Though it was often painful, they paid attention last week as witness after witness, including a 9-year-old girl, recounted what it was like to watch the death of George Floyd, his neck pinned for more than nine minutes under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin last May. And they found validation in the testimony of police officials who described Chauvin’s actions as excessive force, who told a jury that Chauvin’s actions were counter to his training.
But more than simply the case of one officer and one instance of police brutality, many here and elsewhere see Chauvin’s trial as an opportunity to take measure of the whole criminal justice system — the need for police accountability, the criminalization of substance abuse, and the suffering of young people who are forced to bear witness to violence in their communities.
“It’s like racism is on trial, and we’re curious to watch it happen,” said Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of King Boston, the foundation established to build a monument honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in Boston.
“I think people feel optimistic justice will prevail, but many are not sure what will happen,” he said. “I think what a guilty verdict does, is it acknowledges . . . that this happened, and has been happening to Black folk and people of color in our country, and that acknowledgement is important.”
Jeffries and others said the trial has an opportunity to bring change.
“For me, the prayer in this moment is to breathe life back into our justice system,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church, a historic gathering place where King once preached.
Last Sunday, on Easter and the anniversary of King’s death, Bodrick dedicated his sermon to the witnesses in Chauvin’s trial. The theme was “Bystander of the Cross.”
“I think the biggest thing, as we watch this trial, is that we also hold ourselves accountable, to not just be looking at what’s happening in Minneapolis but what’s happening in our own city, our own community,” said Bodrick, who helped pushed for policing reforms at the State House over the last year.
“We have an opportunity here, an opportunity to do things better,” he said.
The trial, which is expected to last for a month, is taking place as the US Senate continues to consider nationwide systemic policing reforms — the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 —that would give state authorities greater and clearer authority to investigate patterns of police abuse and oppression, including the ability to collect data on excessive use of force. On Wednesday, a coalition of state attorneys general sent a letter to Senate leaders urging passage of the reforms.
“In the name of George Floyd and Black people across this country, we need to give states the same tools as the federal government to better ensure a justice system that treats everyone equally,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in joining the coalition.
Last year, months after protesters took to city streets demanding change, Massachusetts lawmakers eventually approved police reform law, with provisions that now require a statewide certification process for police officers. And Boston officials similarly approved reforms at the local level, including the creation of a police accountability board that can independently investigate police misconduct.
Still the work continues, said those who have been watching the Chauvin trial unfold.
Yaritza Dudley, a community organizer who helped coordinate several of the Boston protests demanding police reform over the last year, said that she’s remained troubled by repeated instances of police abuses and the lack of accountability across the country in the year since Floyd’s death.
Dudley said she’s followed the Chauvin trial on independent news outlets focused on reforms such as The Liberation News and The Appeal News, and said she’s been struck by the repeated testimony by fellow officers acknowledging that Chauvin used excessive force. With little confidence in the criminal justice system, she said she hopes that the police officer will be held accountable.
Dudley said she helped organize a demonstration in Boston in March, attended by hundreds, in anticipation of the trial, and said the case has helped galvanize “a coalition of folks who have stayed active,” demanding reforms and accountability.
“You can tell that people are still angry, people are not going to stop being angry,” she said. “It doesn’t stop with Derek Chauvin, but it starts with him.”
Jeffries, of King Boston, said that Floyd’s death remains vivid to many who are watching it on television again.. The trial is being held less than a year after the killing, a rarity in the criminal justice system. With emotions still raw, that has only intensified interest in the trial and demands for justice.
“These small microcosms of what we’ve been talking about for years, I think all of those things have been integrated as part of the trial right now,” he said.
Sophia Hall, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the trial — and the verdict — will provide lessons that can reverberate across the country, including in Boston, so that people recognize the history of police abuses, the oppression of communities, and the need for accountability.
“This should be a blueprint, it should be a wakeup call for every police department in the country, that Boston is not far removed from Ferguson,” the Missouri city where police shot and killed teenager Michael Brown, an act that came to symbolize police abuses and led to demands for reform in 2014, she said.
Still she’s hopeful. “I do not see a universe, no matter the outcome, where we’re going backwards,” she said.
“I think the biggest question on everyone’s mind is, despite the trial, despite how we think it’s unfolding, despite the actual chilling testimony we’ve heard . . . are we still going to see this officer get off,” she said. “I think everyone is sitting at the edge of their seat, trying to figure out how it plays out.”