George Floyd, a Black man, died of asphyxiation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020 when a police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, even as Floyd begged to be allowed to breathe.
On Tuesday, the police officer who killed him, Derek Chauvin, was convicted on three counts: unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Sustained activism surrounding policing has been at the forefront of news headlines and present in communities across the nation in recent years and increased to a fever pitch following Floyd’s murder. But this activism is exactly that—sustained.
This Is Reno caught up with some of northern Nevada’s Black community leaders to discuss the verdict in the George Floyd trial. They also reflected on local unrest and the killing of Black people in our own community and provided their own perspectives on where activism needs to go in the future.
Caesar Andrews is the chair of media ethics at the University of Nevada, Reno’s, Reynolds School of Journalism and a former executive editor of the Detroit Free Press.
“The initial response was relief, and it’s a relief that comes from seeing so many cases in our system of justice that don’t end with much justice,” Andrews said of the verdict. “Like so many people, I followed the trial. I paid attention to the news coverage. And I followed the presentation of the videos. And I certainly had my impression of what I saw. But in this country, that does not always mean you get a verdict that matches the reality of the deed—the crime that was committed.”
He said not knowing what the verdict would be even in the face of such graphic video evidence saddened him, but the sustained attention the case received may help move the dial toward further pushes for justice in the future.
“It leaves a wound, every time.”
“I don’t think we’ve had anything with the visibility,” Andrews said. “I think the power of the videos was so poignant and so striking that we just don’t have a moment in history that matches that. But people really have to study the history, because we have had this concept before. We have had these cases of brutalization of Black men in particular and a system that fails to prosecute those cases by anything approximating justice or fairness or even human decency.”
Andrews pointed to the fact that we’ve never had the same kind of video evidence, made possible by new technology–and a 17-year-old, Darnella Frazier, with the presence of mind to use it.
What if it had been available when 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store? Video was taken of the vicious beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers 30 years ago, but the means to spread it widely the way it could be today on social media wasn’t there.
“That’s a striking example of how long these issues have been embedded in the system,” Andrews said.
Andrews started his career in Florida and remembers a Miami case that had elements of what happened to George Floyd. Even though this case is distinct because it happened in the era of social media and cell phones, “unfortunately, the bottom line is that it’s not new at all,” he said.
It’s not over either, he added.
“I think with this particular case, more people became aware of the scale of this issue—because I even have to keep reminding myself, as dramatic as this case is … it’s part of a pattern. And it’s not a pattern that started in May of 2020, and it’s not a pattern that ended in May of 2020—and, sadly, it will not end today—even with such a verdict because the structure of the system is still in place,” Andrews said. “There needs to be other things that happen over and beyond recognizing the powerful outcome in this one case.
“Otherwise, you’ll be doing this type of story over and over and over again.”
“I’ve been in this battle too long.”
Romar Tolliver is one of the founders of Reno Black Wall Street, an organization that serves the area’s Black youth and also does outreach for housing insecure children in the community. He too watched the trial of Derek Chauvin unfold. Like many others, he was relieved if not entirely pleased with how it played out.
“They tread a very fine line on the verdict, I believe,” he said. “And they picked their words very strategically. And with the ‘unintentional’ murder charge, that takes a lot of accountability off of [Chauvin], whatever his name is. It takes a lot of accountability off of his part. It’s just saying he was involved with something, but it wasn’t his fault. … and it’s like, whether you’re an accomplice or not, you’re guilty, right? If you’re an accomplice in a crime … you’re guilty of it, right?”
He said he felt the trial was more of a “smear over campaign” than an attempt at actual justice—especially the charge of second-degree unintentional murder.
“I don’t see how nine minutes on somebody’s neck is not intentional,” Tolliver said.
Tolliver said work needs to be done to reform not only the justice system but other American institutions as well.
“America has the highest rate of incarcerated citizens on the planet. We have the highest prison population,” he added. “There are so many things within society—the ‘Don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing’ type of things—and it plays from the justice system to the educational system to the medical system.”
“Race is a big part of our society. It’s been a big part of our country. We committed genocide on one group of people that we called a race. Then we enslaved another group of people that we called a race,” he said.
Lonnie Feemster is a lifelong local, an educator, a longtime NAACP member, and an activist for the Black community.
As an educator, he points to teaching as a means to further progress on race relations and equality issues.
“The challenge we have, I think, is educating children on multiculturalism adequately—so they understand why our society here in America is like it is. It’s because it was built on ignorance and a false science that said it’s OK to commit genocide on this group and enslave that group,” Feemster said.
Feemster recalls an incident in 2019 where students at Damonte Ranch High School during a sporting event dragged a Black mannequin dressed in the rival team’s uniform by a rope around the neck. It made national news headlines.
