As the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin gets underway, activists in Kansas City maintain hope that justice will be served in court, but they take nothing for granted.
Gwendolyn Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, notes the importance of video evidence in the case. Chauvin, who is white, can be seen on video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes.
“And so you watch this and you hope that surely the evidence is compelling — surely there’s no other outcome other than a murder conviction here,” Grant says. “But history has taught us something different.”
Chauvin killed Floyd, who was Black, on May 25 of 2020. Floyd’s death sparked outrage across the country, including weeks of protests in Kansas City, where hundreds of protesters were arrested.
Video of Floyd’s death was so powerful, attorney Stacy Shaw still gets emotional thinking about it. Shaw is well known among Kansas City activists for assisting protesters and advocating for police reform.
“This was so egregious because you saw this man die, and you couldn’t do anything,” Shaw says. “And all the while you have this white man kneeling on his neck with this smug-ass look on his face.”
Gwendolyn Grant agrees.
“It was so blatant,” she says of the killing. “It caused people to wake up and (say) like, ‘Oh my God, this is really what Black Americans endure every single day.’”
It wasn’t just the shocking nature of Floyd’s death that amplified its significance to Kansas City. Community activist Justice Horn says the killing in Minneapolis resonated locally because parts of the story felt familiar.
“Yes, we were marching in the street for George Floyd last summer, and we will continue to do that,” Horn says, adding that Kansas Citians were also “marching against injustices here in our own community — justice for Donnie Sanders, for Cameron Lamb,”
In the 10 months since Floyd’s death, Horn says he has seen positive change in the form of a racial reckoning that has affected countless industries and communities.
“I think we are finally having tough conversations around racism and white supremacy and institutions that hold up both of those things,” Horn says.
But Vernon Percy Howard Jr., who leads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, says he hasn’t seen changes that strike him as significant or substantive.
“I think we can look at the national situation through the local prism of the (Kansas City Police Department),” says Howard. “If we look at the charges that have been filed and the repercussions of (their) violent actions against unarmed Black men, we’ll see that we have a situation where there is far from justice.”
Howard illustrates his point by invoking the case of Ryan Stokes, an unarmed Black man killed by Kansas City police in 2013 outside the Power & Light District. In February 2020, a federal court ruled the shooting was reasonable, and granted the officer immunity from civil judgments.
In Howard’s estimation, police reform in Kansas City has been insignificant because of the city’s unique form of police control at the state level. State control of Kansas City police persists despite intense pressure from advocates, religious leaders, community groups and others, says Howard, who holds Missouri lawmakers, the police board of commissioners, Gov. Mike Parson and Kansas City police Chief Rick Smith accountable for the lack of progress.
In the General Assembly, lawmakers have responded to the summer protest with a proposed bill, approved by the state Senate, to ban police chokeholds. The bill now awaits House approval.
But Howard says other proposals would expand and strengthen protections for police. To him, that indicates that legislators have more regard for the safety of police than for protestors or potential victims of lethal force.
“There were five people killed by Kansas City police officers in 2020,” attorney Stacy Shaw notes, “(but) there’s been no significant policing reform — actual reform. They keep announcing these plans, but there’s not any real change here.”
Derek Chauvin now faces charges of manslaughter, second-degree murder and third-degree murder in Hennepin County District Court, located in Minneapolis. Whether Chauvin is convicted of a crime or not, Gwendolyn Grant says Black people in Kansas City are paying close attention to the trial.
“Should the prosecutors prevail and the jury brings back a murder conviction, then I think the outplay or the outcome in the community would be jubilance,” Grant says. “Should the opposite be true, then I believe there will also be a community response, and it will be anger, it will be frustration, it will be disappointment. Folks will be disillusioned — which is also frightening.”
Stacy Shaw works closely with many protestors and she thinks widespread local protests are a real possibility.
“I think that the energy is there,” Shaw says. “The fall, the winter and the spring have been spent building momentum and building coalitions. And so now … if there is a reaction it is, I think, going to be very well-organized and it’s going to be sustained.”