A first-in-the-country taskforce to study and recommend reparations for African Americans held its inaugural meeting in California on Tuesday, launching a two-year process to address the harms of slavery and systemic racism.
The meeting of the first state reparations committee in the US coincided with a visit by Joe Biden to Oklahoma, during which the president marked the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre and commemorated the hundreds of Black Americans who were killed by a white mob in a flourishing district known as the “Black Wall Street”. It also comes just over a year after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota.
A federal slavery reparations bill passed out of the House judiciary committee in April, but it faces an uphill battle to becoming law. The bill was first introduced in Congress in 1989 and refers to the failed government effort to provide 40 acres (16 hectares) of land to newly freed slaves as the civil war wound down.
California’s secretary of state, Shirley Weber, who as a state assemblywoman authored the state legislation creating the taskforce, noted the solemnity of the occasion as well as the opportunity to right a historic wrong that continues today, in the form of large racial disparities in wealth, health and education. African Americans make up just 6% of California’s population yet were 30% of an estimated 250,000 people experiencing homelessness who sought help in 2020.
“Your task is to determine the depth of the harm, and the ways in which we are to repair that harm,” said Weber, whose sharecropper parents were forced to leave the south.
The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who signed the bill into law last year, issued a formal apology to Native American tribal leaders in 2019. He also announced the creation of a council to examine the state’s role in campaigns to exterminate and exploit indigenous people in the state.
Critics have said that California was not a slaveholding state and should not have to study reparations, or pay for it. But Weber said the state is an economic powerhouse that can point the way for a federal government that has been unable to address the issue. It would not replace any reparations agreed to by the federal government.
In 1988, Ronald Reagan signed legislation providing $20,000 in redress and a formal apology to every surviving Japanese American incarcerated during the second world war.
Members of the taskforce pointed out that Black Americans have heard all their lives that they need to improve themselves, yet the truth is that they have been held back by outright racism and discriminatory laws that prevented them from getting conventional bank loans and buying homes.
Slavery may not have flourished in California as it did in southern states, they said, but African Americans were still treated harshly. Their neighborhoods in San Francisco and Los Angeles were razed in the name of development.
The nine taskforce members, appointed by Newsom and leaders of the legislature, include the descendants of slaves who are now prominent lawyers, academics and politicians.
Steven Bradford, a taskforce member and state senator, said he would like to model a reparations program on the GI bill, allowing for free college and assistance with home-buying.
“We have lost more than we have ever taken from this country,” Bradford said. “We have given more than has ever been given to us.”
Even as the Derek Chauvin case was fresh in memory — the reading of the verdict in a Minneapolis courtroom, the shackling of the former police officer, the jubilation at what many saw as justice in the death of George Floyd — even then, blood flowed on America’s streets.
And even then, some of that blood was shed at the hands of law enforcement.
The deaths, in some cases, sparked new cries for justice. Some said they reflect an urgent need for radical changes to American policing — a need that the Chauvin verdict cannot paper over. For others, the shootings are a tragic reminder of the difficult and dangerous decisions law enforcement face daily.
An unidentified man in San Antonio.
Another man, killed in the same city within hours of the first.
A 31-year-old man in central Massachusetts.
The circumstances surrounding each death differ widely. Some happened while officers investigated serious crimes. Police say some of the people were armed with a gun, knife or a metal pole. One man claimed to have a bomb that he threatened to detonate. In several cases, little is known about the lives of those killed and what happened in their final moments.
The deadly encounters are only a small snapshot of the thousands of interactions between American police officers and civilians every day, most of which end safely. Uneventful encounters between the police and the populace, however, are not an issue.
It’s a very different story when a weapon is drawn and a life is ended.
As the nation watched the judge read the verdict against Chavuin on Tuesday afternoon, an officer hundreds of miles away was listening over his patrol car radio in a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. Minutes earlier, a colleague fatally shot a teenage girl.
Police had been called to the house after someone called 911 and reported being physically threatened. Body camera footage shows an officer approaching a group of people in the driveway as the teenager, Ma’Khia Bryant, swings a knife wildly. Moments later, the girl charges at a young woman pinned against a car.
