Image credit: Ron Cogswell/Wikimedia Commons
My greatest fear as I waited for the verdict in the George Floyd case yesterday was not that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin wasn’t going to be convicted of something. The prosecution had carefully left two back doors open for the jury, alternative charges that would have allowed the jury to blur the question of what Chauvin intended and what he understood he was doing, as he knelt on the neck of a prone, handcuffed man for almost nine minutes.
Third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter are not unserious charges. But they might have resulted in less time served, even a far shorter sentence served in a minimum-security prison. More importantly, had the jury not convicted on second-degree murder (first-degree murder in Minnesota, in case you are wondering, would have required proof of premeditation, or an accompanying felony, and carried a life sentence), it would have perpetuated one or more of the following falsehoods:
- That George Floyd’s death was an accident.
- That George Floyd’s death was a result of Floyd’s poor health or his own actions.
- That George Floyd was a dangerous person and a threat to the lives of police officers and/or community members;
- That Derek Chauvin did not intend, given his police training, Floyd’s claim that he could not breathe, and the crowd of onlookers begging for Floyd’s life, to kill him.
- That any of the grounds for reasonable doubt that Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, provided in the worst closing statement for the defense ever were reasonable.
Given what those of us saw and heard as we watched the trial, it seemed highly unlikely that any of these things were possible, except the last one. Given what we know about the reluctance of juries to send bad cops to jail, it seemed entirely possible that at least one member of the jury would indeed refuse to convict on the most serious charge. And it’s this kind of compromise that Black people—that all of us who care about justice—are always asked to accept, not just in high-profile cases, but in the ones you never hear about.
Yesterday, at last, we were not asked to accept this outcome. It’s a tough ethical situation to be in to want, so desperately, for someone to be incarcerated. But I did. And when Judge Peter A. Cahill read out the guilty verdict on murder two, I started to sob.
Okay, granted, it’s been a tough year, following on a tough four years of watching Donald Trump and his acolytes elevate the most violent American values as virtues. But reflecting on that moment, they weren’t tears of joy or relief or because justice was done. I was crying because the path ahead—creating a world in which people do not routinely die because of police violence—will be very hard. Since the Floyd trial began a little more than two weeks ago, 64 Americans have died at the hands of the police, over half Black and Latino, and one a 13-year old boy who had already tossed his weapon and was displaying two empty hands.
While I don’t fall into the camp of those for whom there is no just outcome short of Floyd not being dead at all, I get their point. It seems quite clear that charging Derek Chauvin caused none of these killer cops to think twice before they pulled the trigger and took a life that was not theirs to take.
Police officers do not, and should not, own our lives. For the Chauvin trial to be a turning point, it will have to be followed with real policy solutions imposed by politicians and civilian oversight boards that the police and their unions will not like. At all.
And this is the challenge that George Floyd has left for all of us. Do we have the courage and the conviction, as voters, citizens, neighbors, and fellow countrypeople, to stop these killings?
Because if we don’t, this is all just another lie. Justice has not been done with the Chauvin verdict: but a door has been opened that can lead us to justice if we have the courage to take it.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This originally appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.