Not every Black man or woman killed in America at the hands or knees or guns of police officers gains the iconic status of George Perry Floyd Jr. Not even close to every family that has suffered after the brutal violence inflicted by those whose job it is to uphold and enforce the law sees the perpetrators tried by a jury. Of those who do, not enough see the justice system — judges, juries, police witnesses — come through for them.
Tuesday’s guilty verdict for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd represents the hope that this kind of justice — however slim, however frail, however anomalous, however rare — for those killed by abusive, law-breaking police officers can actually be served somewhere and somehow in America.
That’s what this verdict confirms is possible — even amid an epidemic of racial hatred, even with white supremacist extremists designated as the country’s gravest domestic terror threat, even amid the codes of silence and complicity that poison police culture, even amid the lack of accountability in police union contracts and in state and local and national laws that shield police officers from facing consequences when they violate their sacred duty to protect their communities rather than harm them. For people of color in the United States foremost — but for all who believe in equal justice under the law — that the legal system would confirm what they knew to be Derek Chauvin’s blatant guilt is no small matter.
But the fact that it took a case of such sheer depravity to overcome the obstacles to justice is also a reminder of the routine betrayal and injustice of the American justice system when it comes to Black people killed by police. Officer violence is often rationalized and goes unpunished amid a lack of video footage or the absence of witnesses willing to talk (including fellow officers who protect their own instead of the public), even when the victim was running away, armed only with a knife, or was not even the suspect being sought. Shootings are rationalized as accidents or as stemming from some perceived threat. The officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Breonna Taylor faced no charges. It’s no shock that so many people expected that even this obvious case of a police officer killing a man in broad daylight by pinning him to the ground with his knee on his neck for more than nine minutes might turn out a verdict of not guilty. Americans — from Black and brown communities, from police departments, from cities big and small — have become accustomed to the failures of the justice system to hold police accountable and have begun to anticipate it, and even expect it.
The Black and brown Americans killed by police were never given the same due process for their supposed crimes before their lives were stolen from them that Derek Chauvin was just given in a long, arduous trial. They do not deserve any less justice just because their crimes might have been more severe than allegedly paying with a counterfeit bill, or because the officers who harmed them used guns in a snap judgment rather than knelt on their necks callously in broad daylight on display for smartphone cameras. They didn’t deserve to die even if they, like Daunte Wright, were not “compliant” with police officers. (Wright was shot outside of Minneapolis by a police officer during the Chauvin trial.) They didn’t deserve to die even if they were running away like 13-year-old Adam Toledo, killed with his hands up by a Chicago police officer, also during the Chauvin trial. Those people, like all people, deserved to live — all deserved the due process that the justice system offered Derek Chauvin.
An America that allowed them to live, that took away the de facto permission that police have to commit acts of unjust violence — that prevented the next Wright or Toledo or Garner or Taylor from being killed — would be an America where the word justice could be whispered, no longer as a joke to half its citizens or a fictional dream of its Founders, but as a reality. That’s what must happen in George Floyd’s name.
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