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St. Louis Activists Hopeful, But Bracing For Verdict In Derek Chauvin's Trial

Hundreds of activists gathered in downtown St. Louis to protest the death of George Floyd. May 29, 2020
File photo / Chad Davis
St. Louis Public Radio
Hundreds of activists gathered in downtown St. Louis to protest the death of George Floyd on May 29, 2020. After a summer of protesting, activists and leaders hope the jury will find former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin guilty, but if he is acquitted they are prepared to continue protesting.

St. Louis-area activists are hopeful that a Minneapolis jury will find former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the killing of George Floyd last spring.

But community leaders say emotions are high in St. Louis and across the nation because juries often acquit white officers charged with killing Black people.

Jury deliberations began Monday after the defense and prosecution presented their closing arguments in the seventh week of Chauvin's trial. St. Louis activists said they’re bracing for the verdict.

Chauvin is charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Civil rights leaders say if the jury finds Chauvin not guilty, there could be widespread protests similar to what occurred last summer after video footage showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes. They may be larger, said the Rev. Darryl Gray, who has led or participated in dozens of peace protests in the last year.

“If people thought that the groundswell of activism behind George Floyd's death was something to behold — this intersectionality of generations and races and cultures — if people think that was massive, they haven't seen anything,” Gray said.

A guilty verdict would send the message that police officers are not above the law, St. Louis County NAACP President John Bowman said.

“I think it is a clear shot across the bow at the police unions that you're no longer going to be able to go in with these typical defense arguments and get away with doing wrong,” he said.

Video footage of Chauvin’s actions in May that shocked the nation could help persuade the jury to find Chauvin guilty. But that won't mean that the justice system will suddenly hold all police officers accountable for such deaths, said Emanuel Powell, a staff attorney for ArchCity Defenders.

“Even if he’s found guilty, the extent, how long this criminal trial has gone on, the amount of evidence that’s been provided, the type of testimony that’s been provided, that is what will be necessary to find [Chauvin] guilty of taking a life, and we know that’s so often not what happens to the average person on the street,” Powell said.

If Chauvin is found not guilty, Powell said it would be another indication that police officers are not held accountable for their actions.

“Let's not forget Eric Garner for example,” Powell said, noting how a New York police officer who put Garner in a chokehold was not charged in his 2015 death. “These stories are cyclical, they come every few years, some horrific story of what police have done. The criminal legal system allows those things to happen. I think we see it in this case an extreme, but there’s so many instances of violence by police.”

After Floyd's death, people protested across the nation to decry what happened to him and to Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by a Louisville police officer.

For St. Louisans, their deaths served as stark reminders of similar deaths in St. Louis. Four years ago, protesters took to the streets after former St. Louis Metropolitan Police officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith.

“Go back to the Stockley acquittal and how peaceful protesters were not met with police sitting on the sidelines, they’re in riot gear, pepper spray, that’s what we’ve seen happen in St. Louis,” Powell said. “I am worried that that will happen or could happen.”

St. Louis activists say that whatever the Minneapolis jury decides, they’re determined to stop police brutality.

Activists will keep working to hold police accountable, said LadyAshley Gregory, Forward Through Ferguson's director of community partnerships.

“Seeing that this is very much a system that is trying to project itself, whether Chauvin is found guilty or innocent, we saw what we saw, and this work will continue,” Gregory said.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.