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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Chauvin Conviction Brings Relief; Many See More Work Ahead

Crystal Hutchinson

By Bill Barlow

COURT HOUSE – By the sidewalk May 25, 2020, in a nondescript corner in Minneapolis, just over 1,000 miles from Cape May County, over eight minutes and 46 seconds, George Floyd died under a 19-year police veteran’s knee. He slipped away not in a burst of fury or passion, but in what appears to have been profound indifference.
Floyd’s death sparked protests, as have numerous other deaths of Black men after interactions with white police officers over decades, but this time was different. 
Protests spread beyond Minnesota and around the world, to thousands of cities and more than 60 countries, involving millions of people, including Cape May County, where a peaceful protest, at the intersection of Routes 9 and 47, in June, produced indelible images of police and protesters gathered in prayer at the center of one of the region’s busiest intersections (https://bit.ly/3dB8OJE).
Just under a year later, a jury deliberated for 10 hours before finding former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all three charges brought in Floyd’s death, the most serious being second-degree unintentional murder.
“My initial reaction was relief,” said Crystal Hutchinson, of Whitesboro, an organizer of several of the marches in Cape May County. “I was ready to organize again if it was not guilty.”
She was already thinking about what that could look like locally if the verdict was not guilty, and how to organize a peaceful event despite the anger.
“I was very relieved. I thought that this is accountability for George Floyd,” Hutchinson said, “but we still want justice for a lot of people, so there was a sigh of relief, but our work continues.”
Alexander Bland, a Woodbine resident, and former president of the Cape May County chapter of the NAACP, had a similar sentiment. He tied last summer’s protests to the long work for equality in the U.S.
“I don’t think anybody’s complaining about the verdict, but when you fight for civil rights, it’s an ongoing fight,” he said.
Part of a Longer Movement
Some observers see the George Floyd protests as the most important civil rights movement since the historic marches of the 1960s. It was also a remarkably integrated movement. 
White people participated in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, and white and Black students defied Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan as Freedom Riders in 1961, but in Cape May County and throughout the nation, a broad cross-section of the community participated.
Not all were peaceful, with injuries, property damage, tens of thousands of arrests, and even fatalities associated with the protests. There were incidents where protesters were shot by police, others where rioters killed people trying to prevent property damage, and incidents in which vehicles were driven into crowds, but not in Cape May County, where protests continued through the summer in Ocean City, Wildwood, Cape May and elsewhere. 
Before the Rio Grande protest, both residents and municipal officials expressed fear for what might happen, as television news showed images of fire and discord in American cities.
The municipality even took the step of announcing the event was canceled, but protestors arrived just the same. The summer saw a renewed wave of activism locally and around the nation.
“When George Floyd died, it was the first time I had ever attended a protest,” Hutchinson said. “It definitely brought me out. It brought my family out.”
She started by speaking at events, and soon was one of the organizers, leading marches on local boardwalks. She said she made new connections in the community.
“I met a lot of great people in the past year that I can call friends now,” she said, but she was taken aback by the vitriol of some of the responses. “I do think it brought out a lot of people we didn’t know were kind of racist. It kind of brought them out of the woodwork.”
She said she continues to be involved in her community, including working with local police to forge connections with young people.
Prosecutor, Attorney General Praise Verdict
Cheryl Spaulding, acting president of the county NAACP, was also contacted. She is also the community justice coordinator for the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office.
She cited a prepared statement issued by the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, of which Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland was one of seven county prosecutors to sign.
“Today, the jury delivered justice, not only for the family and loved ones of George Floyd, but for the millions of Americans of color who, for decades, have experienced a different reality of uneven treatment by law enforcement,” reads the statement, issued April 20. 
“What we witnessed in Minneapolis last May was not policing but was murder and an absolute abdication of the values of protecting and serving. With this verdict, our country can begin the long and complex process of healing, which we know will also involve continued dialogue between communities and law enforcement, as well as ongoing police reform, increased transparency, and accountability. We thank the jury for their service,” the statement continued.
Last June, the organization also spoke out about Floyd’s death.
