George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Five months later in October, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Half a year later, in April 2021, Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after a two-day jury deliberation. Within two months on June 25, Chauvin, and the rest of the country, learned of his legal fate — 22 1/2 years in prison — more than seven years less time than what prosecutors asked for.
Dates and times matter, considering the speed at which this criminal case moved. “This is by far the fastest we’ve ever charged a police officer,” Hennepin county attorney Mike Freeman said last May 2020 following Chauvin’s arrest, according to NBC News. “Normally these cases can take nine months to a year.” The three other officers who were present for the crime — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — will face a jury on March 8, 2022.
Chauvin’s sentencing occurred a year after he murdered Floyd, but to activists in Minnesota who protested from day one, justice was not delivered. “Just because it’s the most time doesn’t mean it’s enough time,” Minneapolis civil rights lawyer and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong said, as reported by NPR.
In the same NPR article, state attorney general Keith Ellison offered an alternative argument, that Chauvin’s sentence “is one of the longest a former police officer has ever received for an unlawful use of deadly force.”
Whether Minnesotans take the position of Levy Armstrong or Ellison, these essential questions remain: What are the people feeling? Was this sentencing considered a “win”? Colorlines reached out to local activists and lawyers to seek answers to these questions and others, and to unpack what Chauvin’s sentencing could mean for their state and the nation’s future around police violence accountability.
An Activist Reacts
“My reaction was melancholy,” said D.A. Bullock, an organizer with Reclaim the Block in Minneapolis. “I knew that the conviction of Derek Chauvin did not change one material aspect of the way the Minneapolis Police Department operates in the community.”
Bullock’s evidence comes from the work that launched Reclaim the Block, in 2018, to organize Minneapolis community and city council members to divest money from the police department into other areas of the city’s safety and health budgets.
“Before George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Minneapolis residents, particularly BIPOC residents, have experienced a fairly regular dose of violent — often deadly — interactions with the Minneapolis Police Department,” Bullock said. “In 2015, Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old African American man, was shot and killed by Minneapolis Police. This incident inspired an 18-day and night occupation of the 4th precinct in the city and that was the spark that ignited many local organizers and activists.” The Hennepin County Attorney chose not to bring criminal charges against the two officers.
Regarding Chauvin’s sentencing, Bullock said, “Twenty-two-and-a-half years is not progress, it is punishment. I put away my desire for punishment a long time ago, because it doesn’t produce the liberation, peace and tranquility of Black people. If I name something as progress, it would produce even a small advance toward those things, and this sentence does nothing of the sort.”
The mood on the ground amongst activists, Bullock said, began with a sense of immediate relief or visceral empathy for the Floyd family, but then quickly changed to skepticism of the system. “We have been told that the prosecution, conviction and jail time for an officer was a sign of progress — the death of [Illinois’] Laquan McDonald, the death of Justine Damond [Ruszczyk] here in Minneapolis,” Bullock said. “We’ve been constantly let down by the promises of reform after police cause trauma in our community. Police have never delivered on that promise. I feel like there is a great sense amongst activists that we will not be fooled by those promises again.”
Lawyers Explain What Chauvin’s Sentencing Really Means
From a legal standpoint, Chauvin’s sentencing was correct. Before the sentencing, on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder, the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL) released a statement that for Chauvin to have been found guilty of his charges — the first white officer to meet this fate — was a win in itself. “We must see this as progress, but recognize there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done,” said St. Paul, Minn., attorney and MABL board of directors member Jules Porter, who has conducted research on Chauvin’s case for the MABL. “When you reflect on the case of former officer Mohammed Noor [convicted of killing Justine Damond Ruszczyk], without his trial, conviction, and sentencing, a strong argument can be made that Derek Chauvin would not have been found guilty and may not have received a sentence above the 12.5 year guidelines sentence,” Porter explained.
Porter, however, did not sidestep the struggle that led to this progress, and offered a chronology of awful police killings that she said impacted Chauvin’s sentencing — beginning with Michael Brown’s 2014 death in Ferguson, MO — which she described as an immediate call-to-action by Minnesotan community organizers, law professors and social justice advocates who predicted the same trauma was coming for them. “Minnesota watched closely as the Ferguson prosecutor opted to use a grand jury, who chose to not indict former officer Darren Wilson,” she said. “Many in the community viewed the use of a grand jury in this matter as a method the prosecutor employed to avoid responsibility for the already-made decision to not charge Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown.”
Then came the police killings of Jamar Clark (2015) and Philando Castile (2016). While the law refused to step up for Clark by charging the officers, Castile’s killer was arrested, charged and prosecuted. “This decision was monumental,” said Porter. “It was the first time in Minnesota history that an on-duty officer was charged for shooting a citizen.” Castille’s killer was ultimately acquitted of all charges by a grand jury.
When former officer Noor shot and killed Ruszczyk in 2017, Porter noticed how Ruszczyk’s death “activated from all community, including in white moderate and conservative communities who previously felt safe from the issues of police brutality and violence; they realized that the issue does affect them beyond a traffic delay due to protests and it was a huge step forward. However, the racial connotations of this case were not lost in the Black community,” she said.
By 2019, when Noor was sentenced to substantial time, Porter could see a through-line between community activists pushing for justice and Minnesota’s laws catching up to their demands, even if the activists who demanded that Noor face prison time were white. “The Noor case set a precedent and new standard in Minnesota for police accountability in the judicial system,” said Porter. “The convictions and sentence of Derek Chauvin were a strong reinforcement and expansion of that standard. While everyone loses when the police take a life instead of making an arrest, we do now have progress.”
St. Paul, Minn. criminal defense lawyer A. L. Brown called the sentencing meaningful. “Going 10 years over the sentencing guidelines, which usually governs here in Minnesota, demonstrates that this is not your ordinary criminal offense. Judges just don’t frequently go over what the guidelines require,” he said. “So my initial impression was that, as a matter of law, it’s a sound sentence.”
Even though Chauvin could actually serve 15 years in prison, with time served, Brown called his chances of receiving a supervised release remote, stating that Chauvin also has to contend with a tax evasion case. And for people who think that Chauvin’s 22 years sets a good precedent for other officers in the country, Brown strongly argues against that line of thinking. “God forbid we ever get to the point where it’s the going rate, that the death of a Black person is X amount of years,” said Brown. “That sounds horrible and I’d urge folks to stay away from that kind of thinking because it feels too auctioneering to me. So I reject the notion that it establishes precedent. But I do think it provides some notice to officers that what was is no longer.”
As the idiom goes: Time will tell.
Go here, to watch George Floyd’s family react to Derek Chauvin’s sentencing.
N. Jamiyla Chisholm manages creative content at Barnard College and is the author of the upcoming memoir “The Community.” As a journalist, she focuses on culture, gender and sexuality, and history.