'It is just the beginning,' local activist says after Chauvin verdict

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Taylor Hartz, The Day, New London, Conn.
·5 min read
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Apr. 21—All summer long, New London activist Alexis Thornton stood in downtown New London with the words of Minneapolis resident George Floyd scrawled on a piece of tape across her mouth: 'I can't breathe.'

On Tuesday, Thornton felt like she could breathe a sigh of relief, as a jury in Minneapolis found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Floyd, a Black man. Jury members reached their decision after about 10 hours of deliberation over two days.

"Justice is a start," Thornton said. "It doesn't bring George Floyd back but it's a sweet step in the right direction."

Chauvin, who was captured on video kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes last May, could face decades in prison.

New London NAACP President Jean Jordan said that although the verdict offered a sliver of hope in a painful year, "it is just the beginning."

"I think we are just beginning to see the change," she said in a phone call moments after the verdict was announced. "This is a movement and the movement will continue. Change doesn't take place overnight and this definitely has not been overnight."

Jordan said she and many of her friends and fellow activists felt a wave of relief as they watched the judge announce the verdict. "I wanted to cry because very rarely do we see justice in cases like this because the standards are different for police officers than they are for others," she said.

Floyd's death ignited protests, rallies and marches across the nation, including here in southeastern Connecticut. Peaceful crowds gathered in New London, Mystic, Norwich and other areas over the summer to call for justice, anti-racism and police accountability.

During the summer, Jordan said she felt that Black people were faced with asking the question "Do you believe us now?" in the wake of Floyd's death, which was captured on video and widely circulated. She said that although she thinks there are many people who still don't believe racism exists in our communities, she hopes this verdict is a first step in the right direction.

"I don't think people realize how traumatic this year has been for African Americans. They don't realize the trauma that we have been through this year, the trauma we have been through for many years and the trauma we still have to go through," she said.

Jordan said she hopes people will continue to take the responsibility to educate themselves on anti-racism and that the federal government will take steps to enact legislation that enforces accountability.

Karen Lau, a senior at Norwich Free Academy who is the president of the Norwich chapter of the NAACP Youth Council and advocates for social justice in her own community, said she was relieved by the verdict and is ready for the work ahead.

"I think that today justice was served, but I also think that we can't stop our activism because of three guilty verdicts," she said.

Lau, who is Asian American, leads a group of teens who participate in committees focused on issues like economic empowerment, juvenile justice and racial justice through the Norwich NAACP youth chapter. Through she feels that she and her peers have a supportive, safe relationship with the local police department, she recognizes that is not the reality for Black, Indigenous or other youths of color across the nation.

"We also have to realize that there continue to be victims of police brutality across the country and unless the youth and our community leaders continue to work toward police accountability, and our leaders and law enforcement continue to serve and protect people of color, there isn't justice," she said.

Janelle Posey-Green, a New London-based social worker who runs the CT BIPOC Mental Health and Wellness Initiative, said she was thankful that justice was served for Floyd, "but we still have a lot of work to do."

In the first week of May, Posey-Green plans to hold a virtual event through the BIPOC initiative that will provide a safe space for people to sit and process their emotions surrounding the Chauvin verdict and recent fatal shooting of Duante Wright, a Black man, in Minnesota by a white police officer.

In a video posted on Twitter, Gov. Ned Lamont stood in front of "The Problem We All Live With" — Norman Rockwell's illustration of a young Black girl being escorted by U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans, often considered an iconic image of the civil rights movement — and delivered a statement.

He said the guilty verdict would not provide comfort or a sense of justice for the Floyd family, or any American.

"We're shocked that this can happen over and over again in a country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal with liberty and justice for all," Lamont said. "Tomorrow we wake up and know that we have to do better and love one another."

Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden issued a statement Tuesday in which he also said he hopes the verdict is the beginning of a journey toward justice. "This cannot be just a moment; it must be a movement for change," said Wooden, who is a Black man.

"We know that change often takes time, especially the change that requires the hard work of dismantling systemic bias in the criminal justice system," he said. "But today's verdict gives Americans a renewed sense of hope."

Wooden, who is the father of two Black teenage boys, said in his statement that he has had to have conversations with his sons about how to act if stopped by police officers and had to answer his young son's question of whether it was safe to go for a jog while Black.

Wooden said leaders, advocates and activists cannot rest until everyone is safe.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal also released a statement following the verdict. "True justice would be George Floyd alive today, but this guilty verdict provides emphatic, necessary accountability," he said. "No verdict in a single case can eliminate racism or correct the injustice that continues to afflict our country. There is so much more work to do."

t.hartz@theday.com