Tears came down her face as Alexis Mootoo, an adjunct instructor at the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, heard the final verdict of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.
Minutes after, she received a message from her 24-year-old son expressing his feelings on the verdict.
“Won’t He do it,” he said in a single text.
Confused about whom he was referring to, she asked, “Who is He?”
“It’s a church saying when things are going well,” he said.
The verdict in Chauvin’s murder trial was “an act of justice” for Mootoo. As a mother fearing for her son’s safety in light of the recent events involving police brutality, she said the verdict recognized the “fright and pain” she feels whenever he leaves the house.
“I didn’t grow up in the United States, I didn’t grow up talking about race and none of that was a thing ever until I started to see what was going on with my kid,” she said. “And then I found out that he knew that on his own. I didn’t teach him that, he learned that just from society.”
Mootoo, an assistant vice president in Student Success, said the first time she realized her son lived in fear, and it was an issue affecting her family directly, was when he was stopped and questioned by the police while driving her car, which had her name on the registration.
The police, she said, thought he was driving a stolen car.
“We never had [this conversation] before because I just was too stupid to know. I didn’t know,” she said. “And now [I tell him], ‘Harrison, the moment you get stopped by the police for any reason you just put your hands up and you say, ‘Sir, whatever you want.’
“That’s not the kind of conversation you should have with your children, but that’s a conversation you have to have with particularly Black boys … because if you don’t, they could be gone for no reason.”
The verdict came almost a year after Floyd died last May, pinned to the ground under Chauvin’s knee for over nine minutes. While Floyd gasped for air, he repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” before he passed away, which has become a staple phrase associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Chauvin was charged May 29, 2020, with second-degree unintentional murder, or a murder in the process of committing a felony, which in Chauvin’s case was assault. He was also charged with third-degree murder, which is death caused by reckless behavior. His third charge was second-degree manslaughter, or consciously choosing to cause severe injury or death.
The trial began almost a year later on March 29, and after three weeks and 45 testimonials, the jury found him guilty of all three charges Tuesday evening after 10 hours of deliberation.
Chauvin can face up to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, as it is the most severe of the convictions.
After announcing the verdict, Judge Peter Cahill said Chauvin could submit written arguments within one week so the court can issue factual findings on it. The court would then order a pre-sentencing investigation report, which could be returned in four weeks.
Six weeks from now, a briefing on the pre-sentencing investigation report will be held. The sentencing will be announced in eight weeks, Cahill said Tuesday afternoon.
Soon after the verdict was announced, Chauvin was taken into custody by the Minneapolis Police Department after Cahill granted the motion to revoke his bail. The former police officer has been out on bail since October.
USF President Steven Currall acknowledged the verdict of the trial Tuesday evening in a universitywide email, citing it as an “important moment in American history.” He said the university is striving to make the changes necessary to correct systemic racism within and beyond campus borders.
“Painful events do not easily give way to understanding and change, but they can build solidarity and reveal commonalities across groups, especially with sustained and intentional commitment,” he said.
“We value unity at USF, and it is our collaborative spirit and commitment to positive change that will sustain us through these difficult times, and propel us toward a more just and equitable future.”
While the verdict was considered a step forward toward justice, assistant professor at the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies David Ponton III said he doesn’t consider the verdict as a “cause for celebration.”
“What we saw on the video was plainly murder, from my perspective,” he said. “The idea that he would not be convicted being a question in the first place is disturbing. It’s disturbing that we can look at police kill, in this case, a Black person, but in many cases just other Americans. It’s disturbing that we can see these things happening and then wonder whether or not the police officer will be held accountable, because they have so much legal immunity from the consequences of their actions.
“I think it’s odd that America is kind of patting itself on the back for convicting a cop of murder, that we all witnessed … it feels like a kind of poison that’s sold to us. This rhetoric, this language of justice or democracy working, because it distracts us from the fact that it hasn’t worked for so many people, and this be the exception rather than the rule. So for me, it’s still a somber day.”
