President Joe Biden called the guilty verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin “a step forward,” but also said that the nation still has to reckon with systemic racism in all walks of life, including policing.
Biden said the guilty verdict is “much too rare” and “not enough.”
Chauvin was found guilty on two counts of murder and guilty on one count of manslaughter in Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May. The video of Floyd pleading for help as the former officer 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 on the case and race in America, noted the police officers who stepped up during the trial to testify for the prosecution in the case “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 for several minutes.
The president described it as a “unique convergence of factors” to reach this verdict. “For so many,” the president continued, “it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver basic accountability.”
Before he spoke, Vice President Kamala Harris also reacted to the case.
“America has a long history of systemic racism, Black Americans and Black men, in particular, have been treated as less than human,” Harris said. “Because of smartphones so many Americans have now seen the racial injustice that black Americans have known for generations.”
Biden was holding a virtual tour of an electric battery company in South Carolina before the verdict was read in the courthouse.
Biden and Harris watched the verdict with staff in the president’s Dining Room. Following the announcement, Biden spoke with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, Then Biden, Harris and the first lady 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, Ben 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.”
“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,” Harris said on the call.
The White House waited for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the Floyd family and Walz to speak before making public remarks.
Before the verdict was announced Tuesday afternoon, the president said that he spoke with George Floyd’s family by phone and said that he “wanted to know how they’re doing personally [and] talked about personal things.”
White House officials had been huddling on Tuesday before the verdict was announced, 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.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked repeatedly about these comments. She refused to clarify but insisted the president was not trying to prejudge the case.
Biden, who spoke briefly to reporters in the Oval Office, added that he wouldn’t have made such a comment if the jury wasn’t sequestered, indicating he would have withheld his thoughts if the thought the jury could hear them. Jurors were sequestered after closing arguments Monday.
Multiple people close to Biden told NBC News his comments were not helpful to White House efforts to tamp down tensions across the country. One of the people close to the president said it would’ve been worse if he’d made the comment before the jury was sequestered. Another said regardless of the timing of his remark it risks being interpreted as disrespectful of the judicial system.
Biden said in his speech 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.
The president also said he told the Floyd family he would continue to urge passage of the 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 prohibit chokeholds. The legislation passed without Republican support and 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 isn’t 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 George Floyd’s young daughter, Gianna. He recounted when he first met her at Floyd’s funeral, she said to him then that “Daddy changed the world.” Biden said he told her Tuesday afternoon: “Daddy did change the world.”
“Let that be his legacy,” Biden added.
Biden urged for protests to remain peaceful — saying that form 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 of “I can’t breathe,” and said, “We can’t let those words die with him.”