Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Public Health

Guilty verdicts in Chauvin trial are a step in the right direction

April 21, 2021 |5:45 min read

We have much more work to do

The killing of George Floyd and its aftermath: Since George Floyd was murdered almost a year ago, millions of people around the world watched video recordings of the killing and saw injustice.

They—we—saw the killing of one man by another: a Black man lying on the ground, crying out 27 times in terror that he could not breathe, restrained by a white policeman, Derek Chauvin, who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck as the life ebbed from him over nine minutes and 29 seconds, until he finally died of what prosecution witnesses called positional asphyxia.

The guilty verdicts are a relief. It is right that Chauvin was found guilty. Still, the verdict does not solve the problems that allowed Derek Chauvin to knee George Floyd for nine-plus minutes. A verdict is not a solution. Unfortunately, the systems, conditions and beliefs still exist for another George Floyd killing to occur. The New York Times reports that at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide since testimony began in the Chauvin trial on March 29—with Black and Latino people comprising more than half the dead. The verdicts will not change assumptions made by some police officers about guilt or their devaluing of Black lives that absolutely do matter. Structural racism affects all institutions in a society. We must address them all.

Addressing structural racism. George Wilson is a retired police officer who leads the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. In a 2020 NPR interview replayed April 19, he said: “So what we have to look at [is] who and how you hire. You have to look at what and how you train. You have to look at how and who is supervising your personnel.”

He continued: “If you’re looking to actually change the culture of the profession, you have to look at the policies that are in place.” He also said there must be changes in how police roles are defined. They should help to solve problems in communities, even to prevent them, rather than merely being enforcers after the fact.

While the Chauvin verdicts are not a panacea for problems caused by structural racism, they can be a beacon for change. What Wilson was describing is what we, in public health, use often in our research and practice—community-based participatory methods. They require collaboration, not adversarial relationships, with communities. There is hope that the Biden administration will drive changes that lead to long overdue police reforms, reforms that also need to extend throughout the criminal justice system. Legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, which has been passed in the U.S. House but not yet in the Senate, is a big step in the right direction and was cited by Vice President Harris and President Biden in their remarks last night.

Support Black people and others of color. The trial and the months leading up to it have taken a toll on people, especially Black people, including our Black faculty, staff and students. They need our support now and in the days and months ahead. Be allies. Offer support.

In an April 19 email to their community, titled, “A verdict that will echo across the nation,” Dani Monroe, MS, and Tom Sequist, MD, of Mass General Brigham, wrote:

We must acknowledge that for many of us, our mental health is deeply affected by this trial, especially for our Black colleagues and Colleagues of Color. The recent and tragic deaths of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and eight individuals in Indianapolis make this time even harder for us to process.

These tragic and needless deaths are undeniable symptoms of racism in our country. They serve as a reminder that the fight for racial justice and equity is one that is ongoing and necessary. These acts of violence are a clear call to action that we must do more to eradicate racism.

Systems, policies and practices that result in inequities are deeply embedded across our culture and institutions. At Gillings, we are using our Inclusive Excellence Action Plan to identify, prioritize and address such inequities within our school. We appreciate the efforts of the Gillings Inclusive Excellence team, the Inclusive Excellence Council, student groups such as the Minority Health Caucus and the Equity Collective, and the many staff, students and faculty across Gillings who are leading and engaging in these efforts.

We encourage Gillings School community members to offer and seek support in stressful times by connecting with students, faculty mentors, academic advisers, supervisors, and members of departmental and Schoolwide leadership teams. The Office of Student Affairs offers resources for student mental health and wellness through the Virtual Student Hub and the Gillings Black Student Support Pod. University resources for students include UNC Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the CAPS Multicultural Health Program, designed to meet the mental health needs of Black, indigenous and other students of color. Support for employees, including family members, is available through the Employee Assistance Program, GuidanceResources. (First-time users can create a free account using the Web ID: TARHEELS; or call 877-314-5841 anytime.) Additional resources and upcoming events focused on anti-racism are described in a message from University leadership on “Supporting Our Community.” Please also see a message from leadership in the Gillings School’s Department of Health Behavior.

Racism is a public health issue. As I have written and so many in public health know, and as CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, MD, has stated, racism is a public health issue. We must confront it and call it what it is. Killings of Black men and women and other people of color by police have their origins in structural racism. As public health students and professionals, we are working every day to overcome structural racism. Much of our research is focused on the issues caused by structural racism. We are teaching about it, learning from each other about it, and working professionally and personally to end it. We should do even more.

The work is not done. Vice President Kamala Harris, reacting to the verdict in the Chauvin trial, said, “The fact is we still have work to do.” Referring to systemic racism in America, she said, “[Black] lives must be valued in our education system, in our health care system, in our housing system, in our economic system, in our criminal justice system, in our nation. Full stop.”

In his message to the American people, President Joe Biden described the centuries-old “tug of war between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart.”

“At our best, the American ideal wins out,” the President said, “so we can’t leave this moment or look away thinking our work is done.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (lead prosecutor in the case against Chauvin) said, “I urge everyone to continue the journey to transformation and justice. It’s in your hands now.”

There is so much work to be done in the U.S. to end structural racism and all the evils caused by it. Still, the Chauvin verdict is a step on the path toward justice, accountability and, we hope, a better future.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.