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Community leaders, average residents react to Derek Chauvin guilty verdict

"The question here that was also on trial for America was, 'Do Black lives really matter?' We found out today that they do."

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — On Tuesday, a Minnesota jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter. 

The trial captivated the nation, and its significance reverberated across the country, including on the First Coast.

Attorney LaFonda Middleton, First Coast News' legal analyst, said as the mother and son of a Black male, she was relieved by the verdict. As a legal analyst, she said the trial against Chauvin was unique in its magnitude and effects.

"This case actually affected the entire nation, and not just the U.S., but the entire world," Middleton said. "So I have not seen anything of this magnitude since Rodney King."

She said the verdict is an important step forward for the country.

First Coast News crime analyst Mark Baughman closely followed the trial. He said he was not surprised by the verdict, given the speed at which the verdict was rendered.

"I'm not surprised at all considering the prosecution opened up immediately with the nine-minute plus recording [of George Floyd's death]. I think that told the story," Baughman explained. "At the end of the day, it was sad, tragic, should never happen again, but justice was served."

Baughman also believes given Chauvin's history of police brutality accusations against him, he should have never been allowed to be a police officer in Minneapolis.

"There needs to be some national registry set up or somehow where officers can't go from one department to the next and not have their history follow them or at least let everybody know what that history is," Baughman said. "Knowing his prior disciplinary actions, he probably shouldn't have been a police officer at that time."

In Downtown Jacksonville, outside the Duval County Public Schools building, protesters gathered to hold a demonstration urging voters to change the names of schools named after controversial historical figures. However, when word came that the verdict was in, the focus of the rally briefly changed.

People at the rally heard the verdict through the demonstration's loudspeakers. The crowd reacted with celebratory horn honking and cheers, believing justice had been served.

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition of Florida and an outspoken advocate of police accountability came to the rally and spoke to the crowd.

"I'm so thankful that finally, after all the other police officers that were cleared and allowed to walk free, that once we finally get to have justice for the victim," Frazier said. "The question here that was also on trial for America was, 'Do Black lives really matter?' We found out today that they do."

Frazier said he believes community activism is starting to pay off in holding officers accountable.

"So we're happy in this particular case that all of our marches, our rallies, our demonstrations resulted in a just verdict," Frazier said. "Finally, in the words of [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.], 'Justice is rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.'"

Frazier added, "Our work is just beginning and it is just beginning as America turns the camera on itself to look at its issue of racial bias, racial tensions and racial relations."

The importance of the verdict is felt by more than community leaders and social activists. 

Taking a walk in Murray Hill and one might stumble upon the aroma coming from Holy Smoke Barbecue, a food truck owned by Marcus Hill. While serving customers ribs, pulled pork sandwiches and collard greens, Hill watched the verdict come in through a small television screen in his truck.

"Justice for everyone, especially people of color. If it's one-sided, then it don't fit for everyone," Hill, himself a Black man, said. "We're here together, everything should be for one. Regardless, right is right, wrong is wrong."

"I was relieved, personally," one of Hill's customers said. "These sort of things have a history where the police officer gets off, there's not near as much scrutiny or there's a lot of excuses. To see [Chauvin] get hit on all three counts was very impactful."

First Coast News also talked to Marcus Arbery the father of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man pursued and killed in southeastern Georgia by three white men. He said he was 'extremely surprised by the verdict. He also believes this verdict will help his son get justice as well.

"When you're wrong, I don't care what color you are, you have to be accountable for what you did wrong," Arbery said.

Since retiring from the force, former Jacksonville Officer Kim Varner has spent his time trying to bridge the gap between the community and the officers sworn to protect them. He said the verdict is a start to the healing process of a community torn apart by racial strife. Yet, he said more needs to be done.

Varner believes now is the time for law enforcement across the country to focus on community policing. 

"It's simple, but it's not easy," Varner said. "Officers are not trained to get out and do that. It's something that has to be in you to get out and start building that trust in the community."

Varner said the law enforcement has to do their part to ensure the community knows they have the community's safety as their primary interest. 

"We can't arrest our way out of the problems we have right now. Arresting people is not going to solve the problem," Varner explained. "We've got to break that barrier. We've got to have uncomfortable conversations; we have to engage the community."

One piece of advice Varner gave officers is to be approachable and friendly to the people in the communities that they serve.

"Approach your people, introduce yourself. Tell them why your here. If you're really here for the right reason, let people know it," Varner said. "When I was on the job, I kept a basketball and a football in the trunk. And I would go into the low-income apartment complexes, get out and play with kids on the court. Not only am I winning the kids' support, but their parents are sitting up in the apartment looking down saying, 'Who's this officer out here playing ball with my kids.'"

While the verdict is an important moment in the relationship between police and Black communities, Baughman does not believe it is enough to restore people's faith in the system.

"It's not going to be fixed overnight," Baughman said. "It takes a while to regain trust, on both sides."

While both Varner and Baughman believe community policing needs to be a focus locally, Frazier wants to see further accountability for the officers at the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.

"The bottom line is that JSO is guilty, as we have suggested to the United States Justice Department going back to 2017, that JSO is guilty of excessive use of force, a pattern of excessive use of force," Frazier said. "While we're looking across the country at Minneapolis, I suggest it is time for Jacksonville to hold up the mirror to its own face because we too are guilty of the very same racial discrimination in law enforcement."

As for the future of the Chauvin case, Middleton said she is looking ahead toward the sentencing phase of the trial.

"The bystanders, the family of George Floyd and even Mr. Chauvin's family, friends and whoever he wants will be able to testify on his behalf or against him," Middleton said. "The judge will have to make a decision. He receive up to 40 years."

This story will be updated.

    

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