Seeking racial justice: Year after murder of George Floyd, many point to continued need for change

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May 23—TRAVERSE CITY — The world through the eyes of a 15-year-old is vastly different from those of a 13-year-old.

At least was the case for Nevaeh Wharton.

The sophomore from Traverse City Central High School grew up a lot in the past two years — especially in the past month when she was shoved away from childlike naïveté by a racist social media group that put the biracial 15-year-old front and center.

Wharton was put up for bid by some of her peers and classmates as part of a mock slave auction on a private Snapchat group, which also included discussions of killing an LGBTQ person as well as calls for the genocide of all Black people and a renewal of the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews. The incident wasn't the first in the country. A similar Snapchat group was outed at a Texas high school in early April.

Although she was hurt, shocked, angry and sad, Wharton turned her pain into a platform to speak out against racism and speak for education. She isn't looking to toss the students involved in jail or punish them harshly. She wants them and others to learn what they did was "extremely wrong."

"If they felt like they were OK with doing that and that it was in any way OK to say those things, then it's poor education that makes them think that way," Wharton said. "These topics are not discussed in school. If they are, it's very little. We all know the issues, but we don't talk about them."

Wharton was among scores of people interviewed during the past month by reporters at the Record-Eagle and other CNHI newspapers in 22 states to gauge public opinion on racial justice one year after George Floyd's murder by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Floyd's death catalyzed nationwide protests, and widespread calls for reforms to address systemic inequities.

CNHI conducted a companion online attitudes survey. Results of the more than 9,400 responses to the unscientific findings varied widely on whether the Floyd case made people more attuned to racial injustice (66 percent no) and the need for police reform (68 percent yes).

Wharton didn't realize her race was an issue until she just a few years ago. Even when she realized that her skin color might make some people look at and treat her differently, she never expected it to actually happen.

She'd read the stories online about Black children being harassed or assaulted or even killed, but Wharton said she'd just look up from her phone and feel safe in Traverse City.

"I didn't really feel like anyone would come at me for my race — and now here we are," she said.

Wharton could have shied away from the spotlight. She could have remained silent and anonymous.

But she didn't, and she isn't.

Wharton sees young people like herself changing the world.

In the year since Floyd's murder and the continuing Black Lives Matter movement, the uprising and calls for justice are buoyed by the energy and enthusiasm of young people.

Although Wharton's platform is small now, she sees it growing as she grows.

"Our generation will be looked at based on how much we do," she said. "Our actions, what we do right now, will affect the future."

Northern Michigan E3 member Courtney Wiggins sees the actions and feels the change. Locally, police departments such as Traverse City's work to implement some of the 10 reforms the racial issues-focused organization put forth after its rally on June 6, 2020 — just after Chauvin killed Floyd.

"The bigger question is, will they be the longstanding changes or are they just short-term? And that's a question I can't answer," Wiggins said.

Those changes include body cameras for both Traverse City and Grand Traverse County law enforcers, Wiggins said. An anti-profiling policy is also in the works.

It has been slow and difficult, but Wiggins said Floyd's murder brought more pressure through the anti-racism movement on local governments.

Wiggins said the idea of a community policing advisory committee for Traverse City is a good one, at least from what he knows so far of the still-forming idea that Northern Michigan E3 also proposed. They hope the committee gives people with a variety of cultural backgrounds a voice.

"One representative can't speak for the whole community, but they can definitely give insights on their own experiences, and I think that's really valuable and important," Wiggins said.

Issues of racism are nothing new, whether from more overt forms to microaggressions, Wiggins said. Changing minds can be difficult when people see what they want to see — and don't view what isn't happening to them as an issue.

Ideas of white supremacy have become ingrained into the broader culture over generations, and that goes far beyond extremes like white power rallies, Wiggins said. Nor are notions of one group of people being more worthy or deserving of human rights and dignity exclusive to white culture. Wiggins drew parallels to the recent violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

"I just would like to have a world where everyone has value and is treated like the human beings that we are, and deserving of love and human rights, deserving of a roof over our head and food in our bellies, and not having to worry about class or race," Wiggins said.

Irene Miller saw human rights violated in the most vile way.

Miller survived Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. The 89-year-old does not have the patience to be quiet or hold back her opinions — especially as racism and social justice have been folded into Democrat vs. Republican, Blue vs. Red.

Life has changed drastically in the past few years, Miller said. The awareness of the continued and once-hidden injustices is driving changes and fighting back against white supremacy, antisemitism and violent acts against minorities.

"That awareness became more acute when we saw that murder on TV," Miller said, referring to Floyd.

Miller said no one used to speak up against such injustices because they were not visible. But now it is in our faces, she said.

"Hate breeds hate. Hate does not have any geographic boundaries," Miller said. "It destroys the fiber of a community. One person can create so much havoc by spreading hatred."

The calls to root out racism in law enforcement in the wake of Floyd's murder have been loud. Miller said those are part of a broader cultural issue. Miller looks at the police in other countries that serve their people and wonders why police in the U.S. seem to operate on confrontation.

"The whole interpretation of a police department as a military army against all others is a distorted notion," she said.

Miller recalled a incident in her mid 40s when she was pulled over for speeding. She opened her door to get out to speak to the officer, but she said he pulled his gun and pointed it in her face. She could not understand why someone could possibly view her as a threat.

"It was about power. 'We have the power of the gun,'" Miller said. "It should not be the power of the gun that controls crime."

Harmony between the police and the community is needed, Miller said.

"Until this is achieved, this will continue over and over," she said.

Floyd's murder accelerated a conversation Traverse City Police Chief Jeffrey O'Brien traced back to 2015 — a year after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a Black man, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Not coincidentally, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing put out its report in 2015, which O'Brien has repeatedly called his department's playbook. Criticism of law enforcement goes back decades, O'Brien said, as do attempts to professionalize it.

Building trust and legitimacy is the first pillar of the 2015 report, O'Brien said. That depends on accountability for police officers. Oversight policies and other means aren't going to catalyze change until police decide they won't allow another Derek Chauvin to kneel on the neck of another George Floyd.

"I've made this statement before and I will make it again, that the loyalty and the commitment to the rule of law has to prevail over loyalty to fellow officers," he said.

That vascular neck restraint was an act of deadly force. The move is no longer taught and is forbidden in Traverse City's use-of-force policy save for when an officer needs to use deadly force — it's not a way to restrain someone who isn't complying, O'Brien said.

O'Brien said his officers have a guardian mindset over the city, but he doesn't believe they act or view themselves as an "occupying force." He also believes his officers' best weapon is their verbalization skills, and the department's use-of-force numbers are low — 82 in 2019 being the most in recent years — compared to several thousand arrests.

Body cameras are new to the department, although O'Brien asked for them for three years starting in 2015, he said.

They're another task force pillar and have served elsewhere to capture evidence while deescalating both police and the public. Prices at the time were considerably higher, and the city secured a two-year contract for less than $100,000 in October 2020.

Now, the city is working on a community policing advisory committee. O'Brien said he wants to keep clear of influencing that committee so its members can decide how to form its foundation.

Racism exists in the U.S., both overt and systemic, O'Brien said. The department has worked to network with minority communities in the city, including with Northern Michigan E3 members after Floyd's murder.

"Really our goal, and we work hard at this, of making sure it's our values ... that this police service, it protects the entire community and really does it in a nonpartisan basis," he said.

For all the work his department has done, there's always more work to do, including identifying future leaders, he said.

"I hope that we continue to be a community policing agency and continue to be responsive to the needs of the city, that we treat people with respect, and all people," O'Brien said.