The officer fires four shots before Bryant slumps to the ground. A black-handled blade, similar to a kitchen or steak knife, lies on the sidewalk next to her.
“You didn’t have to shoot her! She’s just a kid, man!” a man shouted at the officer.
The officer responds, “She had a knife. She just went at her.”
Later, an anguished neighbor yells at officers: “Do you see why Black lives matter? Do you get it now?”
Bryant, who was in foster care at the time, was a shy, quiet girl who liked making hair and dance videos on TikTok, her grandmother, Debra Wilcox, told The Associated Press. Her family says her actions that day were out of character.
“I don’t know what happened there unless she was fearful for her life,” Wilcox said.
Though officials have said Bryant’s death was a tragedy, they point to laws allowing police to use deadly force to protect themselves and others.
The officer’s actions were “an act of heroism” with tragic results, said the National Fraternal Order of Police president, “yet another demonstration of the impossible situations” police face.
About the same time the radio brought the news of Chauvin’s verdict to Columbus, two officers in San Antonio were confronting a man on a bus. Exactly how the encounter started remains unclear, but police say the unidentified man was armed. It ended with officers firing fatal shots.
Later that evening in the same city, authorities say a man killed a person working in a shed outside his home. As officers arrived, the suspect started shooting at police. They returned fired, killing him. Officials have not released his name.
Phet Gouvonvong, 31, called 911 and claimed to have a bomb he threatened to set off, police said. Officers found him on the street. They said he was wearing body armor and had a backpack and what appeared to be a rifle.
A police SWAT team joined negotiators. One reached Gouvonvong by phone to try to calm him, officials say.
Around midnight, officials say, Gouvonvong moved toward police, and an officer opened fire.
Gouvonvong was pronounced dead at the scene. Police have not said whether he actually had an explosive device.
Gouvonvong had run-ins with police over the years, including a conviction for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, but an aunt said he turned his life around, the Telegram & Gazette newspaper reported.
On Thursday, his mother crumpled onto the street in tears where flowers had been laid at the site of his killing. Marie Gonzalez told the newspaper she had called police Tuesday night to try to connect with her son but they wouldn’t put her through. She believed she could have prevented it.
“They had no right taking my son’s life,” she said. “They had no right.”
The next morning, as people in Minneapolis awakened to a city boarded up for unrest that never materialized, a 42-year-old Black man in eastern North Carolina was shot and killed when deputy sheriffs tried to serve drug-related search and arrest warrants.
An eyewitness has said Andrew Brown Jr. was shot dead in his car in Elizabeth City as he tried to drive away. A car authorities removed from the scene appeared to have multiple bullet holes and a shattered back window.
Relatives described Brown as a doting father who always had a joke to tell. He also had a difficult life. His mother was killed when he was young, he was partially paralyzed on his right side by an accidental shooting and lost an eye in a stabbing, according to an aunt, Glenda Brown Thomas.
He also had troubles with the law, including a misdemeanor drug possession conviction and some pending felony drug charges. The day before he was killed, two arrest warrants were issued for him on drug-related charges including possession with intent to sell cocaine, court records show.
Officers have so far said little about why they fired, but his family is determined to get answers.
“The police didn’t have to shoot my baby,” said another aunt, Martha McCullen.
That same morning, police in Southern California got a call about someone hitting cars with a metal pole. The man ran off when police arrived, but another officer spotted him carrying a 2-foot metal pole in the street.
The white man charged at the officer, who ordered him to drop the pole before opening fire, police said.
Police in Escondido, near San Diego, have not released the man’s name, but did say he had been arrested nearly 200 times over the past two decades for violent assaults on police and the public, drug charges and other crimes. Efforts to get him help from mental health professionals hadn’t worked, the police chief said.
Whether any officers will face charges in these shootings remains to be seen.
Chauvin was largely convicted based on video that showed him pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Police shootings in a heated moment are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Juries have generally been reluctant to second-guess officers when they claim to have acted in life-or-death situations.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s verdict, prosecutors on opposite coasts announced opposite decisions on whether to advance charges against law enforcement who killed.
