‘Critical turning point’: Berkeley responds to Derek Chauvin’s conviction

Photo of BLM protest
Sunny Shen/File
After Derek Chauvin was convicted of three separate charges — second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — for the murder of George Floyd, the Berkeley community recognized that the fight is far from over.

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In light of Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, the Berkeley community responded with sadness, anger, relief and the recognition that the fight is far from over.

On Tuesday, the jury convicted Chauvin of three separate charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Although the sentence is still undetermined, the jury’s quick decision was an indicator that they had already agreed on a guilty verdict, according to campus professor of criminal justice law Jonathan Simon.

“Everyone is so relieved.… It is so unusual for a jury to convict a police officer of killing a person of color,” said Karen Cagan, an organizer of the vigils to support Black Lives Matter, in an email. “When George Floyd was murdered in May of 2020 it made more people understand the nature of systemic racism in this country and how deep it is.”

Though they support the verdict, many community members recognize it neither brings back Floyd nor lessens the amount of grief, anger and loss.

Maribel Williams, Berkeley High School senior and Black Lives Matter protest organizer, warned against the framing of Chauvin as “one bad apple.” Though they hope Floyd’s family finds some relief in the outcome of the trial, they do not believe his guilty verdict is true justice or even accountability.

“It feels emotionally draining and hollow to celebrate this verdict as if it’s a pillar of change,” Williams said in an email. “We can’t take this verdict as a sign that ‘the system works.’ ”

Although he is happy the results were reached in a fair trial, campus political science lecturer Darren Zook warned against corrupting the system with the presumption of guilt.

He added he thought California Rep. Maxine Waters’ call for a guilty verdict was “irresponsible” and could hurt the foundational presumption of innocence.

“The most important thing is for those who feel the system has always been unfair to them to begin to trust that justice is possible again,” Zook said in an email. “We need a system where people can trust the verdict even if they do not agree with it.”

Simon, however, said it is improbable that Waters’ statement made a difference, given the already high publicity of the case.

Simon also discussed the potential to set a precedent where prosecutors may be more likely to seek high-level murder charges only in cases where there is clear evidence and no strong reason to believe the officers were in danger.

On the other hand, he mentioned the worst outcome would be if Chauvin’s conduct in the video became a minimum threshold for an act “worthy of criminal liability.”

Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky pointed out the specific importance of legal education.

“This requires new legislation, persuasive advocacy, effective litigation, and yes, more criminal prosecution and conviction of officers like Derek Chauvin,” Chemerinsky said in an email. “As law students, law professors, lawyers, judges we must use our talent to fight even harder against the racism of the criminal justice system and for racial justice.”

Zook agreed with the effectiveness of knowledge and education. Chancellor Carol Christ discussed using Berkeley’s research to provide concrete proposals for governments and law enforcement agencies at both a local and national level.

There is also the sentiment, however, that trials are not enough.

“Holding police accountable for murdering people is sort of the very least we should demand of a system,” Simon said. “Criminal law isn’t really a toolkit for redesigning institutions.”

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín called on local leaders to build more trust between communities and law enforcement. He mentioned Berkeley’s aim to decrease civilian interactions with armed officials in traffic stops and crisis-response situations.

Michael McBride, local activist and pastor, agreed that Berkeley has made a “good first step,” but still needs to ensure adequate funding and eliminate qualified immunity.

“The country is still on trial,” McBride said. “Black humanity is consistently weighing in the balance in this country around our lives being of value. And so our hope is that we will continue to radically reimagine the public safety apparatus in this country.”

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.