Close to 200 people gathered outside the City-County Building in downtown Knoxville Monday evening to remember George Floyd. Some carried signs that quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. One quoted pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells. Attending the vigil was a good first step, three public defenders said, but it could not be the only step.
“The purpose of us coming [here] is to stand in solidarity with other public defenders across the country to recognize the criminal justice system has been unjust -- and has been so pervasive in that unjustness – to minorities and people of color…since the founding of this country,” Aerial Carter said.
Carter and fellow public defenders Tyler Cavaniss and Nakeisha Jackson spoke to the crowd before an eight-minute, forty-six-second silent vigil – the length of time Floyd said he could not draw sufficient breath as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck on May 25. The message Monday was clear: awareness is a start, but action is required for substantive change.
“Perhaps for people who are not working in the criminal justice system, who don’t know anyone working in the criminal justice system, it seems really difficult and foreign to get involved,” Cavaniss said. “Many of the leaders in the criminal justice system are elected officials. They represent the people of Knox County. That’s the first line of people we should be talking to…and they should listen.”
Cavaniss’ remarks reflected a developing national tone since Floyd’s death, in which people of all races appear to be fed up with repeated instances of police disproportionately taking extreme steps in encounters with black people. Some polling data has indicated a shift in white Americans’ perceptions of police procedures in the weeks since Floyd’s death. A Monmouth University poll released June 2 said 49 percent of white respondents thought excessive force was more likely to be used against black suspects than white ones. Only 25 percent of white respondents felt that way in 2016. The audience at Monday’s vigil was majority white.
“I think that we’ve reached a tipping point, where people see this not just as an issue about law enforcement and policing, but as systemic racism in our country, and people want to fix the underlying issues,” Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon told WUOT News before the vigil began.
A WUOT News analysis of 2018 Knoxville Police Department data showed force was used in a small fraction of total arrests. But black suspects were subject to force more often than white suspects, and at a rate disproportionately high to the city’s total black population.
Some law enforcements agencies and city governments are reacting quickly to the shifting public tide. Chattanooga police officers are now required to intervene when a fellow officer breaks the law or acts improperly. Kincannon ordered a review of KPD’s current use-of-force policy, and she told WUOT recommendations may be ready for the city’s council’s consideration as early as next week.
The Monday evening vigil at the City-County Building was aimed beyond raising awareness. The public defenders who organized the event said reform within the justice system is needed. Even if Floyd had lived, public defender Tyler Cavaniss said, challenging the officer’s actions in court would have been a lengthy process stacked against Floyd and could have created legal precedent for preserving extreme physical steps in the array of tools law enforcement can use when dealing with a suspect.
A judge’s decision to uphold the use of force becomes a benchmark, Cavaniss said. “It’s precedent. So any time from here on out where an officer or a group of officers holds a black man on the ground for nine minutes to get him to comply, they will always cite this decision, where one judge said it was okay.”
Kincannon and her husband, University of Tennessee law professor Ben Barton, attended the vigil. So did Knox County Public Defender Eric Lutton and former county public defender Mark Stephens, who helped launch the office in 1990. Before candles were lit and the nine-minute silence began, Cavaniss urged those in attendance to think about long-term reform.
“We have to take this opportunity as a legal community and as the public to look…at the operation of our own criminal justice system, and we need to decide that it’s no longer good enough to just say, ‘This is how we’ve always done it. This is how we’re going to continue to do it.’”