Eleven months ago, George Floyd joined a long line of African Americans killed during encounters with police. He is not the first to become a rallying cry for demonstrations, a flash point in conversations about race and policing, a story that Black parents dread telling their children. But his is the death that has prompted the country’s most intense reckoning in decades, one affecting nearly every U.S. institution. That is certain to continue now that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — who knelt on Floyd’s neck until he no longer could breathe — has been found guilty of murder.
While millions of people mourned for Floyd, some experienced his loss more personally. What did the circumstances of his life and death mean to a mother whose child was fatally shot by police? To a college student jailed after peacefully marching in protest? To a retired police officer, or an attorney who has defended officers charged in a killing, or a pastor who must comfort a congregation and community dealing with racism? Do they think justice has been served? The Washington Post sought to hear from five men and women for whom these fraught issues hold tangible relevance.
“There wasn’t any justice for my son. I don’t want to feel hurt or anger, but there is never justice for us.”
— Georgia Ferrell, 62
Georgia Ferrell lost her son Jonathan the night of Sept. 14, 2013. The former college football player had crashed his car on a dark road just outside Charlotte, walked to a nearby home and knocked on the door to ask for help. A woman called 911, believing he was trying to break in. Moments after police arrived, an officer fired at Jonathan, who was unarmed. The officer was charged with voluntary manslaughter and brought to trial, but the jury deadlocked, and the state declined to retry the case.
Ferrell now makes it her business to take care of other children. A lifelong Tallahassee resident, she created the Jonathan A.P. Ferrell Foundation there in her son’s honor. The organization focuses on community toy drives and scholarship funds while working to strengthen relationships between police and young Black people.
Cameras do not lie. Any other time, the officer would have been found not guilty. In this case, thanks to the Black teenager who took cellphone video, the jury was able to watch as Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. They heard Floyd call out for his dead mother. They saw him urinate on himself as he died slowly. There was no ignoring what we all saw.
The case was hard to watch, so I did it in pieces. I listened to it play on my television as I made jellies and homemade barbecue sauce. The defense mentioned everything from his 2019 arrest to his drug addiction to try and dehumanize Floyd, but I expected nothing less. The defense will always drag the victim’s name through the mud.
What did catch my attention and come as a surprise was Floyd’s brother Philonise on the stand, sharing sentiments about his brother while shedding tears. That meant so much to me. During the trial for the officer who killed my son, we didn’t have that chance. In North Carolina, presentencing victim impact statements aren’t allowed. If they had been, if I’d had just a few minutes, I would have told that courtroom and the nation how my son was a friend to everyone. Jonathan was the peacemaker. “We don’t have but one mama,” he would tell his brothers and sister when they were out of line with me.
He loved to see people happy, and he loved children. He studied chemistry and had a bright future ahead of him until his life was taken by 10 shots from a police officer’s gun. There wasn’t any justice for my son. I don’t want to feel hurt or anger, but there is never justice for us.
Chauvin was found guilty, but that won’t bring back George Floyd, my son or any of our Black children. I don’t feel peace. My heart and soul are happy for Floyd’s family, but there are too many of us out here who don’t have justice. We have to continue to work to change the laws. If a police officer kills an innocent person, they should be charged with first-degree murder like any other person.
This verdict is a start, but what we need is systemic change. If we get comfortable, the murders of unarmed Black people by police officers will get even worse. We can’t stop now because of one guilty verdict out of thousands of not-guilty verdicts. The verdict has energized me to lend my voice to police reform bills that hold police officers accountable for continuing to kill Black Americans. That’s my next work.
I dedicate my time now to teaching young Black people how to be safe out in this world. Even if they are respectful, they can still end up in fatal police encounters, but I give them the rules. Try to travel in the daytime. If something happens, stay in the car. Keep your phone charged, keep a charger, and call for help. If you encounter the police, be as compliant as possible. The sad truth is they can still kill us if we follow every single command. We know that, but I tell young people that what matters most is that they try their best to stay alive. We are an endangered species. But we’ve got to keep making sure we remind them that our lives do matter. The lives of our children do matter.
— As told to Kelly Glass
“We often want to deal with symptoms and not deal with the actual virus, and it’s a racially inflicted virus that is harming this country, that we have to face as a nation.”
