MINNEAPOLIS — More than two years after the trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin began in Hennepin County, the eighth — and final — case stemming from the murder of George Floyd has concluded with yet another conviction.
The lengthy decision from Judge Peter Cahill cited "evidence that overwhelmingly proves that Thou Thao aided and abetted manslaughter in the second degree on May 25, 2020."
"When I reflect on these trials, I see a substantive change in the way at least people see these encounters and accountability and the responsibility that officers have to treat suspects and individuals as human beings," said Dr. Yohuru Williams, professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas.
Although bystander video of Thao's actions gained global attention in real-time nearly three years ago, by the time the court proceedings began in March of 2021, there was a sense of uncertainty about what would come next.
On the first day of the Chauvin trial, March 29, 2021, a KARE 11 reporter first sat down with Dr. Williams in search of perspective.
"Minnesota right now, the Twin Cities, we're ground zero in a national conversation. In fact, a global conversation about racial justice and that's important and it's going to mark our future," Dr. Williams said. "Not just in terms of the trial, but also in terms of what we leave behind in the aftermath of this moment."
After two years, he says that the aftermath is just beginning to enter into the equation.
"We're seeing some positives in terms of those trials," Dr. Williams said. "At least here, in terms of how the criminal justice system is at least trying to change."
In addition to the eight criminal convictions, which include both state and federal charges against all four former MPD officers involved, Dr. Williams points to widespread reviews and reforms of use-of-force policies as a sign of progress. He also cites local changes, including new MPD and public safety leadership, and a Consent Decree Agreement aimed at addressing systemic issues.
"I always remind people, the consent decree is the first step," Dr. Williams said. "Oakland, California was under consent decree for 20 years. We'll be looking at and taking account of how well we've done... for many years to come."
Even back on day one of the trial, Williams said he believed it will take more than the scales of justice to measure progress.
"Most people are thinking about this as the trial of Derek Chauvin, but this is also the trial of this community," Dr. Williams said in 2021. "And ultimately, the verdict for us will be what we look back in 10 years and say about ourselves and how we've grown, or haven't grown, in that time."
Kent Erdahl: "A couple of years later, how much do you think we have grown?"
Dr. Williams: "It's a great question because I think we're still on trial. It all comes down to the ways in which we, as a community, accept responsibility that we're the jury. That we're not just those who are in the position to look at these things and say, this is what happened, but to ask critical questions about 'What did we do?' And it's our actions that will ultimately define the legacy of this moment."
Erdahl: "In a very basic way, do you feel like we're taking steps in the right direction?"
Williams: "I see a lot of things in our community that bring hope to me, that leave me to be encouraged by what we could be, by what we can be. I think there are a lot of people who will be frustrated and say, 'I don't feel like we've made substantive change.' But looking inward also gives us an opportunity to say, 'What changes have I made?' And sometimes people will be quite surprised to find that they are more attentive, that they are more concerned, that they have actually learned more about issues."
"We are not passive bystanders, we have to recognize the ways in which we can be active agents for change. Those things are collective and they require people to make everyday decisions that help to create that light."
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