We saw that horrific video again and again. A Black man on the ground writhing in agony. Police officers inflicting harm with chilling nonchalance, not one of them doing anything to stop the ferocious assault.
I’m not talking about George Floyd. I’m talking about Rodney King.
Thirty years ago this month, a grainy video of four white cops pummeling King was supposed to change everything. After a traffic stop, King was Tased, stomped, punched, and whacked more than 50 times with batons. Here was proof at last of the police brutality Black people had called out for decades, and even portrayed in Blaxploitation classics like “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” or had been fashioned into still resonant stand-up routines by Richard Pryor. With the world as witness, justice could no longer be denied.
King survived, though he suffered skull fractures, broken bones, and permanent brain damage. What came next was even worse — the four cops were acquitted on state charges. Two of the officers who assaulted King were later convicted on federal civil rights charges, and served less than three years in prison. But the damage was already done.
Those jurors also acquitted white supremacy, which allows whiteness to operate with impunity at the expense of Black lives. What King suffered changed nothing. If it had, Floyd would probably still be alive.
So would Amadou Diallo. Patrick Dorismond. Oscar Grant. Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr. Jonathan Ferrell. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Samuel DuBose. Freddie Gray Jr. Philando Castile. John Crawford III. Rekia Boyd. Jamar Clark. Sandra Bland. La’Vante Biggs. Jonathan Sanders. Terrence Coleman. Alton Sterling. Alteria Woods. Bettie Jones. Terence Crutcher. Antwon Rose II. Stephon Clark. Elijah McClain. Daniel Prude. Breonna Taylor. And more souls than I have the room to mention.
All were killed by police or died in police custody; none received justice. That’s why it’s so hard to believe that Floyd will receive what Black people have so long been denied in America.
Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds — even longer than the often mentioned 8:46 — is the defendant. So, too, is a nation complicit both in its wanton disregard for Black lives and an aversion to accountability for police misconduct and violence.
In remarks before Monday’s opening day of Chauvin’s trial, Benjamin Crump, the ubiquitous civil rights attorney now representing Floyd’s family, called the “landmark” case “a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all.”
That was what fueled last summer’s international protests after Floyd’s killing. It wasn’t merely outrage over one Black man who died under the knee of one white police officer. It was rage over the systemic racism that too often allows police to behave in a manner that would land almost anyone else behind bars. It was the realization that, if not for cellphone video shot by witnesses, Chauvin and his fellow officers — Thomas Lane and J Alexander Kueng, who also held Floyd down, and Tou Thao, who stood between the cops and bystanders who begged for Floyd’s life — might never have been charged for what happened last Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter, Lane, Kueng, and Thao will be tried separately later this year.
Meanwhile, Floyd is being tried now. Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s defense attorney, is minimizing his client’s culpability by claiming Floyd died “of a cardiac arrhythmia” caused by drugs, preexisting conditions, and “the adrenaline flowing through his body.”
In his opening statement, Nelson claimed Chauvin “was doing exactly what he had been trained to do during the course of his 19-year career.” I wouldn’t doubt it. He was doing exactly what this nation has long sanctioned — treating Black people with indifference instead of empathy, with depravity instead of compassion.
“America is on trial,” said Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, of the case against Chauvin. “If you can’t get justice as a Black man in America for this, what can you get justice for, then?”
So here we are again waiting for the accountability that’s been historically denied. If Chauvin is convicted on the most serious charge, second-degree murder, it would not erase all systemic racism and its traumas, but it would be a small step toward justice.
Yet Black people also know that an acquittal, like those received by the officers who assaulted King, would further codify racist tyranny, give sanctuary to violent cops, and again allow America to exonerate white supremacy.