The verdict is in: At least one Black life did matter.
That George Floyd’s life had to be lost first — with a police officer’s knee, which might as well have been a boot, grinding into his neck — is no less a tragedy. But the verdict still holds. The question facing the country now is where the verdict will lead us.
Would Derek Chauvin have been pronounced guilty on all counts in that Minneapolis courtroom without the nine minutes and 29 seconds of stomach-turning video?
Of course not.
Would we have ever gotten to this verdict without hundreds of thousands of Americans having first erupted in righteous anger, demanding that we see not just the awful video, but also the deadly costs of racism in America?
Almost certainly not.
There was a demand for justice, or at least accountability, and this once it was heard. Which, as Elijah McClain’s family could tell you and as so many other families could tell you, is not necessarily the way to bet.
For Floyd’s death to matter, though, this has to be a starting place. That may seem like an obvious thing to say — that the focus on racial injustice and biased policing would naturally proceed from this point — but it’s not. History tells us it’s not.
We don’t have to go very far back in history to understand what we’re up against. Three cops stood by, or, in some cases, helped lean on Floyd, as he was being murdered. Were they all bad cops? In the days leading up to the verdict, Duante Wright was shot and killed on a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb when the cop pulled out a gun instead of a Taser. Or at least that’s how the story goes. It doesn’t make Wright any less dead.
The problem, as they say, is systemic. The problem has such deep roots, roots that are hundreds of years old, that it will take more than a few laws — although laws would help — and more than a few more instances of police accountability— although that would help, too— to make things right.
How many names of Black or Latino men or women — or in the case of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy — have been added to the list of those who lost their lives at the hands of police? According to the Washington Post, police have shot and killed 400 unarmed people since 2015. In Minneapolis, police are seven times more likely to use force against Black people than whites.
The truth is that Derek Chauvin was easy to convict. He was the ideal villain. He not only pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd until he was dead, but he kept pressing even after Floyd was dead. He not only ignored the pleas from the crowd to stop and to, yes, let Floyd breathe, Chauvin glared at those helpless bystanders with a look that said there was absolutely nothing they could do to him.
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When Chauvin’s attorney asked if we thought that Chauvin would have killed George Floyd if he knew there were cameras everywhere, from body cams to cell phones, we knew the answer. It’s a resounding yes. We’ve seen too many videos of Black men killed by police without cops being held responsible. The victims’ families sometimes win civil suits — you’ve seen the numbers given out by the City of Denver — but that’s not justice. That’s just money.
So, we have the case of Derek Chauvin. I don’t know how many times you’ve seen cops willingly testifying against cops, but it’s more than rare. And yet, in this one case, they did. I mean, even the chief of police did. No one was ready to come to Chauvin’s defense unless they were being paid to. But we shouldn’t think that he’s some kind of outlier. We’d have to guess that Chauvin has been a rogue cop for years. It’s not just a matter of good cops vs. bad cops, though. The fact is there’s a police culture that allows cops of any stripe to step over the line without fear of being held accountable.
And yet, this was that one time when outrage had to be heard. It’s a combination of factors. This was the time that Mitt Romney — and I’m not picking on Romney, I’m just saying — marched with Black Lives Matter. This was the time when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he should have listened to Colin Kaepernick when Kaepernick took that famous knee, years before we had to watch, and watch again, and watch yet again, Derek Chauvin’s knee. It seemed that everyone, at least all the non-Trumpists, were on board.
This is the time we heard — I mean, actually heard — that a man died because he apparently tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. And so Chauvin was convicted. It happened quickly. The prosecutor had told the jury that they had only to believe their eyes, and that the truth would be clear.
It was. And they did. What else could they do? Even Joe Biden, seriously overstepping a few boundaries along the way, had said he was hoping the jury would come to the “right” decision.
Apparently, the jurors were no less moved than all those who protested after Floyd’s death. Yes, sometimes the protests got violent— as they almost certainly would have if Chauvin hadn’t been convicted— but the police responded with violence, too. That’s not the story here, though, any more than Donald Trump’s protest-clearing photo-op walk to that church is the story. And the story certainly isn’t the faux outrage at something Maxine Waters said.
For there to be anything like a satisfying ending to the real story, there must be real change. In the wake of protests, we did see the Colorado legislature pass some police reform that had actual teeth to it. Of course, there should be more.
At the same time, there’s a George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that has twice passed in the Democratic House and has stalled each time in the Senate because Republicans are happy to let things begin and end with Derek Chauvin. The bill shouldn’t be controversial. It calls for demilitarizing the police, for reform in police immunity, for banning chokeholds, for limiting no-knock warrants and more reforms along those lines.
But as Republican leaders know, to pass the bill would be to admit there’s a problem. Admitting there’s a problem is the starting point, of course. There will be no progress without it. And I’ll just go back to the prosecutor on this one: All that it takes to understand the problem is to believe your eyes.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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