Joplin community activists, leaders talk Chauvin trial, next steps

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May 25—As the first anniversary of George Floyd's May 25 death approached, Joplin community leaders and activists shared their perspectives on police brutality and their hopes in the fight for racial justice.

Floyd, 46, died after being arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill for a pack of cigarettes at a corner market. Derek Chauvin, 45, a white former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted last month of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for pinning Floyd, a Black man, to the ground with his knee on the back of his neck for more than nine minutes.

The conviction from a jury came nearly a year after Floyd's death, which triggered worldwide protests and a reexamination of racism and policing in the U.S.

To gauge how the Joplin community views these issues, The Joplin Globe sought comment from area leaders and activists as part of a project with CNHI, its parent company.

Joplin response

The ripple effect of Chauvin's trial was felt by racial justice advocates and community leaders in Joplin's Black community, who seek systemic change in policing on a local and national level.

Victor Sly, a 56-year-old Black man, is president of Joplin's NAACP chapter and also a campus police officer at Missouri Southern State University. He believes viral videos and body cameras have helped hold some, but not all, law enforcement personnel accountable, and he said no one is above the law — not even police officers who enforce it.

"Doesn't it amaze you that we as cops know that everything is videotaped and recorded, but we're still doing this?" Sly said. "We really need to check ourselves, and a lot of guys are going to hate it, but that's just it. You're not above the law. You were hired and chose to get into this profession."

Sly, who also worked for the Joplin Police Department for more than 20 years, said he's never had to use a chokehold.

"I have fought with guys and girls where they have resisted, but the part where Derek Chauvin sat on his neck for nine minutes, there was no resistance. There was no excuse," he said. "He was in handcuffs from getting him out of the car to putting him on the ground. Once you're in handcuffs, you're a defenseless person."

Nanda Nunnelly, a 53-year-old Black activist and community leader, serves as president of the Minnie Hackney Community Service Center on Main Street, dedicated to offering educational, civic and social programs in the Joplin community. She also is president of the Black History of the Ozarks Preservation Society, and she founded the Black Caucus of the Missouri Democratic Party, for which she currently serves as secretary.

"I expected to see progress once we saw how the unjust killing of Mr. Floyd went not just nationwide but worldwide," she said. "And I do think the conviction of Chauvin is progress, but it took so much to get justice. It should not be so hard to get justice. That's what I'm disappointed in."

Transparency, training

Joplin police Chief Sloan Rowland, 54, said he's been working on transparency in his department over the past year. Improved police transparency nationwide would result in more uniformity in training, he said.

"I push for accreditation," he said. "I think departments should have some type of accreditation. It gives you an outside look at your department. It's not just you looking at it internally to see what you're doing right or wrong, but it's a different group coming in and saying, 'You'll hold yourself to this standard.'"

Rowland, who is Cherokee, said police officers are human beings who make mistakes and that there are always "bad apples" who shouldn't be operating in the profession. But the key, he said, is taking responsibility for those mistakes.

He also emphasized the importance of training. Officers who haven't received adequate training will rely on past behaviors or no experience when faced with a split-second, life-altering decision, he said.

"We can train you in techniques, but if we're not training you on the application of that force or how to make decisions properly, then we're lacking in that training," Rowland said. "I think training is another area that's lacking. and societal acceptance, too. The way we (JPD) talk to people and treat people around the Joplin area may not be the way other people do in other areas. There's a level of accountability here and things that people may do in other areas that would never be accepted here."

At least six people were fatally shot by officers across the U.S. in the 24 hours after jurors reached a verdict in the murder case against Chauvin on April 20. Advocates say enough is enough.

"There is no way to 'make up' for a lost life," said Chalice Cooper, a 43-year-old Black woman. "The only thing we can do is try to take steps to be sure that police are trained properly and not abusing power. If power is abused or more lives are taken, then police officers should be tried as civilians and not be allowed to hold a police officer title anymore."

A local group has made that its mission. Called Joplin for Justice, it formed after Floyd's death with the goals of advocating for accountability and transparency for law enforcement and working "to promote diversity, inclusion, equity and improved relationships between the Joplin Police Department and the Joplin greater community."

