By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — How will Philadelphia respond when the eventual verdict is read in the trial for the Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd?
Some activists and faith leaders say the jury remains out on that question but some are working now to head off a potential repeat of last year’s civil unrest and looting.
“We believe that if there’s a not guilty verdict, that Philadelphia will be up in arms and the potential for them to strike back will definitely be there,” said the Rev. Robert Collier, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.
In an attempt to thwart any negative responses to the trial, Collier said the Black clergy group’s more than 70 faith leaders were working on a series of measures with their communities to brace for a disappointing verdict and to push for peaceful demonstrations.
“Lawlessness does not help us in cases like this,” Collier said.
Jury selection in Derek Chauvin’s trial continued Friday. The trial is scheduled to begin in late March. Chauvin faces second- and third-degree murder charges and a second-degree manslaughter charge.
Floyd died May 25, 2020, after Chauvin handcuffed him and pinned him to the ground. A video that captured the episode showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s case began with a report of a counterfeit $20 bill that a storekeeper said he tried to pass to buy cigarettes.
Floyd’s death sparked mass protests against racism and police brutality in major cities across the U.S., including Philadelphia.
How the Kenney administration and the Philadelphia Police Department are preparing for the city’s response to the verdict in the Chauvin trial remains unknown: Neither returned requests for comment Friday.
Black Lives Matter Philadelphia also did not return requests seeking comment.
A scathing independent report about the city’s response to the Floyd protests from the City Controller’s Office found the Kenney administration and police failed to properly plan; improperly used heavy-handed police tactics, including tear gas and rubber bullets; and applied police use-of-force inequitably. The police response was the most aggressive since the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia.
Some were uncertain how residents would respond to the Chauvin verdict.
Shakira King, a West Philadelphia activist, said many Black Philadelphians were “so tired” after a year of hardships, which included the Floyd protests; gun violence and the coronavirus pandemic, both of which overwhelmingly affect Black residents; and the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. in the city.
“Not only did we have to fight a pandemic but we had to fight the police at the same time,” said the 29-year-old activist. “I can’t say how we’ll react because we’re all exhausted. We may just sit in the street and cry.”
King added that she had little faith a jury would return with a guilty verdict against Chauvin.
“When you see white men consistently getting away with things, as a Black woman, I can’t have hope in the system,” she said. “The justice system is broken. It’s consistently been broken.”
Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, said Chauvin’s trial represented the “trial of the entire American judicial system.”
Speaking as a parent, Tyler said he believed the police killing of Floyd amounted to the current generation’s awakening of the “invisible wall of racism in our country.”
“George Floyd is for my children what Rodney King was for me and what Emmett Till was for my mother, and on and on,” Tyler said. “Each generation has their own painful story, where young people come to an awakening in America about the two systems of justice.”
Collier, the head of the Black Clergy, said regardless of the outcome of Chauvin’s trial, legislators must pass stricter laws to hold cops accountable in order to prevent fatal police interactions.
With Chauvin’s trial weeks away from starting, Collier said African-American Philadelphians were overburdened after a year dominated by police killings, gun violence and the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a constant battle to keep people level-headed,” he said. “It’s a constant battle to keep focused on positiveness. … Our people really need hope.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.