— Otis Moss, 50
For the Rev. Otis Moss III, it’s not difficult to draw a line from the coronavirus pandemic to a host of historical ills that have been visited upon people of color, especially African Americans.
The pastor doesn’t shy away from those ills when preaching at Trinity United Church of Christ, which has long been part of the fabric of Chicago’s South Side. A spirit of activism is in its collective DNA. Barack Obama regularly attended when he was a local community organizer.
Moss followed his father in both the pulpit and the cause of social justice; the elder worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. His son talks with passion about the socioeconomic challenges that he considers the real pandemic affecting the Black community. He seeks to both comfort and motivate.
My family was bracing for a “not guilty” verdict. To hear “guilty” on all charges just allowed us to breathe a little bit, but we’re still in a struggle. The efficiency of the criminal justice system has been abysmal in reference to people of color — we still have a system that must be reimagined.
The fight has been going on for quite some time, but I think this brings in a group of people who have not been a part of the movement. People who witnessed George Floyd’s death because it was recorded, because Derek Chauvin was on his neck for over nine minutes. People who normally would turn the channel, would not pay attention and place the blame on a George Floyd, a Michael Brown, a Tamir Rice, a Breonna Taylor, an Adam Toledo, a Daunte Wright. I believe it softened the hearts of some.
We have to think about how we create systems of prevention and restoration and not military occupation of communities. No one should lose their life for a $20 bill. No one should lose their life for a toy gun. No one should lose their life because they’re scared.
The verdict allows us to breathe, and I hope that it shares with the larger population in this country that Black people have not been imagining the kind of trauma that we have experienced. And we have to rebuild, reimagine a new way of doing policing and the manner in which we have our justice system structured.
We have two pandemics: Covid-19 and covid-1619. The most dangerous disease is covid-1619 — more properly called white supremacy, racism, colonialism, whatever term you want to place on it. In the eyes and the imagination of many people, Black bodies are seen as a threat, and Black skin immediately becomes weaponized. And until we address covid-1619, these other biological, sociological and economic challenges will continue to fester.
So we’re not going to do Kumbaya until we are willing to deal with the true pandemic that has affected not just people of African descent, but all people. We have to face the fact that America was built on stolen land with stolen labor, and when we face that truth, then we can reconcile, we can restore the quote-unquote American Dream. Any doctor will not treat a symptom, but will treat what is actually causing the ailment. We often want to deal with symptoms and not deal with the actual virus, and it’s a racially inflicted virus that is harming this country, that we have to face as a nation.
The verdict dealt with a symptom, but we still have to fight the disease. Derek Chauvin is just a symptom. We have to have the spiritual values, the moral imagination and moral courage to fight covid-1619. We are all interconnected, inextricably bound to each other. What happens to you happens to me. And we cannot allow one community to be deeply wounded and not expect that another community will not feel the effects.
It’s a bittersweet vindication, because George Floyd’s life is gone. We will never know what his spirit had in store for the world. His family will never have him back. And all of the people who have been victims of violence, we will never get back. But we can build a system that recognizes everyone’s worth and dignity, where our children no longer have to fear being stopped by the police.
— As told to Victoria St. Martin
“I think a lot of what is happening now makes it harder for the police to do their jobs. I don’t know why anybody would want to be a police officer right now.”
— Bob Gill, 65
In his 40-year career, Fort Worth lawyer Bob Gill has been a prosecutor and state district judge. He’s now a criminal defense attorney whose clients include former police officers involved in fatal shootings.
He currently represents a former Fort Worth officer who is charged with murder after shooting a Black woman in her home in 2019. In 2018, he defended a former Balch Springs, Tex., officer who was accused in the death of an unarmed Black teenager leaving a party. That case ended with Roy Oliver being sentenced to 15 years, a rare conviction from a Texas jury for an on-duty shooting.
Gill worries that growing public skepticism of police work is adding to the pressures on departments and prosecutors to pursue charges. Officers often must make almost instantaneous decisions, he says, then face months of being second-guessed.
I like to think that trials are not about messages. Trials are about a particular set of circumstances at a particular time, at a particular place. I would hope that these jurors weren’t using their position to send a message to right past wrongs or do anything else other than decide whether Derek Chauvin committed the acts as charged in the indictment.
Because he’s not to blame for anything anyone else did. He’s to blame for what he did himself.
