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THURSDAY, September 21, 2023

Biden says guilty verdict in Floyd murder offers a chance at reform

Biden says guilty verdict in Floyd murder offers a chance at reform
THURSDAY, April 22, 2021

WASHINGTON - Almost immediately after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd late Tuesday afternoon, President Joe Biden was on the phone from the Oval Office, eager to talk to Floyds family.

"At least, God, now there is some justice," Biden told a tearful family, gathered in a courthouse hallway and crowded around with the president on speakerphone. "We're all so relieved . . . Guilty on all three counts. It's really important."

The family urged him to ensure police reform was accomplished, that the moment was used to usher in new change in a country grappling with frequent spasms of violence and an underpinning of racial unrest.

"You got it, pal," Biden said, in video captured by family attorney Ben Crump. "That and a lot more . . . This gives us a shot to deal with genuine, systemic racism."

He then offered to bring them to Washington on Air Force One.

The guilty verdicts on all counts against Chauvin, who is White, for killing Floyd, who was Black, makes this case different than many previous ones - creating a potential inflection point for a president who made racial equity and police reform a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, but who hasn't yet placed it at the forefront of his presidency.

In a striking scene, the man who was the vice president to the nation's first Black president was joined by the woman he chose as the nation's first Black vice president. The two of them watched the verdict together in the Private Dining Room at the White House before calling the family afterward and then offering back-to-back remarks to the nation.

"Black Americans, and black men in particular, have been treated throughout the course of our history as less than human," Harris said in raw and pointed remarks. "Black men are fathers. And brothers. And sons. And uncles. And grandfathers. And friends. And neighbors."

A president who never marched for civil rights - even though at times he claimed he did - and who admittedly was the one wearing a suit jacket rather than the flak jackets or tie-dyed shirts of 1960s protesters is now in a unique role at a unique moment in history.

Biden on Tuesday was not necessarily soothing a skittish nation - one that was prepared for widespread protests, with helicopters hovering over boarded-up downtowns around the country - but instead is now attempting to create momentum for police reform.

"This can be a moment of significant change," Biden said. "We have a chance to change the trajectory in this country."

His remarks to the nation came hours after he made extraordinary comments earlier in the day as the jury was still deliberating, saying that he viewed the evidence as "overwhelming" and said he was praying for "the right verdict."

Floyd's death nearly a year ago, and the national protests that came afterward, were a key moment for Biden's presidential campaign. They triggered new policies and commitments, and prompted Biden to make his calls for racial equity and an overhaul of the criminal justice system a more central element of his message.

The death spurred Biden to make one of his first trips after a lengthy period of staying at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, traveling to visit the Floyd family in Houston and developing a personal connection that he has often referenced since. He also recorded a video that played at the funeral.

"The original sin of this country still stains our nation today, and sometimes we manage to overlook it," he said four days after Floyd's death. "None of us can turn away. None of us can be silent. None of us can any longer, can we hear the words 'I can't breathe' and do nothing."

He said that it was "a national crisis" that called out for "real leadership."

"It's going to require those of us who sit in some position of influence to finally deal with the abuse of power," he said.

Yet for Biden's first three months in office, there has not been a concerted push for police reform - even as there have been a number of high-profile shootings. He has abandoned his pledge to form a police oversight commission. White House officials have pointed toward appointments he has made at the Justice Department, and insist they will investigate police misconduct.

Biden supports congressional legislation named after Floyd, but officials have not detailed efforts Biden has made to ensure its passage, the way he has on other top priorities like covid relief legislation.

Fatal police shootings have remained constant since The Washington Post began tracking them in 2015, and there has been little change since Biden took office. There have been 274 shootings so far this year, putting it on course to be the same number this year - around 1,000 - as it has been in recent years without a major shift in police culture or restrictions on gun ownership.

"Enough. Enough. Enough of the senseless killings," Biden said in his remarks on Tuesday evening.

"Today's verdict is a step forward," he added. "Such a verdict is also much too rare. For so many people it seems like it took a unique convergence of factors."

He said that having a killing that took place in broad daylight - extending for nearly 10 minutes and captured on video - highlighted in full view what many Black Americans deal with daily. He also noted how remarkable it was that fellow police officers testified against Chauvin, rather than close ranks around him.

"Most men and women who wear the badge serve their communities honorably," Biden said. "But those few who fail to meet that standard must be held accountable . . . Today's verdict sends that message. But it's not enough. It can't stop here."

Biden has been closely following the trial and he called Floyd's brother Philonise on Monday after the jury was sequestered.

"They're a good family," Biden said earlier on Tuesday. "And they're calling for peace and tranquility no matter what that verdict is."

But Biden also went further, calling the evidence for a guilty verdict "overwhelming," an unusually blunt assessment from the White House on a volatile case that has not yet been decided.

"I'm praying the verdict is the right verdict, which is, I think - it's overwhelming, in my view," Biden said.

He added: "I wouldn't say that unless the jury was sequestered now."

While the comments may not have had any bearing on the case itself, they were highly unusual from a president and could provide another reason for Chauvin's defense to argue the trial has not been fair.

Making Biden's comments even more notable, the state judge overseeing the case had warned Monday that politicians should avoid publicly opining on the case. That rebuke was aimed at Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who on Saturday night said protesters should "stay on the street" and "get more confrontational" if there is not a guilty verdict.

Judge Peter Cahill denied the defense's motion for a mistrial because of Waters's comments, though he said that they may have given the defense attorney a reason to file an appeal.

Biden's comments drew swift criticism from lawyers, including some usually sympathetic to him.

"No sitting President should be publicly weighing in on how a jury should rule in a pending criminal matter," tweeted Bradley Moss, a lawyer who specializes in national security. "No president, liberal or conservative, democrat or republican."

As president, Donald Trump was often criticized by Democrats and legal ethicists for giving his opinion on legal matters that were not yet resolved, especially if they were under the jurisdiction of federal officials. Chauvin's trial is being handled by the state of Minnesota.

After Biden made the comments Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stressed that he had waited until after the trial was completed and the jury was sequestered to offer any opinion, arguing that meant he was not infringing on the prospect of an impartial decision.

"I don't think he would see it as weighing in on the verdict," Psaki said. "He was conveying what many people are feeling across the country, which is compassion for the family, what a difficult time this is, what a difficult time this is for many Americans across the country who have been watching this trial very closely."

Later in the day, in the call with Floyd's family after the verdict, Biden referenced the compassion he felt for them. He spoke specifically of Floyd's young daughter, Gianna, and pointed to her as a rallying cry.

"I keep thinking of her words, 'Daddy's gonna change the world,' " Biden told the family. "Well, we got a shot to make change."