The jury’s verdict convicting Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd gave a taste of justice to those who have hungered for it for years.
But it did nothing to quell the fear so many of us have of interacting with police, or the need to reduce the amount of interaction Americans, particularly Black folks, have with law enforcement in everyday nonviolent situations.
The chain of violence that led to Floyd’s death began not with reports that he threatened violence or harmed anyone, but rather an allegation that he tried to pass a fake $20 bill. Even if Floyd did, he was never afforded the opportunity to be charged, mount a defense, be tried before a jury, or sentenced by a judge as Chauvin was.
The videos of Floyd’s final living moments, which were played ad nauseam during Chauvin’s trial, made clear that Floyd knew his fate would come at the hands of police. “You’re going to kill me, man,” he said.
That fear was also clear, in yet another police video, in the voice of Daunte Wright, who died last week just a few miles away after being shot by Kimberly Potter, who claims she mistook her Taser for a gun after a traffic stop spurred by Wright’s use of car air fresheners.
It’s a fear I felt when a police officer approached me last year near my then-home, just outside of Washington, D.C., as I walked my 15-year-old dog before bedtime. In an instant, a flurry of thoughts raced through my head: Would he see in the darkness that the object in my hand was a retractable dog leash and not a weapon? Did someone report a crime committed by a Black person, and am I the first one this officer encountered in my mostly white neighborhood? Would the firearm on his hip stay in its holster?
The officer admonished me for jaywalking. My elderly dog and I went home, and it took hours for me to shake off the fear and rage I felt in order for sleep to come.
That is just one example of the police doing too much. When a neighbor made a habit of revving his sports car’s engine to ear-splitting decibel levels during his daily pre-dawn commute, I eyed the car and its driver — who was Black — jotted down the plate number, and looked online to find what local agency handled noise complaints. The answer: the police department.
I didn’t call. I’d rather live with rude awakenings at 5 a.m. than live with the fear that I might be the initiator of another police pullover that would leave another Black man dead.
Research shows my fears were well-founded. A study by the Stanford Open Policing Project found that, of nearly 100 million traffic stops, Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to get pulled over than white drivers.
Add that to research that shows that Black Americans, particularly men, are viewed as larger and more threatening than they actually are, and it’s clear to see how each of those interactions can be fairly seen as a potentially deadly encounter for Black people.
Chauvin’s defense relied almost entirely on this racist trope of the inherent dangerousness of Black men. We heard about Floyd’s drug use making him more dangerous, even giving him potentially “superhuman” strength. We heard about his weight and height, both of which exceeded Chauvin’s, as justification for the officer’s knee on his neck, even after Floyd lost consciousness. We heard that Floyd brought it all on himself by not complying, when we know that compliance doesn’t mean that his life would have been saved.
We shouldn’t live in a society where falling asleep in a drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant, hanging air fresheners on your rearview mirror, or even passing a fake $20 bill is met with deadly force. This should be the easiest part of police reform.
Perhaps the Department of Justice investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis, announced Wednesday, will be an impetus for other police departments to do a stem-to-stern review of the way they inject deadly force into so many areas of nonviolent American life. Until then, for Black people, the taste of justice from this week’s verdict will remain tainted by the bitter bite of fear.