US President Joe Biden condemned the nation’s legacy of systemic injustice and racist violence in his call for sweeping police reform, hours after a verdict was announced for the murder of George Floyd, a Black man whose death has revived an international demand for justice for the police killings of Black Americans.
“It was a murder in full light of day and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see” systemic racism in the US, he said in remarks to the nation alongside Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House on Tuesday evening.
Mr Biden called systemic racism a “stain on our nation’s soul” after Ms Harris demanded that the lives of Americans of colour be “valued in our education system, in our healthcare system, in our housing system, in our economic system, in our criminal justice system, in our nation, full stop”.
“The knee on the neck of justice for Black Americans,” Mr Biden said, referring to now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin holding his knee into the back of Mr Floyd’s neck for nine minutes.
Chauvin, who is white, was found guilty on Tuesday of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He could face up to 40 years in prison.
The 12-person jury delivered a verdict after three weeks of testimony and 10 hours of deliberation nearly one year after Mr Floyd’s death on 25 May, 2020.
Mr Harris said systemic racism is “not just a Black American problem, or a people of colour problem – it is problem for every American”.
“It is keeping us from fulfilling the promise of liberty and justice for all, and holding our nation back from realising our full potential,” she said.
Mr Biden said that “such a verdict is much too rare for so many people” following a lack of convictions for the deaths of people killed by police.
“For so many, it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver just basic accountability,” he said.
The president and vice president watched the verdict with staff in the Private Dining Room.
He then spoke with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, then Mr Biden, Ms Harris and First Lady Jill Biden spoke briefly with members of Mr Floyd’s family.
“Nothing can ever bring their brother, their father, back, but this can be giant step forward towards justice in America,” Mr Biden said in his address.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Biden was asked during a meeting with lawmakers at the Oval Office about a separate recent phone call with the Floyd family, taking a rare moment to speak on a trial’s outcome before a jury returned a verdict.
“I’ve come to know George’s family not just in passing – I’ve spent time with them,” he said. “And so I can only imagine the pressure and anxiety they’re feeling, and so I waited until the jury was sequestered, and I called.”
He added: “They’re calling for peace and tranquility no matter what that verdict is,” he said. “I’m praying the verdict is the right verdict, which is – I think it’s overwhelming, in my view. I wouldn’t say that unless the jury was sequestered now and not hearing me say that.”
Mr Biden has sought to place racial equity at the centre of his agenda, including a proposed overhaul of American law enforcement.
After quietly abandoning plans for a White House-led national commission on police oversight, the president is rallying around the congressional passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which faces an uncertain path in an evenly divided Senate.
The legislation would aim to overhaul “qualified immunity” policies, change the threshold for permitting use of force, prohibit police chokeholds at the federal level, ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, and create a national registry of police misconduct cases under the auspices of the Justice Department, among other reforms. It does not “defund” police departments.
Mr Biden and Ms Harris urged lawmakers to get behind the bill in their address.
The president said the “measure of justice is not the same as equal justice”, echoing statements from lawmakers and officials across the US after the verdict was delivered.
Calls to dramatically reshape policing have been central to the demands of millions of protesters and civil rights groups across a year of protests, which have followed decades of organising around support for affordable housing, healthcare, child care, mental health treatment and other services in the face of mass incarceration and militarised law enforcement.
“The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push and pull for more than 240 years, a tug of war between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart,” Mr Biden said.
Reform requires “acknowledging and confronting – head on – systemic racism and the racial disparities that exist in policing and our criminal justice system more broadly,” he added.
He pointed to the appointments of civil rights bureau officials within his Justice Department, including Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, as they await confirmation in the Senate.
A federal civil rights investigation into the killing of Mr Floyd is ongoing, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Tuesday.