Feemster spoke with the school district’s superintendent and told her it bothers him that students are so poorly educated on race that none of them realized—or none spoke up about—the connotations of their actions.
In the case of the Chauvin verdict, Feemster said he couldn’t find it in himself to be too enthusiastic.
“I’ve been in this battle too long. I was born and raised in the Mississippi of the West,” he said, referring to Nevada’s one-time nickname. “I’m glad they came back with the verdict they did for a lot of reasons. But the battle’s not over to enlighten people and to correct our education system.”
Feemster personally knows the pain of losing a loved one to a fatal police encounter and believes better education is the way to stop future generations from continuing to see such frequent police killings.
“Arteair Porter, one of my nephews—he was shot, standing there with a BB gun in his hand because they got tired of him standing there with a BB gun,” Feemster said. “He called 911 on himself, an autistic little Black boy about the age of Miciah Lee.”
Professor Paul Mitchell is the Reynolds School of Journalism’s coordinator of recruitment and retention.
“Well, I’ll be honest,” he said. “I talked with a friend of mine earlier today, and before the verdict was read I was not optimistic. I was cautiously optimistic; I’ll put it that way. The reason for the cautious optimism is because of what I’ve seen happen throughout this country, what I’ve witnessed personally growing up in Philadelphia.
“But the thing is, there weren’t cell phones back then. And, you know, you didn’t have the depth and breadth of different perspectives that you do now,” he added. “The thing that sticks out for me with this incident is that I think the pandemic really played a role in not only us seeing George Floyd, but us seeing George Floyd on a scale that was unprecedented. It was not a local, not a national—this was an international situation. And I think when you are sequestered in your home you are either watching TV 24/7 or you’re watching your phone 24/7. I think those things really contributed to the spotlight being placed on the whole George Floyd situation.”
Mitchell is well known among students and alums for his sports writing classes and says the topic of George Floyd’s murder and the trial of Derek Chauvin have sparked frequent conversations in his classes about the role of activism in sports.
“The impact of this moment on sports cannot be overlooked—the activism of women in the WNBA, the activism of Major League Baseball, the activism of Colin Kaepernick in professional football,” he said. “The impact that it had with not just college athletes but high school athletes taking a knee because they know it may not have been them, but they know people in their respective communities who’ve had run-ins with police officers that were not a positive situation for the most part. So, the impact was huge.”
Lily Baran, a vocalist, music teacher and activist said she wished she could say the verdict made her happy. She received a lot of texts and social media messages from people who were pleased when the verdict came in.
“It’s accountability, but I wouldn’t say that this is justice by any means,” Baran said. “I think that it was degrading to the Black community to have to watch this trial in the first place and just the incredible display of the hoops you have to jump through to hold white supremacy accountable. It just shows how long we have to go.”
She also points to the announcement that came on the heels of the verdict that another Black person—a 16-year-old girl in Columbus, Ohio—was fatally shot by police and that two other shootings of Black people by police happened in the days before the trial ended.
“Every single one is more traumatic than the last,” Baran said. “And I work with a lot of people locally who’ve had their loved ones killed by the police and people that are being harassed by the police still in our city. A lot of focus has been given to these cases—and not here. Meanwhile, there are people here that you could talk to at any point, that you could protest for at any point who need justice and are not even close to seeing it.”
Baran said she’s frustrated by tone deaf behavior at the national level, like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s tweet thanking George Floyd for “sacrificing” his life for “justice,” but would like to see more attention given to addressing the same kind of behaviors locally.
She points to things like state Senator Ira Hansen’s questioning of the credentials of civil rights activist DeRay McKesson during a recent hearing on a police use-of-force bill at the Nevada Legislature. McKesson was named in 2015 one of the World’s Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine and as among the 30 Most Influential People on the Internet by Time Magazine in 2016.
“The majority of the community, I would say, including elected officials and police chiefs and everything like that—they’re not even to the point of admitting that there is racial bias locally,” Baran said. “They’re not even going to hold a light to the problem, let alone convict the officers who killed Miciah Lee or Thomas Purdy or Jorge Gomez or any of these other cases that are no different than a Trayvon Martin or a George Floyd.”
Going forward, she wants to see more sustained activism surrounding local police killings and support for the families of those killed.
“This is not a news story for us. It’s a constant trauma. And it feels like losing one of your own every time—and it’s every day. It doesn’t feel distant to us,” she said.
A painful thing for her has been discussing these matters with her 12-year-old son. He recently texted her following the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. She implored him not to read the news all day, to find something else to occupy his mind.
“We’re having to have these conversations every day with our kids. Childhood itself is reserved for whiteness. Our kids don’t even get to be kids,” Baran said. “They’re having to deal with this trauma and know that this could be them and know that there is no end—and it doesn’t matter how cute they are or how innocent they are. They’re still a target. And we can’t lie to them.”