A Florida prosecutor announced Wednesday he would not pursue charges against a Brevard County Sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed two Black teenagers; a California prosecutor announced manslaughter and assault charges against a deputy in the eastern San Francisco Bay area in the shooting of an unarmed Filipino man.
None of these cases has focused attention like the trial that came to a conclusion Tuesday. Some people hold out hope that the Chauvin verdict might be a crucial juncture in the national conversation about race, policing and the use of force.
“We are in a moment of reckoning,” said Rachael Rollins, district attorney for Boston and surrounding communities and the first woman of color to serve as a top county prosecutor in Massachusetts.
“If we can be strategic and come together,” she said, “we can make profound changes, profound.”
Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland, Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, Julie Watson in San Diego and Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed to this report, as did Farnoush Amiri in Columbus, Ohio. Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Her motivations were simple enough. You could even call them pure.
“It wasn’t right,” said Darnella Frazier, who was 17 last year when she saw George Floyd pinned under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee. She said that to the jury last month as she testified in the murder trial of that former officer, Derek Chauvin.
No, Darnella, it wasn’t right, a Hennepin County jury agreed on Tuesday, finding Chauvin guilty of second- and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter.
After so many previous instances in which police officers were acquitted of what looked to many people like murder, this time was different. And it was different, in some significant portion, because of a teenager’s sense of right and wrong.
Call it a moral core.
On May 25, while taking her younger cousin on a stroll to get a snack, the high school student observed a struggle between a Black man and White police officer. After ushering the child into the convenience store, Cup Foods, Frazier stayed on the sidewalk and started recording.
We’ve seen the images of her there on the scene in her loosefitting blue pants, her hoodie and her flip-flops, eventually joined again by her little cousin in a mint-green shirt that read “Love.” Frazier just stood there, resolutely, holding her phone. Later, she posted a video clip of about 10 minutes to Facebook.
That video clip, now seen millions of times around the world, was a powerful, irrefutable act of bearing witness.
The video, showing most of the nine minutes and 29 seconds of Floyd gasping and ultimately drawing his last breath under Chauvin’s knee, was something that couldn’t be explained away.
The video became what one network legal analyst, Sunny Hostin, called “the star witness for the prosecution.”
In conversation with ABC’s David Muir last week, Hostin called it “the strongest piece of evidence I have ever seen in a case against a police officer.”
Over the months that followed Floyd’s death, Frazier hasn’t given any speeches. But she gave an interview or two. And every time I’ve seen or heard her quoted, I’ve been struck by a few things.
She is soft-spoken and understated, not trying to draw any particular attention to herself. She may have been troubled by the experience but remains clearheaded about what she saw and what it meant.
On the witness stand late last month, she also had this to say about Floyd, whom she did not know:
“He was suffering. He was in pain. . . . It seemed like he knew it was over for him. . . . He was terrified.”
And like so many of the other young Black people who took the stand in the trial, Frazier could see in him her own family members. In some way, he represented them: They were, she said, her father, her uncle, her brother.
A few months ago, Frazier found herself accepting an award from PEN America, the free-speech advocacy organization. Filmmaker Spike Lee presented it to her in a virtual ceremony noting that the award was given to recognize courage. Luminaries including Rita Dove and Meryl Streep offered kind words to the young woman from hundreds of miles away. Law professor Anita Hill — famous for accusing a soon-to-be Supreme Court justice of sexual harassment nearly 30 years ago — spoke to Darnella Frazier, too.
“Your quick thinking and bravery under immense pressure has made the world safer and more just,” Hill said. Like the others, Hill added: “Thank you.”
Again, Frazier was quiet but centered when she spoke: “I never would imagine out of my whole 17 years of living that this will be me,” she said. “It’s just a lot to take in, but I couldn’t say thank you enough.”
But it was Frazier’s early interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that has most lingered in my mind, even more than the testimony she so movingly delivered from the witness stand. She explained that she felt compelled to hit “record” because she was seeing something completely unacceptable.
She may have felt helpless. She couldn’t pull Chauvin off Floyd’s neck, but this was something she could do.
“The world needed to see what I was seeing,” she said.