Like many people, I was greatly relieved at the outcome of the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty on all three counts for the murder of George Floyd last May. While, like many, I feared the worst – i.e. that Chauvin would be set free or there would be hung jury – I hoped that what the world watched – Chauvin sitting on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 43 seconds – would be enough evidence to convict him. As I awaited the announcement of the verdict, I was struck by how almost every African American who was interviewed, both on the street and in the TV studio, did not believe Chauvin would be convicted. And even after the verdict was announced, while most people – Black and white – expressed relief and satisfaction – I was struck by how many African Americans stated that this was just one case of one police officer, and did not represent a significant change in police-African American relations. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong wrote, for many African Americans “Tuesday’s verdict is like a proverbial Band-Aid on a bullet wound.” As Armstrong went on to say the verdict was “a cause for exhaling – whoosh – but we’re not done.”
Later Tuesday evening I was in conversation with a group of people who expressed that the verdict might signal hope for change. Likewise, many media commentators stressed that perhaps Chauvin’s guilty verdict would send a message to police precincts around the country. And yet minutes before Chauvin’s verdict was announced a troubled 16-year-old girl in foster care wielding a knife was shot and killed by officers in Columbus, Ohio. In that case and the killing of Daunte Wright (also in Minnesota), as well as the countless other police shootings of Black and Brown people, it would appear that message has not gotten through.
I think of hope not so much as something one receives, but rather something one moves toward and works for. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire put it this way; God gives us the vision of what the world can be, our job is to work to make that vision a reality. Some critics have challenged those who said that “justice was done” in the Chauvin case, by asking would justice have been done if Chauvin had been set free? Absolutely not. The pessimism that many African Americans had prior to the verdict’s announcement is rooted in a 400+ year history of American political and social disenfranchisement of People of Color, and a justice system that has repeatedly denied Black and Brown and Native and Asian people due process under the law.
I can still remember when George Zimmerman, the man who killed 17-year old Trayvon Martin in February 2012, was acquitted of any wrongdoing even though he was armed and Martin was not, and he admitted to killing him. Unfortunately, there was no bystander to film the incident, as was done in the George Floyd case. Had there not been incontrovertible visual evidence of Chauvin’s actions, would he have walked too? If the Zimmerman case is any indication, probably so.
One of my dilemmas throughout this trial is that while I believed Chauvin to be guilty of killing George Floyd, I do not believe our criminal justice brings real closure and justice to both survivors and the one culpable for the crime. Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison said as much following the trial:
I would not call today’s verdict “justice”, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice. And now the cause of justice is in your hands. And when I say your hands, I mean the hands of the people of the United States.
Like Ellison, I believe justice brings restoration and healing and as a nation, and especially as white Americans, we have a long way to go toward owning up to both our history and current inaction which has contributed to the disproportionate arrests, incarceration, and killings of Black and Brown people in our society. For me what comes next is a commitment to continue to work and advocate for true and fully restorative justice in our cities, in our neighborhoods, in our policies, in our practices, and in our nation as a whole.