Minnesota Black Catholics Say Chauvin Verdict Is a First Step Toward Justice

Speaking to Register after Tuesday’s conviction of the former police officer for the death of George Floyd, these Catholics said they find relief and hope in the trial’s outcome.

Shannon Haynes talks to her son Ronald Haynes, 9, about George Floyd in front of a memorial following the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial on April 20 in Minneapolis. The former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty today on all three charges he faced in the death of Floyd last May.
Shannon Haynes talks to her son Ronald Haynes, 9, about George Floyd in front of a memorial following the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial on April 20 in Minneapolis. The former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty today on all three charges he faced in the death of Floyd last May. (photo: Nathan Howard / Getty)

MINNEAPOLIS — When Michele Gittens learned on Tuesday that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had been found guilty on all three counts brought against him for the May 25 death of George Floyd, her reaction was both emotional and physical. 

“I started crying, and I was surprised that I had tears,” said Gittens, a Black Catholic who belongs to a downtown Minneapolis parish. “I felt like my stomach released and my shoulders felt lighter, and my back — I just felt this lifting. I didn’t realize I’d been carrying this since last year.” 

Gittens, who lives several blocks from the downtown Minneapolis courthouse where Chauvin’s trial took place, said Floyd’s death and the events surrounding it have left their mark. “Every time I see George Floyd or anybody who was killed in that fashion, I see my brother; I see my nephew; I see my father; I see members of my family.” 

Gittens and other Twin Cities Black Catholics and their pastors expressed relief and in some cases amazement at the jury’s decision Tuesday to convict Chauvin of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter. But they see the conviction as just the first step in bringing accountability and other reforms to a policing system they say has long mistreated Blacks and other people of color, including 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was shot by a police officer in a Minneapolis suburb on April 11.

Catholics interviewed also said they were relieved that Chauvin’s guilty verdict would not set off anger that might have escalated into more of the widespread looting and property destruction that occurred after Floyd’s death in the Twin Cities and around the country.

Chauvin, 45, was videotaped by a bystander while pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck and back for more than nine minutes as Floyd, 46, lay on the ground handcuffed and eventually lost consciousness. While the former police officer now awaits sentencing in a maximum-security prison, today mourners are attending Wright’s funeral in Minneapolis.

“As we celebrate some measure of justice being done in the case of George Floyd, we’re grieving the death of a 20-year-old again shot in the hands of police officers,” said Father Dale Korogi, pastor of the Church of the Ascension in Minneapolis. “The reaction [of parishioners] the day after is mixed. People are already realizing that all of our problems are not solved in a single verdict. We know the daunting nature of the work ahead of us to undo racism.” 

Wright was shot after a Brooklyn Center police pulled him over for a traffic stop and discovered a warrant for his arrest. When Wright resisted as officers tried to apprehend him, former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter allegedly mistook her gun for her Taser and shot Wright in the chest. Wright drove a few blocks from the scene and died after crashing into another car. 

Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter for Wright’s death. 

Wright’s death occurring 12 miles from where Chauvin’s trial was held sparked peaceful protests, along with some looting and violence. 

Protests and riots in 140 U.S. cities last year after Floyd’s death resulted in $1 billion to $2 billion of paid insurance claims, according to Axios

Chauvin’s conviction represents “a sobering moment for our community,” said St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda in an April 20 statement.

“We hold up once again the image of the Crucified Christ, whose resurrection gives witness to the healing power of forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation, and peace,” he stated. “It is our shared brotherhood with Jesus that calls us to a deeper respect for all human life. We ask him to bring healing into our communities, comfort to the family of George Floyd and all who mourn, and satisfaction to those who thirst for justice. May the many reminders of the Lord’s loving closeness even in challenging times inspire us to treat each other with unfailing respect, to work non-violently for the common good and to be instruments of reconciliation.”