Stephanie McCurry works at UNR’s Sanford Center for Aging and is the current president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. Her gut reaction to the verdict was relief.
“I’ve lived long enough to be exposed to these types of trials and fear of the unknown, of if we’re finally going to receive justice, if we’re finally going to receive equal justice—and it leaves a wound, every time,” she said.
She thinks the verdict will set a precedent going forward and considers the case a landmark one but admits to having a second gut reaction to it.
“I’m going to be candid in the truth with you. I’m old enough that I’ve lived through this, and I thought I would feel better,” McCurry said. “And I do for his family, and I do for the impact that it will have for our community moving forward. But, personally, we lost too many to get here.”
McCurry said the events of the last year have revealed that Black people have more allies “throughout this country and throughout this world and right here in Reno-Sparks, Nevada” than she’d previously believed.
She was heartened by demonstrations, including the May 31 peaceful protest that preceded the downtown riot following Floyd’s death. She said she’s been in Reno for a quarter of a century and has been waiting for that feeling. Now, she wants to see it spread to venues other than public demonstrations.
“Moving forward we need those same allies—maybe not downtown, but we need them … to exercise bystander intervention, the same way George Floyd called out for his life or for his mother, the same way those citizens were on the sidewalk pleading for him,” she said. “We need that same help in our classrooms, in our board rooms, in every facet of life.”
“Justice has not been served at all. This is the tip of the iceberg.”
McCurry is careful to be clear that she doesn’t want to “take away from the victory” of Chauvin’s conviction. She doesn’t want people to get complacent now.
“The fight’s not over,” she said. “The individuals that have the mentality that cut off his airway, that were arrogant enough to not even pay attention to humanity screaming out—it’s still there. That’s not just one individual. And those individuals need to be uncomfortable, as we are because it’s not done. We need individuals to show up.”
Romar Tolliver’s co-founder of Reno Black Wall Street is Reno Ambassador Donald Griffin, one of few who’ve said they weren’t surprised by the verdict.
“I kind of knew that he would be found guilty, just because they were trying to make a statement. They knew it would be a worldwide riot. It would be fires and looting around the world, so I think they kind of controlled that atmosphere with the guilty verdict—even though there was blatant proof that he was guilty,” Griffin said. “I think that was a devastating blow in our favor because we needed to feel that. We’re dealing with a lot of pain and PTSD that we do not know how to channel. And this was like an exhale. We’ve been waiting to exhale.”
Griffin would like to see the Black community and its allies turn their attention toward addressing the legal system head-on through legislative efforts.
“Justice has not been served at all. This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “If Black people in general let this situation die out and go back to what they call ‘normalcy’ then his death was void. … He didn’t die for nothing. We still have Black kids and teenagers out there that are still targeted. We have to make a bigger impact. We have to change laws and hold these police accountable.”
Lonnie Feemster’s niece, Adrienne Feemster is an activist and advocate like her uncle and so many other members of her family over the generations. It hit her emotionally when she saw the verdict, she said, and she thought about how it felt for Black people in communities all over the country and in all different life circumstances.
“How does this relate to people who are wealthy who are Black, or people who are in small towns? The common thread through us all when you’re Black, regardless of your class, is that we can still relate to this painful racism. We can still relate to the injustices because no matter how much money we have, no matter the heights of the careers, we still face the same issues of possibly being a George Floyd on that street,” she said. “George Floyd for so many of us is our uncles, our fathers, our brothers, our cousins, our nephews, our friends. So, when we see him—we see us.”
Feemster called it “a bittersweet, painful piece of justice that we’ve captured—whereas the real victory is in achieving legal accountability.” Now, she said, she’d like to see more of that at home throughout the community—including in some matters that are very personal to her.
“Personally, I tie it in a lot with the systemic injustices I’ve faced with Washoe County School District when advocating for my grandmother [Dolores Feemster] for the school naming [of the new Hug High]. To some people that’s just a name, but that name represents a whole history of what people have been through,” Feemster said.
Like her uncle and herself, Feemster’s late grandmother was a lifelong community activist here. She’s been fighting the school district for more than a year to name the new school after Dolores.
“I heard Biden say on the news today, ‘Racism is a stain on the nation’s soul.’ I thought, ‘Hmm, a stain we can’t wash away, so we’re going to need to work it away,’ Feemster said. “We can’t just sweep it under the rug anymore. Underneath the rug is full. The closets are full. … We’re in a day and age now where information is available, so we’re just going to have to face our ugly, little skeletons and deal with it. We’re going to need to figure it out, work it out. Let’s talk about the truth. Let’s talk about history.”
She’s hopeful the verdict will be followed by sustained activism both locally and around the nation.
“The fact that we have hope is a big deal,” she said. “When we’re out of hope, that’s when we should be concerned—but we have hope.”