Civil rights activists in the Yakima Valley said Tuesday’s verdict against Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer convicted of killing George Floyd, shows people are beginning to recognize that Black lives matter.
A jury found Chauvin guilty of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in a case that sparked protests around the world — including the Yakima Valley.
Local Black Lives Matter supporters hope the verdict sparks increased accountability for police, as well as changes in policies to eliminate systemic racism in law enforcement.
Courtney Hernandez, a member of the Selah Alliance for Equality who has organized Black Lives Matter rallies in Selah, said the verdict was unexpected good news.
“It was definitely a surprise to me because justice is usually not served in these cases,” Hernandez said. “I was hoping it would be guilty, and justice is served.”
Hernandez believes the video of Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes in May 2020 swayed jurors.
That video inspired worldwide protests against police brutality and calls for reforming police operations.
“It showed that this man’s life mattered,” Hernandez said.
DJ Tye Walker, a 43-year-old Yakima resident, said he had cried many tears over Floyd and other Black people affected by police brutality.
“Even up until recently this week,” said Walker, who participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Yakima.
He was pleased with the verdict and said it affirmed what he felt was clear from the start.
“I 100% wholeheartedly believe that (Chauvin’s) negligence and disregard for human life was apparent and that he definitely murdered George Floyd,” he said. “I believe it was obvious with everything I heard and understood. I’m pleased the verdict has come out the way it has.”
Walker lamented that it took Floyd’s violent death for people to wake up to the daily mistreatment of Black people in small cities like Yakima and larger urban areas.
Like many other Black parents, Walker said he’s talked to his children about the potential issues that may arise in police encounters.
“It’s sad we live in a day where police interactions are still seen as a very dangerous experience when it shouldn’t be.”
Walker said he’s hopeful the verdict will force police departments and communities nationwide to realize the flaws in the criminal justice system and make changes to fix them.
“We need to equip officers with the right training, with the right equipment,” said Walker, who said he wasn’t sure what that would look like.
‘Now police need to listen’
Bill Pickett, a Yakima civil rights attorney, said the verdict was not really a surprise to him. He said if people are given the evidence, they will hold police accountable for actions that violate the law and exceed officers’ authority.
“The jury has spoken, and now police need to listen,” Pickett said. “I think (the jury) has spoken very clearly as to how they saw and believed the evidence came in, and what it meant to them.”
Pickett said the case should inspire the public to demand greater accountability from police, and officers who do the right thing should welcome it.
“There has been little accountability to the people,” Pickett said. Investigations are “held in house, and people are not given the opportunity to speak.”
Pickett has long advocated for civilian boards to review officer-involved shootings.
Reesha Cosby, a Yakima resident and president of the Yakima NAACP, sees the verdict as a start and hopes it will provide momentum in in revising existing policing policies.
“I think this will be the beginning of seeing accountability for death, whether it’s negligent or deliberate,” Cosby said.
Cosby stressed that while protesting and speaking out in opposition to police brutality, she is not against police. She said this was a judgment against Chauvin, not all law enforcement.
Cosby pointed to the Yakima Police Department’s efforts to revise policies and collaborate with community members.
“They continue to work with the community to work on their de-escalation training through a racial equity lens. That’s important,” she said.
In an emailed statement, the Yakima NAACP urged the passage of new local, state and federal policies that would increase police accountability.
“Legal accountability and judicial justice (are) what we will continue to seek when law enforcement negligence causes the untimely harm and/or death of anyone,” the statement said. “We now look to our local, state, and federal governments to pass nonpartisan legislation that reforms policing and holds officers personally liable along with legal consequences.”
Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray said the Chauvin verdict, which he said he respected as part of the legal process, will not affect YPD’s policies when it comes to use of force.
“You can’t break the rules and act in a certain way, and you will be held accountable,” Murray said.
The Yakima Police Department made changes in its policies regarding use of force and transparency after Floyd’s death, including a virtual ban on neck restraints, reporting all uses of force and providing public reports on high-profile incidents such as the use of a police dog in the arrest of a drunken driver and the death of a homeless Black woman who was briefly in police custody.
YPD officers also went through a de-escalation training in January that aimed to reduce use-of-force incidents.
Those changes, Murray said, address many of the issues the police reform bills in the Washington Legislature would tackle.
“Hopefully, our community is comfortable with all that we are well ahead of things,” Murray said.
‘It gives us hope’
Ester Huey said Chauvin’s murder conviction is one verdict she will not have to explain to her children and grandchildren.
“I was struck,” said Huey, a longtime community leader and activist. “For the first time in a situation like this, I don’t have to sit down and explain to my children and my grandchildren about justice and equality.”
Huey, 84, said she’s seen numerous trials over the years where justice wasn’t served when police officers had used excessive force against Black people.
And time and again she’d have to explain why to her family, she said.
“Do you realize we, as Black parents, have to try to make our children feel good after those rulings, to make them feel OK? We constantly have to tell them that they’re OK, that they can become something,” she said.
But this outcome will foster a different conversation with family, she said.
“Now we can sit down and talk about what it means to us a race of people, if you will,” she said. “It gives us hope that things will change.”
Huey closely followed the case, as she does of all cases involving the questionable use of force against people of color.
“It took a long time, long time coming and I’m glad I’m still living to see it,” she said.
Huey called it an awakening, one that began with the video footage of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Then there came protests supported by many beyond Black communities.
“Perhaps this will help us turn a corner — this time it’s not just African Americans protesting,” she said. “This time it was a global protest and I think we have awakened what people have to live under.”
Adrian Johnson agrees.
“I was more impressed with the community itself, they were out there in Selah and in Yakima, the BLM,” he said. “It’s giving us good hope that the Yakima Valley and other places are starting to see and open their eyes to what’s going on.”
He attended protests with his daughter in Portland, where an array of people of different ethnicities demanded for justice for Floyd.
“I told my daughter in Portland, ‘This is what it takes — you need people of all colors to come out and do this.’ We need people of all colors to do this and they’re doing it.”
But this is only the beginning of a movement that needs to continue, he said.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but you know what? We’re better off than we were a year ago and that’s a positive,” he said. “We’re better off than we were a year ago and were way better off than we were 30 years ago. You know what? Thirty years ago we wouldn’t of even got this far.”
Huey said Floyd needs to be honored and the verdict should be viewed as an opportunity for all people to come together.
“I think we can honor his death by moving forward as a community, not as an African American community, not as an Asian community, but as a whole community,” she said.