TIFTON – South Georgia residents are voicing their opinions on the murder conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer in a case that sparked protests around the world.
Derek Chauvin, 45, a white, former police officer, was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25, 2020, after being arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Video from a bystander showed Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes as Floyd gasped “I can’t breath.”
The incident fueled the Black Lives Matter movement and led to demonstrations across the U.S.
Tift County Commissioner Melissa Hughes, District 2, said she is pleased with the guilty verdict but surprised, adding she sees this as a rare instance where a police officer is convicted.
"Maybe this is the beginning to a big eye opener," Hughes said. "There is still a lot of work to do and a long way to go. Building the bridge over this divide will not only take African Americans but also Caucasians to come together and say enough is enough. When Caucasians start calling out other Caucasians and saying 'we are not going to let our brothers and sisters go through this,' only then will we see a change."
Hughes said the black community has been demanding change for more than 400 years and said it still hasn't happened.
Hughes used an analogy to explain how the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis impacts communities in South Georgia.
"It is like with a flower," Hughes said. "You can plant a flower in one place but if it's a running bush, it doesn't just stay there, it moves. Just because it happened to George Floyd where it happened, it impacts all of us because we are all brothers and sisters of color."
In an unrelated interview, prior to the guilty verdict, Tifton Police Chief Steve Hyman said his department wants to hire people with tolerance for diversity and committed to seeing a better community. Currently, the Tifton Police Department is hiring new officers.
"If you want to see a change in law enforcement, now is your chance to be that change," Hyman said.
Shortly after the verdict was announced, Valdosta State University President Dr. Richard Carvajal issued a statement via social media on behalf of not only himself but the university.
“The death of Georgia Floyd was a defining moment in the modern civil rights and social justice movements. It has forced all of us to confront difficult realities and has led to an awakening regarding race relations. I stand with our students, faculty, staff and alumni today who continue to feel angry and hurt by the division in our country. It is my hope that today’s verdict is an important step toward ensuring that every life has value. I commit to you that VSU will continue our work to educate on diversity, enhance equity and embrace inclusivity on our campus.”
Valdosta City Councilman Eric Howard said the verdict brought a sense of relief for a lot of people for different reasons. Maybe it's not having to worry about protests or maybe it shows justice does exist.
Still it's not necessarily the happiest of moments, he said.
"I'm happy with the guilty verdict but I'm still not happy with any of this because I want to find out what makes people OK to treat another human being likes this," Howard said. "That's what's so troubling to me."
The guilty verdict is something to celebrate, he said, but Floyd's family will still never get him back.
Howard said utilizing their badges and loaded guns, some police officers are empowered, but without them they probably wouldn't open their mouths. Howard called them cowards if they didn't have the badge and questioned why that's still part of policing.
"(Chauvin) had so many strikes against him. Why is he continuously allowed to be a police officer," Howard said. "It's nice to have a guilty verdict but we have bigger problems in this country when it comes to policing and use of force."
Chauvin's guilty verdict is a step in the right direction – a baby step, but still a right step, Howard said.
"You see what they had to charge him with; it wasn't a first degree murder charge," he said. "(But) I think people are starting to get it."
In the wake of the verdict, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office already has policies in place to prevent such incidents.
“We have had policies in place against excessive use of force and dealing with public interactions since the mid-1990s,” he said.
The sheriff said he couldn’t voice an opinion on Chauvin’s trial as all he knew about the case was what he saw in the news.