Biden Says U.S. Needs to Work to End Systemic Racism
President Biden said the conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer in the killing of George Floyd is a “giant step forward in the march toward justice in America,” but said the nation needed to stamp out systemic racism.
Mr. Biden, in a Tuesday night address from the White House hours after a jury convicted Derek Chauvin on all three counts against him, said most members of law enforcement “serve their communities honorably.” However, he added, “no one should be above the law, and today’s verdict sends that message. But it’s not enough. We can’t stop here.”
Mr. Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, invoked the final words of Mr. Floyd, a Black man who died after the police officer pressed his knee against Mr. Floyd’s neck for several minutes. The incident was captured on video that went viral, leading to widespread protests last year.
“‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ Those are George Floyd’s last words. We can’t let those words die with him,” Mr. Biden said. “We have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away, we can’t turn away. We have a chance to begin to change the trajectory in this country.”
During the three-week trial, prosecutors sought to prove that Mr. Chauvin, who is white, acted recklessly when he knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, killing him. The defense countered that Mr. Chauvin was reasonably restraining Mr. Floyd, a Black man, when he died of a sudden heart attack fueled by clogged arteries and drugs.
Before his address to the nation, Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris and first lady Jill Biden called Mr. Floyd’s family after the jury’s verdict.
“Nothing is going to make it all better. But at least, God, now there is some justice,” Mr. Biden said in the phone call, a video of which was released by the Floyd family’s attorney, Ben Crump. Mr. Biden said he was thinking of the comments made by Mr. Floyd’s daughter, Gianna, who said after Mr. Floyd’s death that “Daddy is going to change the world.”
“[Mr. Floyd’s] going to start to change it now,” Mr. Biden said, adding he was “so relieved…guilty on all three counts.” Ms. Harris also spoke with family members, telling them: “This is a day of justice in America.”
Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris watched the verdict with White House staff in the president’s private dining room. The White House said following the announcement of the verdict, Mr. Biden also spoke with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat.
Mr. Biden called on Congress to confirm two top Justice Department officials who he has nominated— Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke —and to pass legislation on policing reform named after Mr. Floyd. The two nominees have worked on civil rights issues.
In her remarks, Ms. Harris said the legislation to overhaul the nation’s law-enforcement practices “would hold law enforcement accountable and help build trust between law enforcement and our communities.” She added, “this bill is part of George Floyd’s legacy. The president and I will continue to urge the Senate to pass this legislation, not as a panacea for every problem, but as a start.”
Earlier in the day, Mr. Biden said he was praying for the “right verdict” in the trial of Mr. Chauvin.
“I think it’s overwhelming in my view. I wouldn’t say that, but the jury is sequestered now,” he said, adding that Mr. Floyd’s family was “calling for peace and tranquility no matter what the verdict is.”
Prior, Judge Peter Cahill, the Minnesota judge presiding over Mr. Chauvin’s trial, said he wished politicians would avoid talking about the case after Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) urged people to “get more confrontational” if Mr. Chauvin weren’t convicted. The judge said Ms. Waters’s comments may have given the defense grounds for an appeal.
At the daily White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki was pressed by reporters on whether the president was urging a specific outcome in the trial or characterizing the evidence in the case.
She didn’t directly answer but said that Mr. Biden had waited until the jury was sequestered to offer his comments. She said repeatedly that the president believed “there should be space for peaceful protest” and “that will be his point of view regardless of the outcome.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) criticized the remarks by Mr. Biden and Ms. Waters.
“Sometimes a fair trial is difficult under these circumstances,” he told reporters. “But it is certainly not helpful for a member of Congress and even the president of the United States to appear to be weighing in, in public, while the jury is trying to sort through this significant case.”
The national attention on the trial presented Mr. Biden with an opportunity to discuss race relations during his first 100 days.
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Biden traveled to Houston to meet with Mr. Floyd’s family before the June funeral. Mr. Biden frequently spoke of Mr. Floyd’s death last summer, pointing to the episode as a sign of the nation’s need to have a reckoning on issues of race and police brutality.
Senior White House aides had been in touch with civil-rights leaders and local leaders in Minnesota and across the country ahead of the verdict.
The trial draws comparisons to challenging racial incidents faced by some of Mr. Biden’s predecessors. President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black leader, grappled with a series of deadly shootings, including the killing of nine people at a Black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
President George H.W. Bush was confronted with riots in Los Angeles following the 1992 acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King.