The verdict reflected the recent experiences of freshman health sciences major Timneka Hall, who protested in Orlando following the death of Floyd. She said the experience at the protest was moving because people of all races marched at her side.
This decision, Hall said, means the support she felt at the Orlando protests was indicative of support elsewhere around the country.
“It was so nice to know there are many people out there who know the situation was wrong,” Hall said.
The message of unity brought by the jury was poignant for Mootoo as well. For her, the idea that a multiracial jury came together to make the decision was as important as the decision itself.
“I wanted to hear [the jury] directly and every last juror said yes, which means there is justice, it means that justice is possible and so hopefully we can work now to heal and to have open conversations about the historical damage people of color have undergone and continue to undergo,” Mootoo said.
“It was fabulous for me to see it wasn’t just like this Black problem or this white problem, it was everyone wanting justice.”
For students like Wayne Valenti, the three guilty verdicts were seen as a good first step toward addressing police brutality in the nation.
“I think the guilty verdicts for this trial means that we’re moving toward the right direction, but we still have so much more work to do,” Valenti said.
“This isn’t justice, it’s accountability and the idea of it being justice is upsetting because this was a result of his actions, so finally someone is being held accountable, but because it’s so rare, it’s seen as ‘justice.’”
Ponton said he doesn’t view the verdict as justice. The issue, he said, consists of an institutional and structural problem at the police force.
“I don’t view it as justice. My definition of justice is more capacious,” Ponton said. “This act of violence wasn’t just one man against another man. From my perspective, we’re looking at a police force, in this case, multiple police officers on the scene, who did nothing to intervene to favor the life and they had a lot of time to save his life.
“That lack of intervention, that lack of care indicated to me a structural and institutional problem. And the only way to bring justice in is not just to punish one person, but to figure out how to hold that institution accountable for its willingness to watch and die.”
In terms of accountability, Valenti is adamant that police involved in these cases be found guilty for the deaths of Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other victims of police brutality.
“I think that this hopefully means that we’ll start seeing more and more people being held accountable, but we still have instances like the case with Breonna Taylor that haven’t had any sort of accountability associated with it,” he said.
“It’s upsetting that we’re grasping for any sort of justice, but time and time again, we just don’t see it happening.”
Ponton said he doesn’t think the verdict will “count as accountability in the nation that is still marked and scared by this kind of violence.”
“We don’t get to talk about justice or racial justice, except after a Black person is killed and we have a successful trial,” he said.
“This is the dilemma that remains stubborn, from my perspective, the American dilemma that remains stubborn, that Black people have to die in order for the nation to prove that it is better today than it was yesterday, even though tomorrow might look the same as yesterday.”
Though Chauvin has not yet been sentenced, students felt the three guilty verdicts were indicative of the willingness citizens have to actively address racial injustices they have seen occur and continue to occur across the U.S.
Rayna Kanas, a junior mass communications major, said the verdicts are proof the voices who fight for justice can make a difference, so they have to keep fighting.
“Three guilty verdicts do not undo a history of hate, they do not prevent a future of injustice where white elitists think that their shiny badge means more than a human life. They do not prevent a future where little boys and girls need to live in fear that their parents won’t come home because someone took their life,” she said.
“We prevent that future by continuing to fight, continuing to amplify the voices of change.”
The verdict, for Mootoo, acknowledges the issue many people — including her family — continue to face in their daily lives while giving them the opportunity to live their own truth.
“No matter how much I love [my son], no matter how much I do for him, in his mind, he believes the society deems him to be nothing,” Mootoo said, as tears ran down her face. “That’s why this case is so important because [it] means something. Irrespective of how much I love him, he is somebody.
“That’s what I’m feeling right, that I’m not the only one that was to say ‘You’re somebody and I love you more than life itself.’ It’s also the system that is saying he is somebody. That’s what this case means that we are somebody. I didn’t think it was going to happen because we’ve just been nobody for so long. We’ve just been nobody. We’ve just been nobody for a long time.”