Chauvin is being held in solitary confinement in Minnesota’s only maximum-security prison because of concern for his safety until his court-scheduled sentencing on June 16, according to The New York Times

After sleepless nights of worry over the trial’s outcome, Everlyn Wentzlaff, 69, a parishioner at St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, said, “I am so thankful and give praise to God that we got a just verdict for the George Floyd family as well as the rest of us.” 

But she added that the outcome is somewhat bittersweet. “I’m also thinking about all the others who have been killed unjustly and were not able to get justice.”

Despite the conviction, a lot of work remains to be done in the justice system, Wentzlaff said. “I do think that there should be police reform, and I don’t mean getting rid of the police,” she said. “I mean going in and getting rid of the systematic racism that’s there and making the necessary changes that need to be made to not have that.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department has launched a civil investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department to determine if it has a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional or unlawful policing, according to CBS News

Bob Briscoe, 79, said he was amazed that Chauvin was found guilty because in his 10 years’ experience on the Chicago police force such convictions were rare. The parishioner at Ascension in Minneapolis added that he thanks God that the conviction might make whites more aware of Blacks’ experience with law enforcement. 

Briscoe said he fears for his 19-year-old grandson’s safety. “These are Black lives, and they do matter,” he said. “I’ve got a grandson that I worry about every day. I worry about him being in his car or my car and something happens to him — just because he’s Black.”

Wentzlaff’s response to Wright’s death was: “Not again — how can we still allow this to continue to happen?” While she said abuse has gone on for many years, now people are able to record it on their cellphones. 

Father Erich Rutten, pastor of St. Peter Claver, said it’s not surprising that incidents like Floyd’s and Wright’s deaths in the hands of police continue to happen. “I think everyone, Black or white, we all feel the sensitivity of it and the extra impact that it has, given the timing and the concern that we all have that more violence can erupt. Nobody wants to see that happen, but we’re looking for some kind of hopeful signs.”

The parish has collaborated with another St. Paul parish to offer evenings of silent prayer for peace during the trial. “We’re asking for peace in our own hearts and peace in our world, as well,” Father Rutten said.

Briscoe said, as a lifelong Catholic, he finds comfort and God in the Church, but he would like to see the Church and the bishops speaking out more against injustice. “It’s cool to speak about heaven, but we’re living here on earth, and we need something from the Church to say that they won’t stand for this.”

Speaking out against injustice in the public square is important, but destroying property is wrong, said Ryan Hamilton, 40, who added that he hopes, going forward, the destruction will be avoided. Hamilton is government relations associate at the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Catholic Church’s public policy voice in Minnesota, but he spoke on his own behalf. 

Living in a north Minneapolis neighborhood close to where damage occurred last year, he said, “The threat of violence and just the heartbreak from many in the community, especially the minority community, or the feeling of injustice and lack of accountability and what that would entail and could potentially spiral into: There are always that threat of that looming in many of our lives; and for that to be taken off the table [with closure in the Chauvin case] was a relief.”

Not all of Gittens’ friends have recognized racism and injustice in Floyd’s death, which has been a source of frustration, but one friend has and called the verdict the first seed toward true justice. “What is the work people are going to do now to follow up and make sure we can have true justice for all?” she said. 

Chauvin’s verdict has given Wentzlaff hope that Floyd’s death won’t be in vain, and she also hopes young people will continue to work for change in the system. “I think he gave all of us a wake-up call, and I think people are responding to that wake-up call.” 

Hamilton said he hopes that police and society can rewire their thinking more toward life and dignity. He also said finding the roots of his identity as a child of God has helped him avoid worldly identities related to race that are divisive. 

“My faith allows me to be rooted in my true identity, which is the child of a loving Creator and coequal to all other human beings,” he said. “I don’t have to get drawn into the worldly propaganda. And then that gives me something to share, too, so I can stand firm in that identity and share some hope and share some love. There’s enough to go around. I truly believe that, and that’s what I learn from my faith.”