(CNN) — President Joe Biden welcomed Tuesday’s guilty verdict in the murder trial of a former Minneapolis police officer but said the outcome was “too rare” for the country to turn away now from issues of systemic racism.
“I can’t breathe. Those were George Floyd’s last words,” Biden said, evoking the final utterance of the man Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering. “We can’t let those words die with him. We have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away. We can’t turn away.”
“This can be a moment of significant change,” he concluded.
It was a stark reflection on the state of race and policing from a President who, following Floyd’s death last spring, centered his presidential campaign on a vow to address issues of inequality and systemic bias.
Tuesday’s verdict brought those issues to the fore in the biggest way since Biden entered office. The President had been monitoring the trial closely from the White House, carefully calibrating his planned response to address the outcome while acknowledging the continued trauma in Black communities.
He had been concerned about the potential for unrest in the event of a not-guilty verdict, leading to relief when the conviction came down.
“We were watching every second of this,” he told Floyd’s family in a phone call shortly after the verdict was read aloud in the courtroom. “We’re all so relieved.”
In his remarks a few hours later from the White House foyer, Biden called systemic racism “a stain on our nation’s soul” and said he was heartened by the jury’s verdict, the testimony of other police officers against Chauvin throughout the trial and the collective realization about the reality of systemic racism worldwide that has taken place since Floyd’s death.
But Biden recognized that none of that progress, or Chauvin being found guilty, would bring Floyd back.
“Nothing can ever bring their brother, their father back, but this can be a giant step forward in the march towards justice in America,” Biden said.
The President called a guilty verdict like the one rendered Tuesday “much too rare” and said it was “not enough” to cure all of society’s problems.
“For so many people it seems like it took a unique and extraordinary convergence of factors. A brave young woman with a smartphone camera. A crowd that was traumatized,” Biden said, making note that the murder lasted “almost 10 minutes.”
“Black men, in particular, have been treated throughout the course of our history as less than human. Their lives must be valued in — our nation. Full stop,” Biden added.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who spoke ahead of the President, said lawmakers now need to take up legislation that will reform policing in America, calling it a part of Floyd’s legacy.
“Today, we feel a sigh of relief. Still, it cannot take away the pain. A measure of justice is not the same as equal justice,” Harris said, calling for passage of a policing bill named for Floyd that she had helped sponsor as a senator.
The White House said Biden, Harris and staff watched the verdict from the Private Dining Room adjacent to the Oval Office in the West Wing. A senior administration official later described the reaction inside room as “a collective exhale. From everyone. Then the collective recognition that so much more work needs to be done. But overall just a sweeping sense of relief.”
After the verdict was announced, Biden, Harris and first lady Jill Biden spoke with Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, from the Oval Office. Biden also spoke with Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
In his call to Floyd’s family, Biden said, “Nothing is going to make it all better, but at least now there’s some justice.”
He said he would bring the family to the White House and quoted Floyd’s daughter Gianna, who told Biden at her father’s memorial that he would change the world.
“He’s going to start to change it now,” Biden said on the call.
Harris added, “History will look back at this moment and see it as an inflection moment.”
The White House had been monitoring the trial over the past several days, and did not plan travel outside of Washington for Biden this week as closing arguments got underway. Officials had signaled Biden was likely to address the outcome when a verdict was reached.
On Tuesday, planned remarks on his infrastructure proposal were scrapped to make way for his statement on the trial.
Speechwriters had prepared different versions for various outcomes in the trial, though all of them included acknowledgment of the outpouring prompted by Floyd’s death, officials said. Aides had worked on the presidential statement over the past week or so.
Earlier Tuesday, Biden had said he was “praying the verdict is the right verdict” and suggested there was ample evidence for the jurors to consider as they determined whether Chauvin was guilty.
“It’s overwhelming, in my view,” Biden said in the Oval Office, where he was meeting with Hispanic lawmakers. “I wouldn’t say that unless the jury was sequestered.”