Rev. Gregory Drumwright, who was in the courtroom Tuesday, has both hope and continuing concern about the relationship between law enforcement and Black Americans
The minutes leading to Judge Peter Cahill’s reading of the jury verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin were filled with anxiety, angst and uncertainty, says the Rev. Gregory Drumwright, a Greensboro minister who has provided pastoral care to George Floyd’s family the past several months.
Drumwright, who leads Justice 4 the Next Generation, a coalition of millennial leaders who organize against racial inequality, was in the courtroom Tuesday when Cahill announced the jury had found Chauvin guilty on all three charges in Floyd’s death.
“The anxiety was at an all-time high,” Drumwright told Policy Watch. “No one knew exactly what to expect and the moment we found out that the verdict was coming down, it was like finding out that a tornado is approaching.”
Later, at a celebratory news conference, Drumwright stood shoulder to shoulder with civil rights icons, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
“I watched Rev. Jesse [Jackson] and Rev. [Al] Sharpton burst into tears,” Drumwright said. “It was a breathtaking moment because between the two of them, there’s nearly 100 years of pounding the pavement for justice.”
Drumwright believes the outcome of the Chauvin trial has forever changed the way law enforcement officers approach their jobs.
“Every law enforcement officer is waking up today [Wednesday] starting their public service under a different realm of accountability,” Drumwright said. “This has shaken our criminal justice system to the core.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Justice is opening an investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis.
Drumwright said a review of police policies and practices is badly needed in that city.
“Everywhere I turn I meet citizens from this community who have horror stories about their encounters with police,” Drumwright said.
A hometown problem as well
Back home in North Carolina, Drumwright hopes law enforcement officials in Alamance County are paying attention to what’s happening in Minneapolis.
Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson and Graham Police Chief Kristi Cole are under scrutiny for what Drumwright and other critics contend is overzealous policing, particularly when it comes to people of color.
“Even in North Carolina, this is going to signal change, because this has persisted for too long,” Drumwright said.
The Chauvin verdict came on the day a court settlement was finalized between the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and the NAACP and demonstrators who marched last year to protest a Confederate monument in front of the courthouse in downtown Graham.
Drumwright organized a Halloween Day march in Graham that ended in multiple arrests and protesters being pepper sprayed.
He was a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and protesters against the City of Graham, Alamance County commissioners and Sheriff Johnson over limits on protests outside the courthouse and around the Confederate monument.
Under the settlement, the county cannot prohibit demonstrations around the courthouse and the monument.
“The Alamance NAACP branch and many others in our community are ready for a new day, one where we don’t have to see that monument in the middle of our public square celebrating white supremacy from the Jim Crow era,” said Barrett Brown, president of the Alamance NAACP. “This settlement means we shouldn’t have to fear being arrested for protesting that monument or any government policy or practice on the courthouse grounds.”
Surprise verdict sparks hope
News of the guilty verdicts in the Chauvin trial swept across America and reverberated throughout the world. Despite what many observers believed was indisputable evidence of Chauvin’s guilt, few people felt certain that Chauvin would be convicted of the charges he faced.
“No one knew that this verdict was actually going to deliver accountability, and none of us expected that he would be convicted of all three charges,” Drumwright said. “That is what we consider a gift from God, given the history of this country around the policing of Blacks.”
Drumwright spent the early part of June 2020 with the Floyd family while social justice activists and others took to the streets to protest Floyd’s murder. He was invited to provide pastoral care through a personal relationship with the family’s attorney Ben Crump, who leads the family’s legal team.
Drumwright said family members and those who support them were elated in June when the authorities announced that all officers involved in the incident would be charged.
“For it [Chauvin’s trial] to end with the holy grail of guilty on all three counts, for that verdict to come down made us feel like our work was not in vain,” he said.
Three other officers still face trial on charges related to Floyd’s death.
Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after the jury deliberated for nearly 10 hours.
A now infamous video showing Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, compelling eyewitness testimony and superior expert testimony all proved too much for defense attorneys to overcome.
“It was obvious,” Drumwright said of Chauvin’s guilt. “The defense mounted a narrative that George Floyd was responsible for his own death, that drugs in his system killed him. The jury saw through the defense’s narrative that George was a criminalized, problematized man who was already headed to the grave before he was arrested.”
Tip of the iceberg
Chauvin’s conviction is a rarity.
According to a CNN report, the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, which started collecting and tracking such data in 2005, has found that about 140 law enforcement officers have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges related to on-duty shootings in the U.S., during that time. Only seven of them have been convicted of murder.
If the Chauvin verdict did indeed signal a change in the way law enforcement officials approach their work, the change did not come soon enough for Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old girl who was fatally shot Tuesday by police in Columbus, Ohio.
The shooting occurred about 20 minutes before a guilty verdict was announced in the Chauvin trial. A video appears to show Bryant swinging a knife at a girl before she was shot four times.
Nor did it come soon enough for Andrew Brown, Jr. The 42-year-old Elizabeth City man was shot and killed by a Pasquotank deputy sheriff on Wednesday while officers were carrying out a search warrant.
“It just keeps coming,” Drumwright said. “In the same moment that the verdict was being announced, a police officer [in Columbus] was committing the same crime. I was in disbelief when I heard it. Details are still emerging, but once again, the evidence is out there; again overreacting, over-policing.”