One year ago today George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, after being arrested on suspicion of using counterfeit money in a convenience store. The moral witness of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, using her steady hand and cellphone camera, broadcast the horrendous scene as the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds. Amidst an unprecedented quarantine in a once-in-a-century pandemic, 26 million US citizens were galvanized by Darnella’s video and protested in at least 550 jurisdictions in all 50 states, including the District of Columbia.
Darnella’s moral witness was supported by the witness of 45 other citizens during the trial of Derek Chauvin, many of whom were young children. These young citizens included Judeah Reynolds, the 9-year-old cousin of Darnella Frazier who witnessed the murder of George Floyd; Alyssa Funari, another 17-year-old who recorded the murder on her cellphone camera; Kaylynn Gilbert, also 17-years-old, who witnessed the murder; and Christopher Martin, the 19-year-old store clerk who accepted George Floyd’s counterfeit bill and witnessed the murder. These young, courageous witnesses risked their safety to tell the truth about George Floyd’s death.
The impact of these witnesses could not have been determined in the moment of George Floyd’s murder. Many of them wept while testifying on the stand as they remembered their powerlessness while witnessing the extrajudicial murder of a Black man. However, these seemingly disempowered bystanders became empowered witnesses when they told the truth about injustice. If these courageous witnesses had not used their power as citizens and told the truth on the stand, the conviction of Derek Chauvin might not have happened. These young people are not an exception, but rather an example of the hard truths we must tell in order to achieve justice.
As moral witnesses, we must confront the truth that our criminal legal system must be transformed. Many cities across the United States invest more resources into police budgets than into services such as housing developments, departments of health, youth and community development – combined. Over the last year, students enrolled in the course “Creating Justice in Real Time: The Twin Pandemics of COVID-19 and Police Brutality,” under the instruction of Professor Cornell William Brooks and supported by The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, have worked with Mayor Randall Woodfin and the Office of Peace and Policy in Birmingham, Alabama to develop a policy roadmap to reimagine public safety after the death of George Floyd. Similar work on re-imagining public safety was done in Albany, New York with Mayor Kathy Sheehan and in Somerville, Massachusetts with Mayor Joseph Curtatone. Please see an illustrative report created in collaboration with the city of Birmingham here. We are expanding our work of reimagining public safety alongside a class of about 60 mayors in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.
We can all be moral witnesses by calling for the transformation of the criminal legal system as we know it. We can be witnesses to the problems of predatory policing by defunding programs that do not work and abolishing policies that render police accountability nearly impossible. As a matter of near consensus among policy makers and protestors, the following should be done:
- The US Senate must pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, just as the US House of Representatives passed its version (HR 1280 – 117th Congress) on March 3, 2021. This legislation would empower citizens to sue abusive police officers and cut off police departments from the supply of military grade equipment they use to police Black and other marginalized communities.
- Congress, with the leadership of the President, Vice President, Attorney General, and the Justice Department, must reign in qualified immunity, which creates a legal shield – a blue wall – for abusive police officers.
- Congress, state legislatures, and police departments must abolish the practice of predatory policing so that Black and other marginalized people are not treated as objects of suspicion instead of moral subjects of protection.
- Congress must pursue reparatory justice and pass HR 40 to redress the transgenerational impacts and trauma of slavery and white supremacy.
This moment calls for all of us to be moral witnesses to the truth and to re-examine the fundamental values and commitments that shape our understanding of safety in the United States. When we take a stand, as these young citizens have demonstrated, we create the possibility to not only achieve justice, but also, in the words of James Baldwin, “achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”