In split-second decision cases, which are primarily shooting cases, there has to be some testimony about why the officer did what he did: “I was defending myself. I was defending my partner. I was defending, you know, a passerby on the street, whatever it was.”
Juries want to hear an officer get up on the stand and say, “Here’s what was going through my mind. Here’s why I did it. I’m very sorry what the outcome was, but I didn’t feel like I had any other choice.”
In Chauvin’s case, it’s a lot different, because it was an ongoing course of conduct. I saw several minutes of video last summer. My impression was that that officer was going to be in some serious trouble.
Obviously, the decision was made that Chauvin was going to hurt himself by testifying. And the testimony of some of the bystanders was pretty powerful. It was emotional. They saw the tragedy right there in front of them. Most of these cases don’t have bystanders like that.
Probably the last five years, there’s really been a magnifying glass on police conduct, enough so that the general public is starting to get skeptical about police work. Video recording and audio recording have coincided with this rise in skepticism. They really take some of the doubt out of things. Or they put the doubt into things, depending on the tone of the case.
A lot of these cases used to be handled in the grand jury, and the grand jury would “no bill” an officer, or not press charges against the officer. Especially in some of the larger counties, we’re seeing that cases are making their way through the grand jury, and they’re making their way onto trial dockets.
In some cases, it’s probably good. In some cases, it’s not good. I think that officers are being convicted because of public pressure, when maybe they shouldn’t be. The pendulum has probably swung too far in a lot of cases.
From the standpoint of having to represent some officers charged with similar violations, it’s always disconcerting to me to see their chain of command turn on them like a pack of wolves.
That’s kind of a sticky point for me, because [in the cases of] a couple of the officers I’ve represented, the brass and the city administration have gone out and denounced the officers’ conduct in the press before trial and have done so on erroneous facts.
The thing that concerns me as a defense lawyer is people on juries who want to placate the community — placate, you know, a certain viewpoint.
When we have a United States congresswoman putting pressure on people, that’s a lot for an individual juror to try to stand up to. The way that the politicians have weighed in on this trial is very disappointing. Everybody should be able to have a fair and impartial trial on their set of facts.
I think a lot of what is happening now makes it harder for the police to do their job. I don’t know why anybody would want to be a police officer right now.
— As told to Pam Kelley
“How many times have we seen Black people die on video at the hands of police brutality? It’s traumatic.”
— Ari Tulay, 20
Ari Tulay cried when she saw the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. As a young Black woman who had grown up between St. Paul, Minn., and Louisville — where Breonna Taylor, another Black woman, had just been killed in her apartment during a botched police raid — Tulay experienced the two deaths in a deeply personal way.
Last May, she took to the streets of downtown Louisville for the first real protest of her life. Days later, as she marched peacefully alongside one of her former high school teachers, she was arrested. She was held about 30 hours.
Now a sophomore at Northern Kentucky University, Tulay is studying political science and philosophy. She hopes to become a lawyer and advance conversations about justice.
For me, it’s always a traumatic experience watching those videos: Here’s your trauma on full display, and here’s the death of a man on full display, the public lynching of a man on full display. I watched the video and cried, because you could hear him crying for his mom. You could see the complete disregard that Chauvin has for his life, just placing his knee on his neck and putting his hands in his pockets as if there’s not a human body under him. I just remember being so enraged by that.
In a global pandemic. Can you imagine? People are dying. People are dying every day, and we don’t know how to save them and there’s no toilet paper at the store and nonetheless — nonetheless — you’re still over-policing and violent towards Black life. If you cannot show enough sympathy for Black life in that situation, you are never going to show sympathy for Black life.
I marched for two hours at my first protest last May. And then as it got darker, the vibe definitely changed.
At first, I didn’t even realize it was tear gas. Then as my eyes started to burn, I was like, “Oh no.”
A few nights later, I got arrested. You would have thought we were terrorists or had committed an insane crime for the amount of police, the amount of security, the amount of helicopters that were surrounding us.
I felt like I needed to watch the trial. Because whatever result came from this is going to be monumental. It is a foundational case that is really going to alter the way in which we function as a society. But I don’t know if everybody needed to be in that spot. I know people who said, “I’m only going to read the updates,” because they didn’t want to watch George Floyd die time and time again. Because the footage is gruesome, it’s brutal. And how many times have we seen Black people die on video at the hands of police brutality? It’s traumatic. So the same way that I’m tuning in, I’m having to make sure that I’m self-caring. I’m having to make sure that I’m coming from a space that I’m able to watch it.
