Protesters by the thousands gathered at the Capitol for the March for Floyd on Saturday, June 6. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem residents who have pushed for police reform and racial justice said they were relieved after a Minneapolis jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd on Tuesday.

But most described the verdict as a starting point, saying more work needs to be done both locally and nationally for police reform. 

Minutes after the verdict was read, Reginald Richardson, president of the Salem-Keizer NAACP, was in tears.

“We’ve had lots of people guilty but this is the first time that I know of that there’s actually been justice,” he said. “It reminds me of the night that President Obama was elected. That was the first time in my entire life that I felt like an American. I know that I’m American, I was born here … But I never felt like I was a part until he was elected.”

Richardson said although he watched the trial and the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, he didn’t allow himself to believe the jury would convict.

“I didn’t know what I would do if they didn’t find him guilty. I’m not prepared to face what that means, what this says about what this country thinks about Black people,” he said. “I’m happy that there’s justice today.”

A jury found Chauvin guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

Floyd’s murder on May 25 sparked protests nationwide, including in Salem.

Thousands of people took to the streets in Salem on June 6 to mourn Floyd’s death and demand change. During weeks of protest over the summer, the Salem Police Department was criticized for what was perceived as a lighter touch with right wing groups and a heavier hand with racial justice protesters. 

Following the June protests, the Salem City Council called for an audit of the department that would examine, in part, officers interactions with those who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. Last month, the draft audit found police need to spend more time developing relationships with the community. 

By 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, a small group had started to gather in front of the Oregon Capitol.

Joe Smothers holds up a sign that lists people who have been killed by police in front of the Capitol on April 20, the day Derek Chauvin was convicted of George Floyd's murder. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Sig Paulson was one of a handful of people demonstrating, as one person waved a Black Lives Matter flag and another held a sign with Floyd’s face on the front. 

Paulson said he was overjoyed at the guilty verdict and hopes it’s a tipping point for police reform. 

“Because it’s not going to stop, it’s going to be a much larger fight,” he said. 

Joe Smothers, who captured the video of a Salem police officer telling a group of armed individuals how to avoid violating a citywide curfew during a summer protest, was standing in front of the Capitol Tuesday holding a sign with Floyd’s face on the front and a list of those killed by police on the back. 

He said his first thought after hearing the verdict was, “What comes next?” 

Smothers said he was surprised Chauvin was found guilty but said his conviction is a start. 

Shelaswau Crier, a Salem attorney who coordinates Oregon’s African American/Black Student Success program for the Department of Education, called the verdict “a small step in the right direction.”

But she said one verdict won’t change the fact that many of the Black students she works with across Oregon fear being targeted for violence. She pointed to a 13-year-old Black boy who was assaulted by other teens in Albany last week while being called racial slurs.

Crier formerly worked training law enforcement officers for Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training and said her work included running through scenarios where officers witness a colleague violating someone’s civil rights.

She said whether an officer would intervene to stop a murder like Floyd’s remains a concern. Seeing other police officers testify in the Chauvin trial for the prosecution gave her hope.

“We kind of wait with baited breath to see if it’s an anomaly or if it’s a first step,” she said of the conviction. She said the fact that Chauvin’s actions weren’t a split second decision made Floyd’s murder more difficult to justify.

“Are you going to look at the one that doesn’t last nine minutes or is that not just going to be egregious enough?” she said.

Ahead of Tuesday’s verdict, eight local police agencies signed on to a statement that encouraged the community to respond with peace and civility regardless of the outcome of the trial.

“We see this moment in time as a unique opportunity to come together with our communities to seek better understanding and have meaningful and productive conversations around police reform. As law enforcement professionals, we stand with you in opposition to racism and hate,” the statement read. 

The Salem Police Department, Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Keizer Police Department, Mt. Angel Police Department, Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Silverton Police Department, Stayton Police Department and Woodburn Police Department signed on. 

“Our commitment to the residents of Salem and Marion and Polk counties remains steadfast and clear. Together we can reflect upon our policies, practices, training and the ways in which we interact to reshape policing for the specific needs of our community. We will continue to work collaboratively with all members of our diverse community as we listen, learn, enhance relationships and strive for equity in the services we provide,” the statement said. 

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241. Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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