Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison called the guilty-verdict sweep against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, an “inflection point” for the nation.
Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking before President Biden in televised remarks to the nation, echoed President Obama, calling the verdict only a “measure of justice,” though one that should serve as an urgent catalyst for ending “systemic racism” in America.
Biden then stepped to the lectern, using his remarks Tuesday evening to implore Americans to turn Chauvin’s guilty verdict into a “moment of significant change” to turn away from “hate” and fight “systemic racism” in policing and in society as a whole.
“No one should be above the law, and today’s verdict sends that message,” Biden said. “But it’s not enough. It can’t stop here. In order to deliver real change and reform, we can and must reduce the likelihood that tragedies like this ever can happen again.”
It was the boldest and firmest commitment on police reform Americans have seen from Biden so far as the president nears his first 100 days in office.
Just a few hours before, he was playing the more familiar role of consoler-in-chief. He promised Floyd’s family that he would get the police reform bill named in the slain man’s honor passed to ensure that the words of Floyd’s 7-year-old daughter, Gianna — who said her father had changed the world through his death — would become a concrete reality. When the bill becomes law, the president told them on a triumphal post-verdict FaceTime call, he would fly the whole family to Washington on Air Force One.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Ben Crump, the Floyd family’s lawyer, said with a chuckle before thanking the president for his support and ending the call with an ebullient “God bless you.”
It was an evening of celebration, marked by tears of joy and relief, for the family and millions of their supporters across the nation and the world. The video of Floyd’s shocking death, his neck under Chauvin’s knee for more than nine minutes, went viral last May and sparked angry nationwide protests, some of which turned violent and destructive. A Minneapolis jury Tuesday afternoon found Chauvin, 45, guilty of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Biden, in his remarks to the nation, appeared to signal a new, more-unified national front on the reform issue, but deep divisions among Americans remain, and he faces a tricky path forward. The president’s confident predictions faces a wall of opposition in polarized Washington. Senate Republicans have blocked Democrats’ police reform bill for a year in Congress with no way for the president to break that impasse other than his powers of persuasion.
Most Americans back police reforms, but what type?
While most lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, agree that Chauvin used excessive force against Floyd, there is widespread disagreement on whether the case is proof of systemic racism in the nation’s police departments and how best to prevent tragic events like this one from happening again. It didn’t help that the trial came amid a spate of high-profile police killings, including one that took place in nearby Brooklyn Center, Minn., sparking new protests.
While recent polls show that most Americans back police reforms of some kind, how that support translates to specific Washington mandates is more difficult to discern. Over the last year, there’s been plenty of bipartisan support in Congress for banning chokeholds and requiring data collection on police encounters, as well as channeling more funds to community-based policing programs and more police training.
But that comity falls apart when it comes to a major sticking point in the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill Biden promised to get passed: rolling back qualified immunity protections for law enforcement. It’s a big change in legal doctrine and Supreme Court precedent that would make it easier to pursue claims of police misconduct in court. The Democratic-controlled House passed the sweeping reform bill with its new limits on immunity in early March, but the measure is stuck in the 50-50 Senate where most measures need a 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster and pass.
The police reform issue is already fueling new negative ads ahead of the 2022 midterms. Biden and other Democrats have labeled the filibuster worse than the Jim Crow laws that prevented civil rights reforms in the 1950s and say it is now helping to block the policing legislation and a sweeping voting rights bill.
2022 midterms threaten bipartisan compromise
Centrist Democrats have complained that that liberal defund-the-police movements costs them House seats in 2020 and could again next year if party leaders don’t clearly denounce it. Republicans argue that cities in parts of the U.S. that cut or shifted their police funding last year, such as Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., saw spikes in certain crimes last year while Democrats counter that most cities experienced more crime because of the economic downturn during the pandemic.
Earlier Tuesday, before the verdict, Republicans were preparing a resolution to censure California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters for incendiary warnings she made over the weekend, encouraging Minneapolis protesters to become “more confrontational” if they weren’t satisfied by the outcome of the trial. Waters clarified that she meant nonviolent confrontations, but the comments came at a hyper-sensitive moment with a city on edge amid one of the most racially sensitive and emotionally charged trials in years. The judge in the Chauvin case issued a rare rebuke of a lawmaker, rapping Waters by name Monday for giving Chauvin’s defense team possible grounds for an appeal.
