Moments after I saw the horrifying footage of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s nine-minute plus knee torture and slaying of George Floyd, I booked a flight to Minnesota. I had one purpose. I wanted to express my outrage at the slaying and join my fellow activists, Rev Al Sharpton, Tamika Mallory, and Ben Crump the Floyd family attorney— and now attorney for the Daunte Wright —in protest. We all immediately hit the streets demand justice, while supporting the Floyd family.
I had to take action. I've been exposed to violence over the years, particularly growing up in South Central Los Angeles, but I never witnessed a man tortured and murdered on national television. I was traumatized. When I arrived in Minneapolis, I drove straight to the scene of Floyd’s murder. A shrine of flowers and candles had been erected at the site where he was killed.
I called Rev Sharpton who told me to meet him that afternoon at a local church across from the murder site. Upon my arrival, I was warmly welcomed by community members, many grappling with grief, anger and despair, and many shocked that I traveled all the way from California. I had to be there. When Derek Chauvin killed Floyd it triggered something inside of me that is hard to explain. I was angry but also emotionally distraught. I didn't know Floyd but his unjust killing was symbolic of so many Black people. How many of our relatives and ancestors, were killed by the hands of white racists? After the rally ended, I called Tamika Mallory, a leading activist, who directed me to meet with her and activist Linda Sarsour to participate in police protests.
That night together we saw firsthand frustrated young people and outraged protestors in the streets of Minneapolis. Eventually the peaceful protests turned into chaos, with buildings burning and the complete destruction of the precinct where Chauvin worked. It was actually unbelievable. I've seen my share of anti-police protests over the course of my 30 years plus of activism, but I've never seen protestors burn down the workplace of a police officer who had killed a Black person. That was last year.
Today, tensions are again high in Minneapolis as the nation awaits the end of the Chauvin trial and the verdict. Daunte Wright's death at the hands of another police officer, Kim Potter, which was captured on the officers video cameras, has only inflamed passions even more. Protestors have filled the streets of Brooklyn Center— only 10 miles away from the location of the Chauvin trial—with daily protests demanding justice and criminal charges for Potter who immediately resigned from the police department after killing Wright. She is now facing 2nd degree manslaughter charges.
Charging police officers for unjustly killing or abusing Black people is an important step, but it is not enough.
It was 30 years ago when Rodney King was nearly beaten to death by four white police officers during a traffic stop. His beating, which was captured on video, shocked the world. Residents of the Los Angeles Black community had said publicly for decades that we were the victims of police violence—nothing was done about it. Finally, we had video proof. The LAPD officers involved were all charged with assault on King but on April 29th, 1992 an all-white Simi Valley jury exonerated the officers. That not-guilty verdict resulted in an eruption by Black residents, frustrated by an unfair and biased judicial system. Over the next several days protests and civil unrest— with billions of dollars in property damage and fires—engulfed Los Angeles. The L.A. riots, unfortunately, culminated with over 50 residents being killed.
Three decades later not much has improved in holding police officers accountable for killing, shooting, or beating Black people—even with videotape evidence.
History keeps repeating itself. Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Ezell Ford, and Anthony A.J. Weber are just a few of the Black victims who in recent years have been killed by police without any officer being convicted in their deaths.
I along with many Black Americans have questioned why it is so difficult for police officers to face criminal charges for using excessive or fatal violence against Black civilians. The answers range from juries and judges, the hire of top gun defense attorneys, and the unwillingness of district attorneys and county prosecutors who work hand and glove with police to bring charges.
One of the solutions to help hold police accountable is supporting legislation and public policy proposals that call to end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that has shielded police officers from being held responsible for all sorts of malfeasance. Qualified immunity makes it nearly impossible for citizens to sue public officials by requiring proof that they violated “clearly established law.”
Qualified immunity reform is needed to hold the police accountable after they violate the constitution. Congress member Ayanna Pressley’s End Qualified Immunity Act would end qualified immunity for state and local police officers.
Congress member Karen Bass has proposed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, designed to combat misconduct, excessive force, and racial bias by law enforcement. This bill has passed successfully out of the House of Representatives and is now headed to the U.S. Senate where Congress member Bass is confident that it will eventually pass this year and signed into federal law by President Biden. Also, New York City has also taken a major step forward on this issue. The mayor and the New York City Council signed off on laws that strip the shield of immunity from police officers accused of misconduct.
This weekend I will be leaving my home to join and support the Floyd family in Minneapolis as we await the Chauvin verdict. I pray it is just. If not, Minneapolis may end up looking Like Los Angeles did on April 29th, 1992—and that is a part of American history that does not need repeating.
Najee Ali is a civil rights activist and the Southern California Community Relations Ambassador for Operation HOPE, a nonprofit for-purpose organization working to disrupt poverty and empower inclusion for low and moderate-income youth and adults.