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Southern Illinois community, police leaders react to Chauvin conviction
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Southern Illinois community, police leaders react to Chauvin conviction

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Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, which was captured on video and sparked worldwide protests over racism and police brutality.

CARBONDALE — Unlike a courtroom acquittal scene that has played out many times throughout the U.S., Derek Chauvin — the white former Minneapolis police officer whose fatal encounter with George Floyd was caught on video last year — was found guilty Tuesday on all counts by a jury after a two-week trial.

The jury, made up of six white people and six Black or multiracial people, weighed charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Convictions on some, none, or all of the charges were possible. The most serious charge carries up to 40 years in prison.

The verdict, reached after about 10 hours over two days, serves as the punctuation mark at the end of a violent, turbulent year that saw millions across the U.S. and around the world protest Floyd’s death at the hands of Chauvin, the 45-year-old now-fired officer, who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for about 9 1/2 minutes.

“I never imagined in my wildest dreams all three (charges),” Nancy Maxwell, criminal justice chairperson for the Carbondale Branch NAACP, said Tuesday. 

Community leader and recently-elected Carbondale city councilperson Ginger Rye Sanders said she went through a range of emotions Tuesday hearing the verdict — everything from tears to shouting “Hallelujah!”

“I just think this was a great victory not just for the Black community but for the entire world,” Rye Sanders said.

She said she was pleased to see the verdict, especially because she knew the world was watching.

“Our integrity was on trial and I just believe that this is something that is very good,” she said, adding that “we can’t just stop at this.”

Carbondale’s interim police chief Stan Reno reflected on the past year and the thoughts and discussions Chauvin’s case prompted.

“There’s certainly a focus and a desire for law enforcement to adapt and make the necessary changes to make sure that we don’t have any more tragedies,” Reno said.

Maxwell, a former Chicago law enforcement officer, reflected on the frequency of slayings of Black men and women at the hands of police. She said it stands in contrast to the training she received.

“When I was in the academy, every day they talked about excessive force,” she said, adding that instructors always told cadets not to pull a gun unless they are ready to kill.

Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe” were on the hearts and lips of many last year as they took to the streets to demand justice for Floyd and the many young Black men and women like him — and to call for an overhaul of law enforcement across the U.S. 

The months of protests and demonstrations centered often on Floyd — but also on the death of Louisville, Kentucky’s Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who also died last year after she was shot by a white police officer serving a no-knock warrant at her apartment. 

Floyd’s situation was neither new, nor unique, but it followed the deaths of scores of unarmed Black men and women who have been killed at the hands of police. 

There was 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was killed by police in 2010 in Cleveland, Ohio; 18-year-old Michael Brown who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014; 17-year-old Laquan McDonald who was killed by Chicago Police in 2014, among many others. 

Floyd’s death appeared to be a breaking point for many. 

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The national moment was also a watershed moment in Southern Illinois where protests spilled into the streets, and even in places they previously had not — small towns like Du Quoin, and Anna, and Sparta and a number of other communities throughout the region. 

It prompted questions throughout Southern Illinois about the diversity of police departments. 

When The Southern collected data last year on police diversity, it found many local departments’ demographics did not match those of the communities they serve.

In Carbondale, of the city’s 60 sworn officers, 56, or 93%, were white. This stands in contrast to the 58.4% white people make up in the overall city population. The total minority population of the force is 7%, but minorities make up 42% of the city’s population.

Reno said in the six-to-eight months he has been at the helm of Carbondale’s police department he has worked closely with the city’s human resources department and more specifically its diversity and compliance officer to increase efforts to recruit a diverse applicant pool for police openings. He said this has meant expanding the radius the city recruits officers within.

Reno said diversity of the police force is a must for it to be able to best relate to and serve its community.

“It’s absolutely a necessity and it’s something we talk about daily,” Reno said.

“It is very important … you couldn’t change my mind on that if you tried,” Maxwell said, speaking to the importance of a diverse police force.

“You can relate to somebody who looks like you,” she said.

Maxwell said she has been on the scene as a citizen multiple times interacting with police in her neighborhood after she or others have called in a crime.

She said she doesn’t have to explain her entire history as a Black person in America if the officer responding is also Black — there’s an unspoken understanding, she said.

Maxwell said advancements in technology, namely cell phones and social media, have added weight to the stories men and women of color have been telling for decades about their interactions with the police.

“Without a video there wouldn’t have been a case or a trial or anything,” she said of Chauvin’s conviction. She said few would have believed the stories of some on the scene who saw Floyd’s murder.

“The Black witnesses would have been discounted. Period,” Maxwell said.

Rye Sanders recently made city history — her election, along with Carolin Harvey, marked the first time two women of color have served on Carbondale’s council at the same time. She said she wants to use this moment to push for reform as a member of the council.

“I want to use that platform to speak out,” she said. Rye Sanders was also quick to point out that what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis “could happen in Carbondale.”

“These things happen in other places to let you know that your city is not exempt,” she said. “Let us learn from this. Let us do the right thing regarding human life.”

Rye Sanders said there is a long history of disappointment in these types of cases. But now she says things look a bit brighter.

“I feel like I have a little hope now,” she said.

Maxwell was a little more cautious about the verdict's ripple effect. 

"I guess I'm so used to (getting) a victory and then we fly back ten steps," she said. "I'm still optimistic."

isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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