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A crowd gathers at George Floyd Square after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.

Call for action: The guilty verdicts in Derek Chauvin’s trial were just the beginning

A crowd gathered Tuesday at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 death of Floyd. AP Photo by Julio Cortez

The guilty verdicts in Derek Chauvin’s trial were just the beginning. True justice, say Northeastern scholars, requires a sustained social movement.

“As we reflect upon the guilty verdicts in George Floyd’s killing, it is clear that we have reached a rare and historical moment on the road to justice and accountability,” wrote Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, in a message to the university community

Left, Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University. Right, Richard O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute at Northeastern University. Courtesy photo.

“Like all milestones, this one also serves as a reminder of how much further we have to travel,” he wrote. “With this in mind, we should never stop asking ourselves what we can do—as individuals, as a university community, as a society—to elevate standards of fairness, decency, and human rights.”

Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was found guilty on Tuesday of three charges related to the murder of George Floyd last May. Floyd’s death touched off protests around the world against racial injustice and police violence—a bystander video showed Chauvin, a white man, kneeling on the neck of Floyd, a Black man, for almost 10 minutes.

On Wednesday, United States Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Department of Justice would be conducting an investigation into the practices of the Minneapolis Police Department. Meanwhile, three other former Minneapolis police officers who stood by while Chauvin choked George Floyd last May are awaiting trial for their involvement in Floyd’s death, as well.

“This was a moment that affirms the humanity of Black people,” says Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern. “The verdict restores a kind of moral balance and it also is going to inform the conversations that we are now engaged in nationally around policing: What kind of policing do we want in our country? How can we create a system where Black people are not both over-policed and under-protected, as is true of the current system?”

In his message, Aoun wrote that Karl Reid, Northeastern’s chief inclusion officer, would be joining with leaders of the university’s cultural centers to plan a series of events “that will illuminate this milestone—and chart a better path forward.”

Last June, Aoun convened the Northeastern University Police Department Advisory Board to increase trust and communication between members of the university community and its police department. The formation of the advisory board was one of a host of actions the university undertook to confront anti-Black discrimination

Less than a year on, the advisory board, which is composed of students, faculty, staff, and community members, has helped to establish greater transparency and opened up access to policing on campus, with more to come, its members say.

James Lyons, co-founder and former secretary-general of Northeastern Student of Color Caucus. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Burnham, who is also the founder and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern, says, “We’re witnessing history, and as witnesses, we have the privilege of seeing it unfold before us. But with that privilege comes the civic duty to continue to be a participant in the reckoning of our country. We can’t be mere spectators.”

For James J. Lyons IV, a fifth-year student at Northeastern, there is a sense of peace, and a lingering loss, after Tuesday’s verdict. 

“It’s much more important that we have a system that isn’t killing Black people than a system that’s accountable after the fact,” he says, adding that Minneapolis police killed another Black man, Daunte Wright, while Chauvin’s trial was ongoing.

“That’s the thing that shook me,” Lyons says, “We, as Black people, are still vulnerable to a specific type of racial crime and I fear the masses are at risk of not seeing the necessary change all the way through.”

Richard O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute at Northeastern, echoed Burnham’s call for continued engagement.

“I believe it was Ben Franklin who said, ‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are,’” O’Bryant says. “This continued outreach and dialogue has to happen across the board, not just among the people who are affected.”

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