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Excerpted from TheHistoryMakers, Derek Chauvin & Darnella Frazier: Thank God for Cellphones in the Hood, Unpublished Email (April 23, 2021)  Last visited: April 24, 2021. 

photo cellphoneMuch anticipated news came this week to a nation on edge and chanting the rallying cry to “say his name.” The jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all charges for the murder of George Floyd after just ten hours of deliberation. Words cannot accurately reflect what that conviction means to the African American community. That, indeed, will take some time to decipher, analyze, and digest, but there is truth to the statement that "today we can wipe our tears away.”[1] Those tears spring from centuries of fears and a foreboding sense of fatality. They come from a feeling that nothing ever changes as black deaths at the hands of police continue to be broadcast on the daily news: thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, twenty-year-old Daunte Wright again in Minnesota, and sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio.

Far too often the police have been the judge and the jury. L.A. City Council member Bernard Parks, who served as the Los Angeles chief of police from 1997 to 2002, warned against this in his interview while also defending the societal role of police: “No police officer has the right to administer punishment, no police officer has a right to be judge and jury, you are there to control the situation, make an arrest, collect the evidence, and present it.”[2] Often in the administration of their duties the police were protected from prosecution in the name of community safety and societal good. In fact, Chauvin is only the seventh on-duty cop to be convicted of murder since 2005, despite approximately 15,000 police killings occurring since then.[3]

Although Floyd’s excruciating death was captured on video by African American seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier for the whole world to witness, there was a widespread feeling across America that, like many others—Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, and Stephon Clark—the trial would end the same way that many others had.

But thank God for “cellphones in the hood.”

Not only have they documented the violence too long perpetuated on the black community, but they did so in a way that those in mainstream society failed to do and who had long ago failed to understand the severity of the problem—blaming the victim instead. Journalist Solomon Herbert, who served as national vice president of the Congress of Racial Equality and as president of the Bronx CORE, stated in his HistoryMakers interview: “Police brutality… has always been difficult--especially back then… [But] today with everybody walking around with a cellphone, they can take videos… There's more proof of it. If it hadn't been somebody there with a camera to tape Rodney King, people probably wouldn't have believed that. And a lot of the stuff that was happening back then, it was never documented. It was just… this person told me this is what happened to him. But there was no way to prove it.”[4]
Former federal district court judge of the Central District of California, Audrey Collins, further explained: “Many people thought at the time, that this is horrible and it's caught on tape. So the good thing is, it's on tape… you're gonna take that to trial and not gonna be a problem. And of course time has shown that is not true… So we have… learned that of course defense attorneys… their job is to show there's more to it than what's caught on tape. But at the time I think like everyone else, I thought this is horrible, and this will go to trial and will… certainly be a victory. That did not work out like that.”[5]

Artwork for “An Immune System” by Therrious Davis, NPR.
Judge James R. Spencer, the first African American federal district court judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, added that these “cases are very hard to make… for a number of reasons. First of all, the law is difficult for plaintiffs. There's a legal construct called qualified immunity, that is, they want to make sure that you… don't do a hindsight thing. You have to look at this perceptively from the officer's point of view… And qualified immunity allows the judge to end the case before it even gets to a jury… if you beat that barrier, which is… a high wall to get over, but if you do get past qualified immunity, then you have the jury to deal with and, as we know, culturally speaking, they are not prone to fight against a police officer… they give the police officer the benefit of every doubt. He is the steward of their security.”[6] And, as Maryland state deputy attorney Jack Johnson recalled, “Institutionally, the police get so much support from all the politicians in the state… the newspapers… the judges, and the whole criminal justice system. And so… those cases [against police] were very challenging and, in fact, the first case that I charged, I could not get anyone in the [state’s attorney’s] office to prosecute the case… I end up firing two of the lawyers for failing to carry out their constitutional duties to ensure that justice is served fairly.”[7]

Attorney Jerry Blackwell speaking during Chauvin’s trial.
As the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd drew to a close on Monday, special prosecutor Jerry Blackwell stood before the jury and gave his closing argument. He told the jurors, “Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big… and now having seen all the evidence and having heard on the evidence, you know the truth, and the truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”[8]

A powerful closing for an emotionally charge case, and the ruling came back from the jury—beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant, Derek Chauvin, was guilty of murdering George Floyd.

Jack White, the first African American staff writer and bureau chief at Time magazine, pointed out, though, in his 2013 HistoryMakers interview: “Some horrific racial incident like this will occur, and whites will say, ‘Yeah, we gotta take action; have to fix this…’ and everybody forgets about it… another horrific incident occurs, and you go through the same process over and over again. There is no… learning curve… we never really address, we never really solve the lingering racial problems we had because we never really confront them, and we never really stick to 'em long enough to reach any kind of conclusions.”[9]

Derek Chauvin led away in handcuffs after being found guilty on all counts in the death of George Floyd, April 20, 2021, sketch by Jane Rosenberg.
Only time will tell whether the conviction of police veteran Derek Chauvin will serve as the learning curve needed to address our society’s racial inequities. What we do know is that we owe a true debt of gratitude to Darnella Frazier and her video.

Thank God for “cellphones in the hood.” Here, they have allowed for truth and justice to prevail.

[1] “Derek Chauvin Trial: Chauvin Found Guilty of Murdering George Floyd,” New York Times, last updated April 21, 2021, accessed April 22, 2021.

[2] The Honorable Bernard Parks (The HistoryMakers A2004.237), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 31, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 3, tape 6, story 4, The Honorable Bernard Parks describes the role of the police in the criminal justice system.

[3] Philip M. Stinson, Sr. & Chloe A. Wentzlof. “On-Duty Shootings: Police Officers Charged with Murder or Manslaughter, 2005-2019,” Bowling Green State University Police Integrity Research Group, 2019, accessed April 21, 2021.

[4] Solomon Herbert (The HistoryMakers A2013.351), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 19, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 3, Solomon Herbert describes CORE's activism in New York City.

[5] The Honorable Audrey Collins (The HistoryMakers A2013.344), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 14, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 6, story 10, The Honorable Audrey Collins talks about police brutality in Los Angeles, California.

[6] The Honorable James R. Spencer (The HistoryMakers A2016.132), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 8, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 3, The Honorable James R. Spencer talks about his involvement with police brutality cases.

[7] Jack Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2007.163), interviewed by Denise Gines, April 26, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 4, Jack Johnson remembers addressing police brutality in Prince George's County, Maryland.

[8] Merrit Kennedy & Vanessa Romo. “Jurors Have The Case In Chauvin Trial; Prosecutors Ended With Call For Common Sense,” NPR, last updated April 19, 2021, accessed April 22, 2021.

[9] Jack White (The HistoryMakers A2013.067), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 28, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 10, story 4, Jack White talks about his reporting on police brutality.


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