Hours after indicating that he felt that the evidence for conviction was “overwhelming” in the murder trial of a former Minneapolis police officer, President Joe Biden called the death of George Floyd “murder in the full light of day” in an address to the nation, calling for swift passage of the police reform legislation that bears Floyd’s name.
“George Floyd was murdered almost a year ago. There is meaningful police reform legislation in his name,” Biden said, speaking from the White House on Tuesday evening. “It shouldn’t take a whole year to get this done.”
The president’s address came after a Minnesota jury voted to convict Derek Chauvin on all counts for the murder of Floyd, a Black man who died after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes last May. Floyd’s death, captured on video by a bystander who later testified against Chauvin, ignited nationwide unrest last summer and sparked the largest racial justice protest movement in decades.
“‘I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words,” Biden said. “We can’t let those words die with him—we have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away. We can’t turn away.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking before Biden, acknowledged that Chauvin’s conviction was a step in the right direction for police accountability, but far from enough.
“Today we feel a sigh of relief. Still, it cannot take away the pain. A measure of justice isn’t the same as equal justice,” Harris said. “We still have work to do.”
Harris called for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which she introduced as a senator last year, which she said “would hold law enforcement accountable and help build trust between law enforcement and our communities.”
The act, Harris said, would be “part of George Floyd’s legacy… not as a panacea for every problem, but as a start.”
The bill has strong Democratic support in both chambers of Congress, but faces a tough road ahead in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans have vowed to filibuster the legislation.
Earlier on Tuesday, Biden indicated his support for Chauvin’s conviction, telling reporters after an Oval Office meeting with Latino lawmakers that he was “praying the verdict is the right verdict.”
“It’s overwhelming, in my view,” Biden said of the evidence against Chauvin, in response to a question about what he would say to the Floyd family ahead of the jury’s decision.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki later told reporters that Biden was not weighing in on the verdict, as it would appear, but instead “conveying what many people are feeling across the country, which is compassion for the family, what a difficult time this is, what a difficult time this is for many Americans across the country who have been watching this trial very closely.”
In a phone call with members of the Floyd family, Biden, joined by first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, promised that he would push for passage of the criminal justice reform bill that bears Floyd’s name—calling it one of the best chances the nation has to combat racial injustice in law enforcement.
“We’ve got a shot to change the world, for real,” Biden said.
On Capitol Hill, Black lawmakers watched the trial closely, and many feared that an acquittal on some or all of the charges would reignite racial tensions that have already been exacerbated by the recent shooting deaths by police of Daunte Wright, 20, and Adam Toledo, 13, in separate incidents.
After the verdict announcement, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and their staff gathered in a room off the House floor, huddled around laptops and phones as they awaited the judge. As he declared Chauvin guilty on each count, lawmakers sighed with relief. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat and a close Biden ally, watched with an aide on his phone. When Chauvin was taken away in handcuffs in Minneapolis, the CBC members walked out of the room, hugging and locking arms as they walked outside to a press conference.
One CBC member, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), said the mood among his colleagues was one of emotional relief, but mostly recognition at how much deeply-rooted injustice and systemic racism remains. “The mood is pretty somber, man,” said Bowman. “I mean, maybe a slight sense of relief, but more like, there’s still so much work to do, and still thinking about how many people did not get justice.”
The freshman lawmaker, a former school principal in the Bronx who has spoken of his own beating at the hands of police, said it was “surreal” to take in the verdict from within the halls of Congress. “To stand there with the entire CBC, Speaker Pelosi, to collectively give remarks on the verdict is surreal,” he said. “Even I was moved by my colleagues—like, tears.”