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'It is just the beginning,' local activist says after Chauvin verdict

All summer, New London activist Alexis Thornton stood in downtown New London with the words of Minneapolis resident George Floyd scrawled on a piece of tape across her mouth: 'I can't breathe.'

On Tuesday, she felt she could breathe a sigh of relief, as a jury in Minneapolis found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Floyd, a Black man. Jury members reached their decision after about 10 hours of deliberation over two days.

"Justice is a start," Thornton said. "It doesn't bring George Floyd back but it's a sweet step in the right direction."

Chauvin, who was captured on video kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes last May, could face decades in prison.

New London NAACP President Jean Jordan said that although the verdict offered a sliver of hope in a painful year, "it is just the beginning."

“I think we are just beginning to see the change,” she said in a phone call moments after the verdict was announced. “This is a movement and the movement will continue. Change doesn't take place overnight and this definitely has not been overnight.”

Jordan said she and many of her friends and fellow activists felt a wave of relief as they watched the judge announce the verdict. “I wanted to cry because very rarely do we see justice in cases like this because the standards are different for police officers than they are for others,” she said.

Floyd’s death ignited protests, rallies and marches across the nation, including here in southeastern Connecticut. Peaceful crowds gathered in New London, Mystic, Norwich and other areas over the summer to call for justice, anti-racism and police accountability.

During the summer, Jordan said she felt that Black people were faced with asking the question “Do you believe us now?” in the wake of Floyd’s death, which was captured on video and widely circulated. She said that although she thinks there are many people who still don’t believe racism exists in our communities, she hopes this verdict is a first step in the right direction.

“I don’t think people realize how traumatic this year has been for African Americans. They don't realize the trauma that we have been through this year, the trauma we have been through for many years and the trauma we still have to go through,” she said.

Jordan said she hopes people will continue to take the responsibility to educate themselves on anti-racism and that the federal government will take steps to enact legislation that enforces accountability.

Karen Lau, a senior at Norwich Free Academy who is the president of the Norwich chapter of the NAACP Youth Council and advocates for social justice in her own community, said she was relieved by the verdict and is ready for the work ahead.

"I think that today justice was served, but I also think that we can't stop our activism because of three guilty verdicts," she said.

Lau, who is Asian American, leads a group of teens who participate in committees focused on issues like economic empowerment, juvenile justice and racial justice through the Norwich NAACP youth chapter. Through she feels that she and her peers have a supportive, safe relationship with the local police department, she recognizes that is not the reality for Black, Indigenous or other youths of color across the nation.

"We also have to realize that there continue to be victims of police brutality across the country and unless the youth and our community leaders continue to work toward police accountability, and our leaders and law enforcement continue to serve and protect people of color, there isn't justice," she said.

Janelle Posey-Green, a New London-based social worker who runs the CT BIPOC Mental Health and Wellness Initiative, said she was thankful that justice was served for Floyd, "but we still have a lot of work to do.”

In the first week of May, Posey-Green plans to hold a virtual event through the BIPOC initiative that will provide a safe space for people to sit and process their emotions surrounding the Chauvin verdict and recent fatal shooting of Daunte Wright, a Black man, in Minnesota by a white police officer.

Groton Town Councilor and Groton City mayoral candidate Aundré Bumgardner issued a statement on the verdict Tuesday night that said “What more is there to say except justice is served?”

“This verdict certainly doesn’t even the scorecard but it shows both to the police and the people they are paid to protect that accountability still matters,” he said, adding that he expects the same level of accountability as a citizen and a mayoral candidate.

The Connecticut Sun also released a statement Tuesday night. “We take very seriously the idea of justice prevailing. With systemic racism rampant, senseless violence on repeat, and discrimination embedded deep in our country’s history, justice has rarely occurred,” the professional women's basketball team said. “While we hope and pray that today’s verdict helps move this country in the right direction, we will not sit idly by content with today’s verdict.”

The statement went on to say the memory of Floyd and all those in the Black and brown communities “who have been senselessly murdered will spur us on to continue to fight for equality.”

“The Connecticut Sun will always have a voice for those who don’t,” it said, and “we will continue to educate and to advocate for police reform and fight for positive change for communities of color ... because change can’t wait.”

State officials react

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, who is Black and a police officer in New London, said he was satisfied with the verdict.

“It’s a little bit of a relief to know that there is justice in this case,” he said, “But I feel for the family (of George Floyd). This had to be a real tragic day for them. Even though there’s a guilty verdict, it doesn’t change the fact that somebody’s child isn’t coming home.”

Nolan said he had been discussing the case throughout the day in Hartford and hopes people will remain vigilant.

“This verdict does not change the problem that we’re having that needs to be changed in terms of police misconduct and ways that departments allow their officers to behave,” he said. “We still need to see changes to law enforcement, and to the system, because this verdict does nothing to the things that still need to be looked at and reversed.”

Nolan said that one of those things is how police officers hold one another accountable, and he encouraged his fellow officers to be bold and speak out against misconduct. In his years in law enforcement, he said he has seen instances of bullying, intimidation and retaliation against officers who report misconduct, and he hopes that culture can be changed.

As a state representative, Nolan said he hopes to support legislation to better protect police officers who speak up about misconduct and enforce police accountability.

In a video posted on Twitter, Gov. Ned Lamont stood in front of “The Problem We All Live With” — Norman Rockwell's illustration of a young Black girl being escorted by U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans, considered an iconic image of the civil rights movement — and delivered a statement.

He said the guilty verdict would not provide comfort or a sense of justice for the Floyd family, or any American.

“We’re shocked that this can happen over and over again in a country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal with liberty and justice for all,” Lamont said. “Tomorrow we wake up and know that we have to do better and love one another.”

Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden issued a statement Tuesday in which he also said he hopes the verdict is the beginning of a journey toward justice. “This cannot be just a moment; it must be a movement for change,” said Wooden, who is a Black man.

“We know that change often takes time, especially the change that requires the hard work of dismantling systemic bias in the criminal justice system,” he said. “But today’s verdict gives Americans a renewed sense of hope.”

Wooden, who is the father of two Black teenage boys, said in his statement that he has had to have conversations with his sons about how to act if stopped by police officers and had to answer his young son’s question of whether it was safe to go for a jog while Black.

Wooden said leaders, advocates and activists cannot rest until everyone is safe.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal also released a statement following the verdict. “True justice would be George Floyd alive today, but this guilty verdict provides emphatic, necessary accountability,” he said. “No verdict in a single case can eliminate racism or correct the injustice that continues to afflict our country. There is so much more work to do.”

t.hartz@theday.com

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