President Biden said Tuesday that the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd is a step forward toward ensuring racial justice in America, but he stressed that more must be done.
“We can’t leave this moment or look away thinking our work is done,” Biden said in remarks from the White House hours after the jury returned a guilty verdict in downtown Minneapolis. “We have to listen, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words. We can’t let those words die with him.”
“We must not turn away, we can’t turn away. We have a chance to begin to change the trajectory in this country. It’s my hope and prayer that we live up to the legacy,” he continued. “This can be a moment of significant change.”
Biden urged the Senate to pass police reform legislation named after Floyd that was approved by the House earlier this year, noting that it has been nearly a year since Floyd was killed in police custody last year as Chauvin knelt on his neck for about nine minutes.
Biden also said that his Justice Department, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, was committed to restoring trust between law enforcement and the communities they are paid to protect.
And he said that “most” police officers serve communities honorably but stressed that those who don’t must be held accountable for misconduct, characterizing Tuesday’s verdict as a signal that no one is above the law and a step toward ensuring bad actors in law enforcement face consequences.
The jury returned its verdict Tuesday afternoon, finding Chauvin guilty on all three counts — second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd last summer.
Biden and Vice President Harris watched the proceedings unfold with staff members in the Private Dining Room and each spoke with Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s younger brother, from the Oval Office following the verdict.
“Nothing can ever bring their brother, their father back, but this can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America. Let’s also be clear that such a verdict is also much too rare,” Biden said. “This takes acknowledging and confronting head on systemic racism and the racial disparities that exist in policing and our criminal justice system more broadly.”
The remarks represented Biden’s first extended commentary on the Floyd trial, though the president earlier in the day had made clear he believed a guilty verdict should be returned in brief comments to reporters.
Cities including Washington and Minneapolis had braced for unrest after the verdict, summoning National Guard troops to help manage potential crowds and protests. The White House has been clear in its call for peaceful protest as the nation awaited a conclusion of the trial.
Biden called for unity in his speech Tuesday and warned against any violent demonstrations.
“There are those who seek to exploit the raw emotions of the moment — agitators and extremists who have no interest in social justice — who seek to carry out violence, destroy property, fan the flames of hate and division, who will do everything in their power to stop this country’s march toward racial justice. We cannot let them succeed,” Biden said.
The trial and verdict cap off months of public outcry over Floyd’s death at the hands of police last May, which set off protests against police brutality and racial injustice across the country. Now infamous video captured Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes as he struggled to breathe.
Biden spoke to Floyd’s family twice in the past 24 hours, after meeting with them last year, offering prayers on Monday as they awaited the verdict in the trial.
Both Biden and Harris used remarks Tuesday evening to call for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a police reform measure that would ban the use of chokeholds and eliminate legal protections for law enforcement officials accused of misconduct, among other things. The measure passed the House in a party line vote in March.
“This bill is part of George Floyd’s legacy,” Harris said. “This work is long overdue. America has a long history of systemic racism.”