Skip to content Skip to navigation

Blog

From Rodney King to George Floyd: What will it take to bring change?

AFSC staff and the young people they work with reflect on the Chauvin trial, the cases that preceded it, and the work that lies ahead.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd—a Black 46-year-old Minneapolis resident—was murdered by white police officer Derek Chauvin and three other officers, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng. Nearly a year later, a jury convicted Chauvin of all charges.

Below, AFSC staff join some of the young people we work with in sharing their perspectives on this case and those that came before, and what it will take to create the beloved community we aspire to.

 

Lewis Webb, Jr. 

Director, New York Healing Justice Program

Lewis Webb speaks at a #FreeThemAll action in New York City

Eighty-one seconds of video-recorded cruelty, four not guilty verdicts, and five days of demanding to be heard. These are my memories of the brutal clubbing of Rodney King in 1991, as I reflect on the murder of George Floyd.

The beating of King was my watershed moment. I was in my last year of law school and planning a career as a New York City prosecutor committed to law, order, and the protection of the community. I believed in the system and could only imagine convictions across the board. When Peter Jennings reported “not guilty on all counts,” I finally heard what my parents were telling me for years, that Black lives in America don’t really matter all that much.

In the 30 years since, there have been too many gut-wrenching confirmations of what mom and dad were trying to get me to understand. This is what burdens my soul as I try to find some solace from the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trail. One conviction and an ounce of accountability have very little impact on the truth—a truth that includes, in New York City alone, the police killings of unarmed 67-year-old grandmother Eleanor Bumpers; unarmed Amadou Diallo, who was shot at 41 times for holding a wallet; and unarmed Patrick Moses Dorismond, who was killed after falsely being accused of selling marijuana.

There needs to be a deep reckoning around what policing is in America. Who does it serve, who does it harm, and is there a better way? Video after video, story after story, press conferences, investigations, reform promises, and devastated families have made it clear—and yet we can’t bring ourselves to see—that policing is a racist system that does not keep communities safe. It is system that must be dismantled and replaced with a humane, community-centered approach that is designed to provided true well-being for all.

 

Jonathan Pulphus

Program Associate, St. Louis Peacebuilding Program

Black America is too familiar with being vigilant as it is repeatedly at the losing end of the United States’ games. The murdering of Michael Brown, Jr.—leaving his body to fry on hot concrete for four and a half hours—and non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 is but one of many instances. St. Louis reckoned with Kimberlee Randle-King, VonDerrit Myers, and Kajieme Powell following the horror of Brown. While every incident was a loss to the family who raised their children to play by the rules, it was also another reminder of the lack of value placed on Black life.

To comprehend the outrage, one has to try playing a game for years that they’ve always lost. Promises are made that the possibilities of success come from hard work, fairness, and ethical play. One faithfully follows the rules, diligently studies the craft, and selflessly gives their best only to repeatedly be disappointed. Colleagues that look like you always lose. The winners that are heralded and celebrated never look like you. Disillusionment clouds the health of many as the collective realizes that the game is not grounded in industriousness, character, and principles. The results are guided by preferential treatment tied to a factor beyond anybody’s control and against those that do not fit into its specious design.

Imagine in and beyond this context the relief one feels when someone that looks like them wins. That is how many in Black America felt following the George Floyd case that resulted in the conviction of officer Derek Chauvin for murdering a person who was somebody’s father, son, and uncle. Black youth and families have always been sharply aware of how the United States treats their bodies like pawns. This country’s playing with Black bodies have long held bloody and deadly outcomes with no consequence. The state-sanctioned murder of Black youth and families with impunity is not a game. Floyd reminded America of that.

 

Elani

Liberation Summer Camp participant/alum, 2019 

I’m 17 years old. I was 11-and-¾ years old when Eric Garner was killed on July 17, 2014. He was a Black man. He was arrested for selling loosies. The cop who arrested him was way too aggressive. Garner was put in a chokehold. He said he couldn’t breathe, but the cop kept choking him.

I saw it on the news. Older kids were talking about it in school. We have also seen this happen to kids, police using excessive force on kids.

As a young woman of color, I feel protected around the police. I live near a precinct.  When I greet the cops, they smile and respond in kind. I’m more afraid of civilian men.

I’m heading to college. I plan to be involved with issues and activism that come up on campus. I would like to learn more about police brutality. There’s so much information out there. You don’t know where to start. You don’t know what news sources to trust. There are so many biased media sources.  

 

Jovahnny Alejo 

Liberation Summer Camp participant/alum, 2014

A guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin case means very little to me as a young Black man who has seen too many situations where people who look like me have been killed by officers who look like Derek Chauvin. 

I was 16 years old when Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City police officer for selling loosies on Staten Island. His murder made me remember all the times my friends and I were stopped by the police while hanging out. “Put your hands up”; “What’s in your backpack?”; “Shut up and do as you’re told!”. You do as you’re told to stay alive but inside you’re burning up. Fear and anger are the dangerous emotions we feel as Black teens and young men and it isn’t right. 

I don’t want to be the next one, but I also don’t want to live this way. I saw the hurt on the faces of Eric Garner’s family and imagined my family being told I was killed by the police. How do we fight back and stay alive? We’ve been protesting for years and little has changed. We’ve been begging and little has changed. We’ve been telling our stories and pleading our cases, and little has changed. Someone, please tell me what to do before it’s too late.

 

Shanene Herbert

Healing Justice Program Director, AFSC Twin Cities, Minneosta

Young leaders with AFSC and YUIR at a June press conference. Photo: Adrian Mack 

I once witnessed a drive-by shooting for which I had to testify in the criminal trial. I recalled this experience as I watched the Derek Chauvin trial. Here is the impact statement I would give:

My name is Shanene Herbert. I am a director, an educator, historian, freedom fighter, friend, mentor, sister, aunt, and mother. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnesota’s various police departments, like police departments across this country, have killed many Black people: Philando Castille, Jamar Clark, Dolal Idid, Daunte Wright, Winston Smith. Centuries of trauma preceded the recent uptick in state sanctioned violence. We have been here before.

I first saw Darnella Frazier’s video of former Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck after a restful Memorial holiday. I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed, but I also couldn’t turn my eyes away. I had so many questions, but mostly I couldn’t forget the look in Officer Chauvin’s eyes as he slowly killed a man in front of onlookers as they pleaded for him to get up. The historian in me can only imagine what I was feeling and witnessing in that moment was akin to so many generations that had been traumatized by people who were supposed to protect and serve them, or mobs of white people who took justice into their own hands.

I cannot recall a time when I have ever felt so scared for my being, my family, my home, or my community in my entire life as I did in the weeks following the uprising. I found it difficult to eat, sleep, breathe, and do everyday tasks. Children were impacted by the whirl of news helicopters, the damage from the protesting, and the looming presence of militarized forces. Our youth were out there protesting and exercising their rights with righteous anger, and we watched them being peppered with chemical weapons. Minnesota is home to one of the largest disparities gap between Black and white children pre-pandemic. How do you think they will fare now that they have experienced this level of collective of trauma? What does justice look like for me, for the children, for Black people?

As the embers of the burning buildings cooled, the magnitude of all the work that needed to be done set in. I saw lots of instances of beauty from community members helping through mutual aid efforts or organizing community meetings to map out plans for justice and safety. When I do restorative work in community, white people always ask, “What should we be doing?” I say, “Google it,” meaning educate yourself, your family, and immediate circle. Atone—through doing anti-racist work and policy. Repair what has been broken—through reparations and restorative measures. Most importantly, reconnect your head and heart. America, will you do this? Are you ready to do the work?