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The conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has sparked praise and relief for many Charlotte-area leaders and activists.
Chauvin was convicted Tuesday on all three counts he faced, the most serious of them second-degree murder. Floyd’s death prompted massive protests across the country last summer, including in Charlotte, and put a national focus once more on racism and police brutality, especially for Black Americans.
Nearly a year later, local leaders reacted to the rare conviction of an officer for killing a civilian — many of them with the same emotion: relief, but not outright celebration. Many said more work is needed to combat police brutality.
Longtime activist Kass Ottley, of Seeking Justice CLT, was overcome with emotion at her daughter’s house as they heard the verdict being read. She’s been marching against police brutality, organizing protests and comforting mothers of murdered children for decades. This is the first time “Lady Justice has shown up,” she said.
“It just means we’ve made some kind of headway finally, that there’s actual systemic change coming,” she said. “We’ve been screaming, we’ve been crying, we’ve been protesting, we’ve been laying in the street... and finally something is happening.”
Kristie Puckett-Williams of the American Civil Liberties Union felt conflicted. She was glad Chauvin was held accountable, but said she cannot celebrate him entering the prison system.
But, she said, this verdict sends a message — that police violence against Black people is wrong and has to end, that Black lives do matter.
“Today is the dawn of a new era, potentially,” she said. “We can finally say George Floyd’s name and it won’t be synonymous with grief and deep despair and loss but also will be synonymous with accountability.
“We must still radically change policing... this is not an isolated incident — this part of a local and national pattern of officers using force against Black folk.”
Righteous Keitt, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, protested after Floyd’s murder last summer. His feelings ranged Tuesday afternoon from initial satisfaction to sadness.
“It seems like if a man committed a crime on camera for the world to see that he’d be found guilty,” Keitt said. “I still had doubt in that mind. So I’m happy he was convicted, but sad by the fact I had such a low expectation.”
As a young Black man who fears interactions with law enforcement, Keitt said the verdict “hits a bit different.”
“I do still have that fear of what can happen if I’m driving at night and police pulls me over,” he said. “I don’t know what that interaction might be like... in those moments, it feels very hopeless.”
He hopes officers learn from the Chauvin decision, but he’s skeptical.
“There’s a secondary thought I have — will they be more careful about how they treat Black men or will they be more careful not to get caught?” he asked. “I fully encourage those to celebrate but to celebrate in moderation because the fight isn’t done.”
Before the verdict was known publicly, the news broke it was coming. Dion Beary was on a jog in Charlotte. Beary, an editorial contributor to the Observer and a local writer, says he got the notification on his phone news was coming and he turned to run home.
“I never watched the George Floyd video,” he said. “I feel like the only one in the country ... But I couldn’t bring myself to watch it because I felt deep, deep down that this would be another George Zimmerman case, where the justice system would fail at delivering a verdict that seems so obvious ...”
Beary did watch the verdict being read from the courtroom late Tuesday. He described feeling relief.
“Not relief that anything has necessarily changed. But relief that, for now, we don’t have to go through the pain and collective trauma that would have occurred from hearing a not guilty verdict,” he said.
“Geoge Floyd is personal to me as a North Carolinian, because he’s a native son of ours. It’s personal to me as a Charlottean, because I yelled his name in uptown moments before CMPD executed a tear gas trap on peaceful protesters. And it’s obviously personal to me as a Black man who’s been stopped by police for random searches as I walked through Myers Park, the neighborhood where I went to college.
“This verdict can’t restore faith in a system that’s repeatedly failed people who look like me. But the verdict does offer a brief reprieve from what has felt like 14 straight months of collective tragedy in America.”
In a statement, Johnson C. Smith University President Clarence Armbrister called the verdict “a step in the right direction to address systemic racism that is too often evident in America’s policing.”
Many of the students at the Charlotte historically-Black university protested for justice following Floyd’s death. “This verdict is not a cause for celebration nor does it change past events. However, it does serve as a new precedent for justice in our nation,” Armbrister said.
City, county leaders react
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said Floyd’s death and subsequent trial “should give us pause.”
“Another Black man lost his life. Finally, justice was served,” Lyles said on Twitter.
“I hope everyone respects the result and understands this will not be the last time we have to address a situation like this. Change is needed and we should all be a part of that change.”
Minutes after the verdict was read, Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt tweeted one word over and over: “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.” She also wrote “Justice has been served,” with the hashtag Black Lives Matter.
City Council member Victoria Watlington tweeted a single symbol: a raised fist emoji.
County Commissioner Mark Jerrell also praised the decision.
“JUSTICE IS SERVED!!!!!!!!” he tweeted.
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather called the Chauvin verdict “a seminal moment in a courtroom” that could restore trust in the criminal justice system.
“But as someone who has seen the loss of life to violence up close and personally, there is no jury verdict that takes the loss away. There is no happiness,” said Merriweather, the county’s first Black top prosecutor.
“What you hope for is a level of accountability. ... Even those who take an oath to protect and serve are subject to that accountability.”
For the criminal justice system to work, according to Merriweather, “the law and the evidence have to align in a particular way. And that doesn’t happen all the time.
“Today, for a lot of people, will be a different day.”
2020 protests in Charlotte
For several weeks after Floyd’s death last year, thousands of demonstrators marched in Charlotte, mostly through uptown.
Many Charlotte-area activists and some public officials pushed for increased police accountability, including greater powers for the city’s police review board when citizens file complaints. Others have said they want to reduce some funding for law enforcement, in favor of more equitable housing, education and health care.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings said Tuesday’s conviction could restore faith in the criminal justice system.
“The system did what it was supposed to do,” Jennings said during a 20-minute press conference. “And that goes a long way in building trust, even in Charlotte.”
Asked for his dual perspectives as a Black man and a police chief as to whether he was shocked by anything that occurred in the trial, Jennings pivoted to the more than nine-minute video that showed Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.
“The trial didn’t shock me as much as the video,” Jennings said. “There’s nothing that shocks you more than what you’ve seen with your own eyes.”
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden responded to the verdict saying, “as sheriff, I believe policing is a noble profession – yet I also know that not all individuals feel equally protected. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office remains committed to doing the hard work necessary to build the trust and confidence required to enhance safety for all who live and work in Mecklenburg County.”
Staff writers Alison Kuznitz and Danielle Chemtob contributed to this report.