President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the guilty verdicts in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin were “a step forward,” but he also said the nation still has to reckon with systemic racism in all walks of life, including policing.
Biden said the guilty verdicts are “much too rare” and “not enough.”
Chauvin was convicted of second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May. The video of Floyd pleading for help as Chauvin knelt on him for more than nine minutes was seen around the world last year, igniting a wave of protests over police brutality.
“It was a murder in the full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off the whole world to see,” he said. “Systemic racism is a stain on our nation’s soul.”
Biden, in his most direct comments about the case and race in America, noted the police officers who stepped up to testify for the prosecution “instead of closing ranks.” He gave credit to the activists who protested and the “brave young woman” who recorded Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
Biden said a “unique convergence of factors” led to the verdict. “For so many,” he continued, “it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver basic accountability.”
Speaking before Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris said: “America has a long history of systemic racism. Black Americans and Black men, in particular, have been treated as less than human. Because of smartphones, so many Americans have now seen the racial injustice that Black Americans have known for generations.”
Biden was taking a virtual tour of an electric battery company in South Carolina before the verdict was read. He and Harris watched with staff members in the President’s Dining Room. After the announcement, Biden spoke with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat; then Biden, Harris and first lady Jill Biden spoke with Floyd’s younger brother, Philonise, from the Oval Office.
Biden and Harris also talked with Floyd’s family over the phone, the details of which can be heard in a video released on Twitter by the family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump.
“Nothing is going to make it all better, but at least now there’s some justice,” Biden told the family. “You’re an incredible family. I wish I were there to put arms around you.”
He added, “We’re all so relieved.”
Harris said on the call, “In George’s name and memory, we are going to make sure his legacy is intact and that history will look back at this moment and know this is an inflection moment.”
The White House waited for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the Floyd family and Walz to speak before they made public remarks.
Before the verdict was announced, Biden said that he had spoken with Floyd’s family by phone, that he “wanted to know how they’re doing personally” and that they “talked about personal things.”
White House officials had been huddling Tuesday, watching and waiting like the rest of the country.
Biden sparked backlash earlier in the day when he said “I am praying the verdict is the right verdict” and added, “I think it’s overwhelming in my view.”
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White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked repeatedly about the comments. She refused to clarify them but insisted that Biden was not trying to prejudge the case.
Biden, who spoke briefly to reporters in the Oval Office, said he would not have made such a comment if the jury had not been sequestered after closing arguments Monday, indicating that he would have withheld his thoughts if the jurors could hear them.
People close to Biden said his comments were not helpful to White House efforts to tamp down tensions across the country. One of the people close to Biden said it would have been worse if he had made the comment before the jury was sequestered. Another said that regardless of the timing, his remark risked being interpreted as being disrespectful of the judicial system.
Biden said after the verdict that most men and women who wear the badge “serve their communities honorably” and that those who fail to meet that standard must be held accountable.
He also said he told Floyd’s family that he would continue to urge passage of policing reform legislation in George Floyd’s name.
On March 3, the Democratic-controlled House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to overhaul practices like qualified immunity for officers and to prohibit chokeholds. The legislation, which passed without Republican support, faces a steep uphill climb in the Senate, where Democrats have 50 members and need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. That is unlikely in the bill’s current form, and it is not clear what can pass.
The White House has endorsed the legislation, saying it is important to “hold police officers accountable for abuses of power and tackle systemic misconduct — and systemic racism — in police departments.”
Biden said he spoke to Floyd’s young daughter, Gianna. He recounted that when he first met her at Floyd’s funeral, she told him, “Daddy changed the world.” Biden said he told her Tuesday afternoon, “Daddy did change the world.”
“Let that be his legacy,” Biden said.
Biden urged that protests remain peaceful — saying that form of expression of Floyd’s legacy is “appropriate.”
“Violent protest is not,” Biden said. “There are those who will seek to exploit the raw emotions of the moment — agitators and extremists who have no interest in social justice. … We can’t let them succeed.
“This is a time for this country to come together, to unite as Americans,” he said. “There can never be any safe harbor for hate in America.”
Biden recounted Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” and said, “We can’t let those words die with him.”