Derek Chauvin’s conviction this week was an outcome long sought by Black Lives Matter activists and grassroots organisers who have for nearly a year pursued justice for the killing of George Floyd.
But while rights campaigners cheered on Tuesday as the judge read the Minnesota jury’s verdict — guilty on two counts of murder and one of manslaughter — their celebrations were cut short. News broke that police in Ohio had shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old black girl in Ohio who authorities said was charging at two people with a knife.
Bryant died on the same day as the Chauvin verdict, and a day before the wake for Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old black man who was shot dead by police earlier this month in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, miles from the courthouse where Chauvin was tried.
“It is a slap in the face but at the same time not surprising,” said Trahern Crews, a community organiser and leader of Black Lives Matter Minnesota. “It just makes you realise that we can’t rest.”
Crews’ sentiment is shared by many activists who have called for justice for George Floyd: while they welcomed the jury verdict in the Chauvin case, they say more work still remains to be done at the federal, state and local level to address police violence and other issues of racial justice.
“The fight for accountability and justice in America is far from over,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. “The Chauvin trial may be over, but what comes next will be the consequential moment in our history. We need to do more than raise our voices; we must demand action now.”
For now, all eyes are on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are working to strike a bipartisan deal on federal legislation on police reform that would crack down on practices such as no-knock warrants and chokeholds, and limit individual officers’ immunity from legal liability.
A bill in Floyd’s name has passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but will need the support of at least 10 Republicans in the Senate if it is to be sent to President Joe Biden’s desk for him to sign into law.
I don’t think you can separate the grassroots and the activists from this moment in any way. We would not be here without them
Progressives say the fact that the bill was seriously considered at all is testament to the efforts of activists who galvanised voters to put pressure on their elected representatives.
“We would not be in a moment where we are even talking about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act without grassroots efforts, without Black Lives Matter, without all of the individuals who took to the streets last summer,” said Tré Easton, a former Senate staffer working with the progressive group Battle Born Collective.
“I don’t think you can separate the grassroots and the activists from this moment in any way,” he added. “We would not be here without them.”
Analysts attribute much of BLM’s success to its loose organisational structure. Rather than having a strict hierarchy with a national leader, the movement has been relatively diffuse, with local organisers such as Crews pushing for changes in their own communities.
In Los Angeles, for example, BLM activists were instrumental in campaigning for candidate George Gascón, a former police chief intent on criminal justice reform who defeated the incumbent district attorney there last November.
Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University and an expert on African-American politics, said the grassroots approach can be very effective when it comes to pushing for policing and other criminal justice reforms, given that state and local authorities are in charge of policing in America.
“It is one thing for Congress to pass [federal] legislation,” she said. “But ultimately, at the end of the day, policing is a local issue, where there is state oversight involved.”
At the same time, Black Lives Matter activists say they intend to take their fight far beyond policing, to include economic issues such as reparations to black Americans for slavery, in the coming months.
Last week, the House judiciary committee voted to bring HR 40 — a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations and report back to Congress on the US government’s role in slavery and disenfranchisement of black Americans — out of committee for the first time. That opens up the possibility of wider debate in House, though chances of Senate passage are low.
“This is the beginning of an era that is going to bring about a lot of new changes, especially with closing the racial wealth gap,” said Crews. “I don’t think that HR 40 would have gotten out of the judiciary committee like it did if some of this stuff was not happening on the ground.”
BLM and other grassroots activists say their cause in Washington has been bolstered by growing numbers of young, black, progressive Democratic lawmakers, such as Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Nikema Williams of Georgia, who filled a vacancy in the House left by the death of 80-year-old John Lewis, a famous civil rights leader.
But analysts said that protests in the 11 months since Floyd’s death have also brought together black activists across generations. These include more centrist African-American lawmakers on Capitol Hill, such as Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who previously distanced themselves from the more leftwing factions of the Democratic party.
“This is an issue for many African-Americans across generational lines,” Gillespie said. “There have been disagreements over the past few years about tactics . . . but there is room for there to be a cross-generational coalition here, in part because there is this shared sense of linked fate.”
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