That didn’t stop Biden from wading directly into the roiling waters himself when he told reporters Tuesday morning that he was “praying” for the “right verdict” and that he thought there was “overwhelming evidence” in the case. That prompted a torrent of questions for White House press secretary Jen Psaki Tuesday afternoon on the exact meaning of those words and the inappropriate nature of them while the jury was deliberating. Unlike his predecessor, Biden had carefully avoided weighing on the trial and police reform in general – so much so that CNN just last week opined that he was “standing down” at a critical juncture for police reform.
As reporters peppered Psaki with questions last week about Biden’s lack of action on police reform, a group of two dozen House Democrats pressed the president to issue an executive order banning the issuing of military-grade weapons to police. That issue first gained traction during the Obama administration but could never pass Congress. Biden last week also backed away from his campaign promise to create a “police accountability” commission, convinced by civil rights leaders and other advocates that it would impede passage of the George Floyd reform bill instead of helping the cause.
“A commission would just be used by some as a dilatory tactic,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told RealClearPolitics earlier this week.
The only thing standing in the way of the George Floyd bill in the house, he said, is the “antiquated Jim Crow filibuster.”
“So we need energy. We don’t need to relitigate the issues. We need action. The American people don’t want a discussion, a debate, a conversation. It’s time for action,” he said, citing polls showing most Americans support police reform.
States work around congressional gridlock
States such as Colorado and New Mexico are starting to pass ground-breaking police reforms, including limits on qualified immunity. Earlier this month, Maryland lawmakers voted to override centrist GOP Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes of three far-reaching reform measures. Several police departments have initiated self-imposed reforms. In Seattle, where police were forced to stand down for months last year when protesters created an “autonomous zone” in the city, the police department initiated its own changes, banning neck restraints, chokeholds and no-knock warrants, among other reforms.
Civil rights leaders are also encouraged that the Biden Justice Department is signaling a new path on police reform that can help Biden short-circuit congressional gridlock even before key DOJ leadership positions are filled. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday rescinded a Trump-era memo limiting the use of consent decrees that prosecutors have employed to produce changes at police departments.
Biden counts on Justice Department
The president on Tuesday night indicated more changes are on the way once his full team at Justice is in place. “State and local government and law enforcement needs to step up, but so does the federal government,” he said.
The Senate confirmed Lisa Monaco, his choice for the No. 2 spot, in a 98-2 vote Tuesday. But Republicans have escalated their attacks against Vanita Gupta, Biden’s pick for the No. 3 position, and Kristen Clarke, whom he selected to head the civil rights division. Republicans, especially those weighing 2024 White House runs, have hammered both for past support for the defund-the-police movement, which the nominees have since downplayed. The barrage of GOP attacks can only stall, not prevent, both women’s confirmations since nominees can pass out of committees on party-line votes. (Presidential confirmations only require a simple majority vote with Harris able to step in to break the chamber’s 50-50 tie.)
But some Republican White House hopefuls want to extract a cost for the guaranteed confirmations. “They represent a far-left radical agenda that’s out of step with the American public and certainly with our respective states,” Sen. Josh Hawley told Politico. “We’ve got to put that before the voters. That’s what we do. And in 2022, voters will have a chance to weigh in and we’ll go from there, but we have to make the case for that.”
Biden on Tuesday pushed back. Gupta and Clarke, he said, are “eminently qualified, highly respected lawyers who have spent their entire careers in fighting to advance racial equality and justice.”
The Justice Department holds the most power to usher in new changes amid Congress’ ongoing stalemate on police reform, but that didn’t stop Biden from making promises on the police reform bill’s passage after Tuesday’s verdict.
Crump, the Floyd family’s lawyer, is not the only one who will come to collect if Biden’s fails to make good on that account. The pressure on Biden to usher in reforms will only grow after the Chauvin conviction. As the first black president, President Obama struggled to make headway on racial-justice issues and heal the nation’s wounds. It’s now Biden’s turn to try with the help of the first Black and Asian American woman vice president.
Tuesday’s verdict will provide some momentum, but Biden must meet the moment not only with kind words and empathy but his own comprehensive plan to bridge the divide. The next few weeks will be the first test.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.