear-cut case. "Common sense and the eyes told us who did it," said Sheffield, the executive director of the Detroit Association of Black Organizations. "The whole world saw what happened (on the video tape).”

The Rev. W.J. Rideout, who helped spearhead protests in the case of a state trooper convicted in the death of Detroit teen Damon Grimes in 2017, said the verdict was just. "The gavel of justice has sounded and the knee of justice is on (Chauvin's) neck. Where there is racism and  discrimination there must be elimination."

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Nearly 40 activists gathered outside the Detroit Police Department headquarters on Tuesday in falling snow to celebrate the verdict and remember Floyd. The rally was organized by Detroit Will Breathe, which held demonstrations and marches much of last year to protest Floyd's death.

The Detroit demonstrators held handmade signs referencing Floyd and other African Americans who died in police encounters in recent years. "Cops lie" and "Stop police terror," read two signs. The protesters reflected on the moment as passing motorists honked their horns in support.

“We need to make sure what happened is the rule not the exception," said Tristan Taylor, a co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe.

Taylor said the verdicts were the byproduct of a movement and showed the power of the people as it followed protests across the nation.

“We’ll keep mobilizing every time there is a police shooting because we want accountability and justice,” he said.

Sammie Lewis, another Detroit Will Breathe organizer, described the verdict as bittersweet.

"I want to see real justice, which only exists in liberation of Black and Brown people, which only exists in destructing the system that keeps killing us over and over and over again," she said.

Kate Stenvig, an organizer with By Any Means Necessary, called the verdict a result of months of protests against inequality.

“This is a victory for the new civil rights movement,” Stenvig said.

Detroit's role in protests

Detroit protests against police brutality started on May 29, four days after the death of Floyd. Detroit Will Breathe emerged to help lead the Detroit demonstrations, which included night-long marches throughout the city that remained mostly peaceful.

There were confrontations at times, and rubber bullets were fired and tear gas deployed. Detroit Will Breathe alleged in a federal complaint that Detroit officers used excessive force during an August protest.

But Detroit has avoided the violence and destruction seen in other cities. Residents, activists and city officials suggest a variety of reasons why Detroit avoided chaos, including strong police-community relations.

Demonstrations in Detroit slackened off during the fall but the latest protest occurred Saturday as 200 people gathered in Clark Park on the city's southwest side to demonstrate against the shooting death in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, of 20-year-old African American Daunte Wright by White former police officer Kim Potter. 

Potter reportedly mistook her pistol for her Taser and fired a single shot after a body-worn camera showed Wright struggling with the officers who were trying to arrest him. Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.

Detroit police Chief Craig James Craig said he believed the jury had reached the right verdict against Chauvin.

“The justice system worked," he said. "It was a stain on our profession, and we had to deal with weeks and months of sometimes violent protests."

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, a former Detroit police chief, welcomed the verdicts against Chauvin.

He said that too often and for too long, people of color, especially Black men, have been expected to accept police violence as a way of life.

"This verdict makes clear that police violence is not acceptable. It makes clear that Black lives do matter," Evans said. "Let us build on this moment of justice delivered toward a fairer, more equitable society for all.” 

Other officials weigh in

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he watched the decision being handed down with staff at City Hall, and everyone in the room teared up.

“The criminal justice system worked today. It doesn’t always work, but it worked today, and I do think it’s going to make a difference,” said Duggan, a former Wayne County prosecutor, on WJR-AM.

Former Detroit U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade agreed the verdicts will have an impact.

“A jury of Derek Chauvin’s peers has spoken,” said McQuade, who is a University of Michigan law professor. “His conduct caused the death of George Floyd and it was murder, deserving of society’s moral condemnation. The swiftness of the verdict puts an exclamation point on the jury’s finding of guilt. “

This is an interesting and important verdict for a variety of reasons, said University of Michigan political science professor Christian Davenport.

“This does send an important signal to people that police violence is not going to be accepted,” Davenport said.

But Sheffield said he doesn’t think the Chauvin verdicts will do “that much” for race relations in America. The president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network said too many White residents have supported White police officers who have beaten and killed unarmed African Americans.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer remembered Floyd's family while saying in a Facebook message that his "legacy will live on."

"Last year, millions of people around the world spoke with a collective voice when we said Black Lives Matter," Whitmer said. "Together, we will continue tackling the deep-rooted, structural racism and inequity present in our institutions and faced by Black Americans every day."

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Michigan's only African American member of Congress, said the verdict was a relief, "one small step toward accountability" and should renew a "call to action." 

Among those actions, Sheffield said, should be reforms that eliminate military-type tactics from policing. “Police departments need to really step up and figure out what they need to do things differently,“ he said.

Davenport agreed numerous issues remain to be addressed, including what police discretionary power is going to be allowed and what role the courts are going to play in establishing parameters of acceptable behavior.

“This is part of much larger problem, we have so many officers, so many departments that need to be evaluated,” Davenport said. “This case had so much visibility that it was important in many respects to send a signal that we are not to tolerate state violence in this manner and individuals will be convicted."

A police officer was held accountable for his actions, but it didn't necessarily result in justice, said Jennifer Cobbina, an associate professor of criminology at Michigan State University.

"Justice would have been George Floyd not being murdered," Cobbina said. "Every day that Black people worry whether they will be the next George Floyd is another day without justice.”

Tuesday's verdict also was a moment of reflection for Michigan State Police Col. Joe Gasper, who said in a statement that everyone in law enforcement needs to "take a hard look in the mirror.

"The police are the people, and the people are the police," he said. "We must come together to find ways to bridge the divide. We need each other; there is no other way. This verdict is the beginning; the hard work of reform starts now."

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

Staff Writers Kim Kozlowski, George Hunter and Christine Ferretti contributed.