Justice might have been done Tuesday after a Minnesota jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on murder and manslaughter charges in the death of George Floyd last May, according to James Thornton, of the Harford County Coalition for Justice. But “the struggle continues” in terms of ensuring police in Harford County treat all residents equally, regardless of race, he said.
Thornton delivered the opening remarks during a rally hosted by the coalition — a collection of local community activist groups — that happened in Festival Park in Aberdeen Wednesday night.
About 20 people gathered in front of the park bandstand as the sun set during a windy and unseasonably chilly evening. They listened to multiple speakers, prayer and poetry readings, and sang together.
“All of us came together as an organization shortly after May 25, and we decided we needed to make a difference here in Harford County,” Thornton said, referring to the date Floyd died after Chauvin held him on the ground with his knee in his neck — after Floyd had been handcuffed — for more than nine minutes.
Bystanders captured the majority of the incident on video, which showed Floyd, a Black man, saying he could not breathe over and over and the crowd pleading with Chauvin to let him up. The officer, who is White, did not get off of him.
Floyd’s death, as well as the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020, prompted protests throughout the nation, including several in Harford County. People called for an end to police brutality and fairer treatment of people of color by police.
The jury’s verdict was announced late Tuesday afternoon after a trial that lasted close to two weeks and included testimony from the Minneapolis police chief and other top law enforcement officials that Chauvin’s actions were against department policy and amounted to excessive force.
Chauvin was convicted of all three charges against him, including second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He will be sentenced in about eight weeks.
The Harford County coalition also gathered for a vigil Monday in downtown Bel Air as jury deliberations began; the group prayed that “Mr. George Floyd and family get justice for his death,” according to the event flier. Videos of the Monday prayer vigil and Wednesday rally are available online on the Facebook page of BRIDGE Maryland, one of the groups in the coalition.
The rally in Aberdeen was a celebration of the verdict in Minneapolis but also a call for further action at the local and state level. The coalition met with Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and police chiefs in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace last spring and summer and delivered 10 “action items” to them regarding ways to reforming policing in the county. The group also held a “car caravan” rally and hosted community forums with police leaders.
“We are still working with those police chiefs, and the sheriff as well ... to make sure that the citizens of Harford County feel as if we have law enforcement agencies that are really working on our behalf and in our best interests,” Thornton said.
Coalition member Cassandra Beverley, a Bel Air attorney and vice president of the Harford County Caucus of African American leaders, stressed the need for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The House of Representatives passed the act in March, and it has the backing of Democratic President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats, but it needs support from Senate Republicans to pass the upper chamber of Congress.
Beverley lauded the Maryland General Assembly’s passage of a package of police reforms as the legislature’s 2021 session ended earlier this month, including repealing the state’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, making Maryland the first state in the country to do so.
“We have an opportunity to show the nation what good police reform looks like,” Beverley said.
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She also touched on the 10 action items the coalition delivered to local law enforcement officials and stressed the need for people to remain involved so all items can be accomplished.
DeLane Lewis, of Together We Will-Harford County/Upper Chesapeake, emphasized that the rally was “not a celebratory moment” but a “moment of accountability,” citing Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted Chauvin.
Lewis asked the crowd if they felt justice had been served, if they are satisfied with “one incident of accountability,” and people replied “no” both times.
She cited civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who emphasized nonviolent civil disobedience to fight racial segregation during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Lewis noted that, “in [King’s] vernacular, ‘peace’ is an action word.”
“If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace,” Lewis said, quoting King’s 1956 “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious” speech. “In a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.”
She stressed that the coalition is “about action,” and that peace “will not be handed to us.”
“We still have so much work to do, in terms of addressing issues of policing in the state of Maryland,” Lewis said.