Derek Chauvin’s jury almost seemed to hold America’s fate in its hands. Because this trial was never about one death, or one police officer. Rather, the question on the docket was whether, at long last, Black lives matter.
As a nation watched Tuesday, George Floyd — a Black man murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis last year — won a measure of posthumous justice, as Chauvin was found guilty of all three counts that he faced.
The evidence that Derek Chauvin was guilty of cold-blooded murder was overwhelming. Yet there remained a nagging worry, that sense that no verdict is ever certain.
In fact, we’ve seen these cases play out in exactly the opposite way — time and time again, from Miami to Los Angeles — for decades. In communities of color, the fear that police can literally get away with murder is a palpable, everyday reality.
So when the jury deliberated 10 hours, over two days, that fear crept in, even with Suffolk County’s top prosecutor.
Rachael Rollins knew what she wanted to happen. But until late Tuesday afternoon, she wasn’t sure the jury would deliver it.
“We’ve seen quick verdicts before that resulted in acquittals,” she said. “For certain communities we have to celebrate justice, where other communities expect it, and demand it, and take it for granted.”
Chauvin killed Floyd last May 25, when he and three other officers answered a call that Floyd had attempted to use a counterfeit $20 bill. If it seems astonishing that such a minor accusation could end in the loss of a man’s life, that’s because it is.
Chauvin’s defense, such as it was, never seemed remotely persuasive.
President Biden, in a highly unusual move, essentially called for a guilty verdict Tuesday before the jury had returned, citing what he called “overwhelming” evidence.
Maybe the difference was the video. Millions saw the sickening footage of Chauvin’s knee resting so casually yet homicidally on Floyd’s neck. Chauvin looked like a man without a care in the world as he snuffed the life out of Floyd’s body. As Floyd begged him to stop, as he called for his mother.
Long before there was a trial, Floyd’s death had sparked enormous reaction. Protesters took to the streets, demanding justice, calling for accountability for misconduct, and demanding to “defund” the police.
In Boston, a movement for greater police accountability that was already underway gathered momentum. City councilors were able to negotiate a cut in the police budget. But reform here has a long way to go. Just before the Chauvin verdict was announced, the city released the records of the internal investigation of former BPD patrolman Patrick Rose, a former union president who was allowed to keep his badge for 21 years despite being credibly accused of sexually assaulting a child.
His case is an object lesson in how an entrenched police culture protects its own.
That cultural protection — that get-out-of-jail card, if you will — has routinely extended to the rare police officer whose misdeeds reach a court of law. But on Tuesday, a jury of Derek Chauvin’s peers concluded decisively that his badge could not shield him from the consequences of his actions, and a nation breathed a sigh of relief.
Rollins raises a poignant question, though: How long must Black America celebrate the justice white people take for granted? Or, to put it another way, just how far does this verdict say we have come?
“The family has some accountability, and now we as a nation have to start healing,” Rollins told me. “This is the beginning. We’ve done an about-face, but we have a lot more work to do.”
For all the sense that Chauvin is getting what he deserves, there remains a palpable sense that his case could be the exception to the usual practice of tolerating police misconduct.
“I think this was the verdict that was supposed to happen, given all of the evidence in this case,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
“That said, it still doesn’t change the way policing happens, particularly in communities of color. This is the extreme case, but there are cases that are not on video of someone pleading for their life that have the same outcome and don’t get these types of verdicts.”
Hall noted that Floyd is one of 5,000 people killed by police since 2015. He stressed that issues of transparency, accountability, and police budgets still need to be addressed.
“Hopefully, [the verdict] sends the message that we need to drastically reduce the footprint of policing in this country,” Hall said.
To Hall’s point, this case has already reshaped the debate about policing — how much we need, who should do it, and how those who do it should be held accountable.
But the verdict Tuesday represented the triumph of a less sweeping, but no less important, idea.
Derek Chauvin snuffed out Floyd’s life as if it were of no consequence whatsoever.
Tuesday, a jury reached the decisive conclusion that George Floyd’s life mattered.
Floyd — and America — deserved no less.