The anxiety I was having before the verdict came out was insane. I was going through Twitter, and at first I didn’t even believe it. So I checked my other feeds and Googled it and checked on Facebook and Twitter and made sure I wasn’t misreading something or that somebody had gotten bad information.
And the sigh of relief was much needed. This was more than we had yesterday. There’s so much work to still be done, but today, this man was held accountable and that is something I have to be excited for — not even excited for, but grateful for.
I know it’s not happiness because this is not truly justice, but I couldn’t help but be happy.
I remember being 12 and seeing the Trayvon Martin case, and it was, not guilty on all counts. And just sitting there around the couch with my family and seeing my mom and my stepdad just sobbing. Today, we don’t have to cry. It’s still sore and it’s still painful, but something has changed. Like, he was not guilty yesterday and now, in the eyes of the law, he is guilty and is going to be held accountable for his actions. I just have to be grateful for that.
— As told to Josh Wood
“This is an opportunity to look inside — to look inside us as a culture, as police departments and as human beings and to see opportunities for change. ”
— Justin Boardman, 50
Justin Boardman served for 15 years as a police officer in West Valley City, Utah’s second-largest city. He joined the force to become a patrol officer, interacting with people on the street, and left in part because of what he sensed was growing antagonism between police and the public.
During seven years in the department’s special victims unit, he helped develop new protocols for handling cases involving trauma. He still deals with the horrors and death he saw on the job.
Boardman is now a consultant. He trains police officers on how to interview victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in ways that do not cause further trauma. He recently purchased a motor home and intends to live out of it so he can take his work around the country.
This has exposed some extremely deep wounds that are not going to heal very easily. As a country, we’ve been strong, and we have gotten over a lot of big challenges, but this is by far the biggest. This goes all the way to before our country even started. I think we can heal, but it is going to take a long time and a lot of communication.
Personally, this has been pretty hard. It has been hard doing the inward look. It has been hard coming to terms with that — the use-of-forces that I have done that were within policy, that weren’t necessary. The way that I could have looked through different lenses instead of coming off so harsh.
If you mentioned the race thing and White privilege, most officers don’t understand. I don’t fully understand either. I am trying. I am trying to be open-minded and be shown a couple things.
There are a whole lot of lessons for policing. Whether we as a police field are going to be open to listening is another thing.
We are scared to death out there. We all experience trauma on a daily basis. And it builds up. We are not taught how to chisel that plaque off our beings. We are not given those tools, and it is not part of the culture, so you start treating the public badly.
We are not taken care of in this job. It screams it with the look on Chauvin’s face — it is pure and utter contempt for the bystanders, people who it’s our job to protect and serve. Hopefully people will see Derek Chauvin’s face and say, “How do we curb this from happening again in our ranks?”
He probably didn’t start off that way. Most of us don’t, but with years and years and years of the us-and-them mentality, of the thin-blue-line mentality, and the administrations not knowing how to treat our mental health, and you look at that picture — it is utter contempt — and in this case, it was deadly to our public.
Law enforcement-wise, nobody has said anything but, “That dude was wrong.” So, I hope, especially with seeing officers, including the chief of police, saying, “This is wrong, not in our department,” that we have some opportunities for dialogue with our public.
You got a guilty verdict. I think the effects of that are going to be fairly big. Some of the things that police departments are worried about are recruitment. However, maybe this starts to attract the type of people who are needed, who don’t think they are going to have to go out and thump on people all the time.
For the people who are still on the job, some of them may think twice about using physical force, and that is a two-sided sword. You could start to see some of those uses of force go down, but there are cases where if you don’t act, you could get you or your partner killed.
This is an opportunity to look inside — to look inside us as a culture, as police departments and as human beings and to see opportunities for change. I am hoping it is something that will get some of those harder conversations started. It is time to have those conversations about implicit bias, about teaching history to cadets. I think that could make us a much kinder and compassionate type of police system. I also hope that the pressure to readjust our thoughts and our biases, and to learn, continues.
Because although there is some closure with this one, the next one is coming.
— As told to Peter Kendall