Accountability

Joplin police also are taking their responsibility seriously. An internal audit of the department, which uncovered gaps with local minority groups, led to the formation of a community stakeholders group consisting of members from faith-based groups, the Joplin NAACP, Joplin for Justice, the Islamic Society of Joplin and more.

"We started looking at some of those complaints, some of those issues and getting feedback from the public," Rowland said. "We have a Citizens Advisory Committee, which expanded from nine to 11 because we wanted more of a varied group on that to get better feedback. But the stakeholders group has been really good at dealing with hot-button topics in the community."

Another new initiative the department is pursuing is placing all of its policies online for public viewing. Rowland said the more than 700 pages of policy are gradually being added to the website. The goal is to have all policies available online in a year.

Of the thousands of deadly police shootings in the U.S. since 2005, fewer than 140 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter, according to data maintained by Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. Before April 20, only seven were convicted of murder.

But Nunnelly said she has seen social attitudes change over the past year, with people beginning to hold the police accountable for bad actions.

"That is a sign we are headed in the right direction," she said. "But this is not the time to sit back and be comfortable. It is the time to hold pressure."

Some law enforcement personnel also are beginning to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable. Police-procedure experts and law enforcement veterans inside and outside the Minneapolis department, including the chief, testified for the prosecution that Chauvin used excessive force and went against his training when he knelt on Floyd's neck.

"I felt like the gravity of this situation was so shocking that it went beyond the norm," Rowland said. "It shocked the conscience. By seeing those officers come out and testify, obviously it affected them at that root level where they felt the need to do the right thing, come forward and testify. I think that tells you about the gravity of what you were watching."

Past and present racism

Most Black residents who spoke with the Globe said racism is a longstanding issue in the U.S.

Sly described what it was like for his family to grow up in segregated Louisiana, where his mother was taught not to challenge white people. From just after the Civil War until around 1968, Jim Crow laws enforced or legalized racial segregation in the South, and Sly recalled a story his mother told him of having to move off the sidewalk to make room for white passersby.

"My mom and my granddad were walking downtown in a population of 200 people when she was a young girl, and my granddad grabbed her by the hand as two white boys came toward them, so they could step off the sidewalk and let them go," Sly said. "My granddad was a grown man. My mom said she felt so ashamed that as a grown man, he stepped aside and let two white boys walk by. That's racism. Those little boys were taught that it was OK."

Cooper, who chairs the Joplin Emancipation Celebration Committee, also said her family has experienced racism through the generations. The Emancipation Celebration Committee is a nonprofit organization that hosts the annual Emancipation Park Days Celebration, which recognizes the freeing of slaves in America.

"I have been a resident of Joplin for 20 years, but I grew up in a very small, very racist town in Kansas," she said. "My family have been residents of Joplin over the past 100-plus years. We have a variety of ethnicities in our family, from African American, German to Philippine, and have all experienced forms of racism at one point or another."

Cooper's own children have also experienced racism, she said. But she hopes they won't have to for much longer. Racial justice can advance in education by making a diversity and inclusion officer a priority in school systems.

"If bullying, drugs and drunk driving are taught about (in school), why isn't racism?" she asked.

Nunnelly defines racial justice as not only the absence of discrimination in society, but also the presence of equity and respect for all. She believes the next step for the country moving forward is to make reparations for decades of racial discrimination and oppression.

"It is tiring and traumatic for Black people to relive these abuses over and over again," she said. "But the worst is when you see how police can treat others. We do not want police to treat everyone the same as they treat Black and brown people; we want them to treat Black and brown people the same as they treat others."

Sly said there's no simple fix to what has been done to Black Americans, but it's important to keep communication lines open and have difficult conversations. The truth needs to be shared for there to be justice and racial conciliation, he said.

"It's going to be uncomfortable, but we as Black people, we have always tried to make you feel comfortable," he said. "We go into a city, and we try not to act our color and speak proper English to make you feel safe. All we want is equal rights. I don't want to take anything from you. I don't want any free handouts. Just give me what the Constitution says that I'm guaranteed."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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