Spaulding said the recent statement sums up her feelings about the verdict, but as someone with the prosecutor’s office and as part of the NAACP.
Spaulding was vice president of the local chapter of the civil rights organization. She stepped up to serve as president when Quanette Vasser-McNeal stepped down to challenge Middle Township Deputy Mayor Theron “Ike” Gandy as the Democratic nominee for Middle Township Committee.
The NAACP is strictly non-partisan, and officers may not run for office and retain their positions. Vasser-McNeal’s campaign did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
While there have been critics of the jury’s verdict in the national media, most New Jersey officials appear to welcome the verdict.
“George Floyd, like countless other Black Americans whose futures have been unjustly stolen from them, should be alive today,” said Gov. Phil Murphy, in a prepared statement. “While today’s verdict provides some measure of justice and accountability for the Floyd family and millions of our fellow Americans, all of us must remember that systemic racism is still pervasive in American life.”
“This was the right verdict,” said Gurbir S. Grewal, New Jersey’s attorney general. “A conviction cannot undo the trauma; it can never bring back a lost loved one. We simply hope it can bring some closure to those most in pain.”
He said the system requires reform.
“It’s a system that too often fails to recruit police from the communities they guard, fails to train officers properly, fails to place just limits on the use of force against citizens, and fails to create mechanisms for the independent investigation of misconduct,” he stated.
Grewal’s office has spent much of the past year working to amend the state’s policy on the use of force by police officers.  
The New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association posted a statement prepared by the National Association of Police Organizations that supported the Chauvin verdict.
“Despite all the claims to the contrary, the criminal justice system in the U.S. works, even when the person accused of a crime is a police officer,” it read. “The trial and unanimous conviction on all counts of former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota conclusively demonstrates that officers can be, and in fact are, held to the same standards of justice as all other citizens in our nation, as they should be.”
The organization stated that police unions and qualified immunity do not stand in the way of a conviction if an officer is guilty of a crime.
Greater Training for Officers
Ed Barr, an Upper Township Committee member and a retired police officer, who served 30 years with an Atlantic County department, said he might not agree with finding Chauvin guilty of the most serious charge, but said he’s not privy to the totality of circumstances.
“I wasn’t sitting on the jury, and don’t take this personally, I don’t believe half of what I see in the media anymore,” he said.
However, he noted New Jersey has strict rules about handling suspects and the use of force. Also, he said, Floyd was held on the street far too long, a situation that is likely to create problems.
“If I was on the street, that would never have happened. We would have been long gone. He would have been cuffed and stuffed and out of there,” Barr said. 
He said New Jersey has extremely strict rules for the use of force, and how suspects are pursued and treated when in custody. Every time an officer lays a hand on someone, he said, it generates a report, and ranking officers review body camera footage routinely, which guides not just discipline, but also training and police initiatives.
When he started as an officer, in 1984, he said technology was far different. The first area in which video of police interacting with the public became routine was during traffic stops for suspected intoxicated driving, he said.
Bland does not believe there would have been charges, much less a conviction, if a 17-year-old witness did not record Floyd’s death on her phone.
“It’s a shame it took a video,” he said. “We’ve been screaming forever that we don’t feel like we’re treated fairly.”
Looking Forward
Bland believes the verdict will encourage young activists and show they can make a difference. He said he began advocating for civil rights after the death of Trayvon Martin, fatally shot at 17, in Florida, after a fight with George Zimmerman, who began to follow the young man, believing him to be suspicious.
Zimmerman maintained that the shooting was in self-defense. Bland said he was deeply disheartened when Zimmerman was acquitted.
“I’m a resilient person, so I kept fighting,” he said.
Bland sees Floyd’s death as sparking a new fervor for racial justice in the U.S., even if some elements may seem inauthentic.
“Everybody’s ‘woke.’ Pepsi, Coke, even in superheroes movies,” he said. However, he does not believe the work is over. He spoke with pride about the NAACP’s efforts to oppose violence against Asian-Americans, saying the work for equality must include everyone.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) this year warned against hate crimes and bias aimed at Asians and people of Asian descent, a concern amplified after a March shooting, in Atlanta, that included the murder of several Asian women. Robert Aaron Long, accused of the murders, denied that race played a role.  
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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