WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden called a guilty verdict in the murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Tuesday a potential “giant step forward in the march toward justice in America,” but he also called the jury’s decision a “much too rare” step for Black Americans who have been killed or abused during interactions with the police.
“It was a murder in the full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see,” the president said of the killing of George Floyd, who died after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, and whose death ignited nationwide protests. “For so many, it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver a just — just basic accountability.”
Biden assumed the presidency during a national reckoning over race and has staked his political legacy around a promise of racial equality, which includes an overhaul of policing. He has been outspoken about Floyd’s death, saying it was a “wake-up call” for the United States.
The president delivered his remarks to the nation hours after taking the unusual step of weighing in on the Chauvin trial’s outcome before the jury came back with a decision, and after telling reporters that he was “praying” for the “right verdict.”
Amid a series of recent police shootings and other violent episodes over the course of the trial, Biden has repeatedly called on Congress to pass an ambitious policing overhaul bill, named for Floyd. On Tuesday evening, both he and Vice President Kamala Harris, who as a senator helped to write the bill, reiterated that plea to lawmakers.
“Here’s the truth about racial injustice,” said Harris, who took the lectern before Biden. “It is not just a Black America problem or a people of color problem. It is a problem for every American. It is keeping us from fulfilling the promise of liberty and justice for all. And it is holding our nation back from realizing our full potential.”
Just before the verdict was announced, the White House canceled a speech that Biden was to deliver on his infrastructure plan so that he could watch the proceedings alongside Harris and a group of aides in his private dining room near the Oval Office.
The jury’s deliberations had been closely tracked throughout the day: In the minutes before the verdict’s delivery, White House aides were seen sprinting through the West Wing, phones in hand, and setting up a lectern in the Cross Hall, where the president and vice president would later speak.
Just after the verdict was announced, the president spoke on the phone with members of Floyd’s family.
“We’re all so relieved,” the president said to a group of people that included Ben Crump, the Floyd family’s lawyer. “I’m anxious to see you guys, I really am.”
Biden can trace his political success, in part, to how he responded to the nationwide protests that rose up after Floyd’s death.
Last June, as President Donald Trump stoked tensions on Twitter, calling the protests a result of the “radical left” and threatening to send in the National Guard, Biden traveled to Houston with his wife, Jill Biden, to meet with Floyd’s relatives.
The hour he spent with the Floyd family effectively created a split-screen with Trump that bolstered Biden’s war chest and added momentum to his campaign.
“I won’t fan the flames of hate,” Biden said at the time. “I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain.”
Last week, Biden abandoned a campaign promise to establish a police oversight commission during his first 100 days in office, and administration officials have provided few details about how far the president will go to combat racism in policing.
Instead, the Biden administration has embraced the Floyd bill, which would combat racial discrimination in policing but, given the slim majority held by Senate Democrats and the amount of Republican opposition, it is unlikely to become law.
Passed by House Democrats in March, the bill would address policies that are at the center of the debate over race and policing. It would ban chokeholds and eliminate existing protections under qualified immunity, which shields officials who have been accused of violating others’ constitutional rights. It would also create a national registry to track police officers who have engaged in misconduct.
On Tuesday evening, Biden used the podium, and any momentum caused by the ruling, to again present a case to the public for the bill.
“George Floyd was murdered a year ago,” the president said. “There is meaningful police reform legislation under his name. You just heard the vice president speak of it — she helped write it.”