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Derek Chauvin verdict not a celebratory moment for the NBA

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An NBA on hiatus sprung into activism after the police officer murdered George Floyd.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If it happened, that it would occur so quickly seemed improbable, but it was the first sign that times could be changing.

The jury in the trial of Derek Chauvin gathered for ten and a half hours of deliberation over what the world watched in horror in May. They had it replayed and explained for them by prosecutors and witnesses over more than a month, as the state of Minnesota tried to convict a Minneapolis police officer for murdering a Black man for the first time. The evidence proved overwhelming and Chauvin was swiftly convicted on all three counts, but history weighed heavier on the NBA, Twin Cities, and America in the hours leading up to the verdict.

A sheriff’s deputy concluded the heaviest year of racial reckoning in US history since 1968 by handcuffing Chauvin and leading him to a Minnesota state prison at Oak Park Heights to await sentencing. Organizers outside the courthouse erupted in applause after hearing three guilty verdicts read by Judge Peter Cahill that affirmed Chauvin’s role and will send him to prison for at least a decade.

The notion that accountability is possible for police wrongdoing sparked celebration, but was only dulled by the reality that nothing will bring Floyd back to this world — his joys, passions and humanity, his triumphs and failures. Players and staff around the NBA now turn toward what’s next in the pursuit of a more just law enforcement system.

“Very happy with the verdict,” Brad Stevens said on Wednesday. “I tend to agree with everybody that says that it’s a good sign of accountability, but there’s also a lot more to do. The next big emphasis in that regard has got to be the George Floyd bill passing through the Senate.”

The Justice in Policing Act, named for Floyd and sponsored by California representative Karen Bass, would expand federal oversight over police jurisdictions with patterns of abuse, document misconduct allegations, expand camera usage, while mandating anti-discriminatory training and banning tactics like choke holds and no-knock warrants used in the killings of Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor.

The bill aims to limit the leeway officers have to use deadly force, with a focus on the demilitarization of America’s police forces that have contribute to war-like approaches to policing. It will also revoke the qualified immunity doctrine that restricts officers from civil liability for their actions.

Democrats and Republicans have both offered police reform ideas, with that doctrine among the major points of contention. Bass’ bill passed the House, largely along party lines, and awaits passage in the 50-50 Senate, where 60 votes are required due to the Senate’s filibuster rule.

“I sweated so much that I had to take a shower because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Karl-Anthony Towns said of the verdict. “Even with how quick the verdict came in, we still have no idea where it’s going to go. I was worried. I was worried for our community. I was worried justice wasn’t going to be served.”

That worry stems from the idea that courts administer law, not necessarily justice. Throughout US history, courts upheld slavery, segregation and police brutality. Other incidents caught on camera, like the LA Police Department beating of Rodney King, led to past acquittals. Taylor’s death, in the darkness of night, still handed the benefit of the doubt to police despite evident “wanton endangerment” to neighbors in the apartment building where she died from gun shot wounds delivered by multiple police officers.

A strong defense is an American’s right, including Chauvin, but so too is a court’s determination in finding guilt and administering punishment for crimes. For too many Black Americans, criminality is labeled and guilt is determined by police in the street to be used as justification for deadly force. Floyd got approached about a fake dollar bill, Daunte Wright over car tags — negligible offenses that turned into deadly encounters.

Chauvin’s defense council spoke with that latitude throughout the trial, blaming everything from onlookers to drugs to Floyd’s health conditions, before a last ditch argument that the police cruiser’s tail pipe could’ve caused the death, anything to remove culpability on Chauvin. None of those arguments were more convincing to the jury than the 9 minutes, 29 seconds video that came to symbolize a movement against police excesses. Witnesses, described by prosecutor Jerry Blackwell as a “bouquet of humanity,” explained how their lives changed that day — May 25, 2020 — and the trauma that filled the year since.

That injustice would envelope the league’s call to action last summer. The NBA bubble would also momentarily pause to reflect on the shooting and subsequent paralysis Jacob Blake suffered months later, and attack on protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The NBA, under pressure from its players, agreed to transition arenas into voting locations in the 2020 election, various teams committed money to social justice causes and the league encouraged civic engagement.

Players mulled ending the season and returning to activist roles many took on during the George Floyd protests. The league decided to continue, arguing that its greatest platform was provided by the games and their exposure. Whether or not that was true, efforts aided in part by the Atlanta Hawks ushered in the election of Joe Biden and a Democratic Senate in Georgia.

Now, activists await action from Congress and the administration, but a complicated political balancing act still exists among politicians hopeful to address systemic issues while maintaining support from the vast political pull of police at every level of government. Following the verdict, Axios reported that some within the Biden administration expect the Chauvin conviction to reduce pressure to deliver on police reform.

“I had a friend who mentioned to me that it’s a relief for all of us that it seems like just a bit of justice has been done,” Gregg Popovich said. “Imagine being a 70, 80, 90-year-old Black person who has seen so much ugly in their lives ... add COVID on top of it ... what a joy it had to be for someone like that to see this outcome in this trial. Then, I thought about it some more, I think it’s time to understand that that was maybe a victory in a war that’s got to be continued to be waged in terms of demanding equality, justice and rights.”

Popovich — a critic of police unions and supporter of ending collective bargaining for San Antonio’s police — blasted interest groups that have upheld bad policing in various communities after a Brooklyn Center officer killed Daunte Wright by mistaking her gun for her taser. He pointed out how Minneapolis police, in the initial statement announcing Floyd’s death, described it as a medical event. He questioned NBA ownership with a rhetorical question referencing where their money is going.

In September, The Ringer “found political contributions by 27 different (NBA) owners (as well as 20 significant others) over a period of more than five years. Of that $28 million total, more than $14.9 million (53.4 percent) went to Republican politicians and PAC’s, while over $12 million (43.1 percent) was directed to Democrats,” including $1,424,350 from Popovich’s boss Peter Holt since 2015. That money trail did not even include the dangerous rhetoric spewed by politicians that threatened violence against protesters and others who dismissed Black activists as paid political actors. To wit, only three Republicans in the House backed Bass’ initial George Floyd bill.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that teams were prepared to postpone games should a “not guilty” verdict be returned. Cities across the country, including Boston, boarded windows fearing vandalism as states activated the National Guard. Americans braced themselves against an acquittal, violence and more so, stagnancy for a movement that has gained so much momentum over the last year.

Tragic police shootings that killed Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago still await justice. That’s the spin cycle many Americans begrudgingly accept. There have also been a rash of mass shootings since the pandemic has seemingly started to come to a close. Tuesday was less “mission accomplished” and more “step one.”

“Now I understand how, every time I left the house when I was in high school, just as a parent my mom, all the things I didn’t realize that she had to worry about,” Jayson Tatum said after Wednesday’s practice. “Praying that I would make it home. Now I have my own son, I understand that feeling of wanting him to be safe at all times. You’ve heard the mantra, just make it home safe, and you can worry about everything else after that.”