Point of View Columns

The Chauvin Verdict – What It Is and What It Is Not

Today Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three counts for killing George Floyd. This former Minneapolis police officer faces more than a half century of time in prison. In many parts of the country and the world this has been seen as a cause for celebration.

In some very real ways this verdict is a reason for celebration because it is so rare that in America a white policeman is convicted for killing a Black man. It is so rare that when it happens it is a cause for celebration. White police officers in America have been killing Black men with impunity for centuries – so when there is a unicorn of an outlier of a result where justice actually appears, it is a cause for celebration.

It should be pointed out that in the days and hours leading up to the verdict that there was real concern that there would be an acquittal or a mistrial. There was a real concern that even though Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd was viewed around the world, because in America the tradition was that white police officers could kill Black men with impunity.

In many ways it is a damn shame that a slam dunk, open and shut, videotaped murder might not be reason enough to convict a white police officer for killing a Black man. The concept of Black Lives Mattering has barely entered the national consciousness and even a casual student of history knows that there are far too many unreported tragedies at the hands of police that were never recorded and will never be known except by the dead victims and their bereaved families.

It should also be point out that this verdict could be a turning point, or a tipping point as Malcolm Gladwell has termed such opportunities for change. Even as a white supremacist America First Caucus was strangled in its Congressional crib, it is clear that many more Americans have become aware of the pernicious existence of the twin evils of racism and racial disparity throughout this nation.

When the President and Vice President of the United States take note of the conviction of a white police officer for killing a Black man any student of American history knows that this represents a real difference in America. The question remains as to what happens next.

There is already legislation pending in Congress – the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act –  that would provide new guidelines for police departments across the country when it comes to use of force. What cannot be legislated are the hearts and minds of the men and women in American law enforcement. What is not subject to a presidential executive order is the mind set of too many white Americans who are prepared to give the police the benefit of the doubt in virtually every lethal encounter with Black Americans, especially if there is no video record.

It is in fact telling that there was a sigh of relief when Derek Chauvin was convicted, because Black Americans know that verdicts in these kinds of cases have gone the other way – think Sean Bell, Eric Garner and Amadou Diallo for just a few sad and tragic examples. If nearly ten minutes of a video murder and the testimony of the chief of police and a boat load of experts was needed to get a conviction, what happens when the evidence is not as overwhelming?

Will white police officers continue to get the benefit of the doubt? Will Black men and boys have to consider even the most innocent encounter with the police to have the potential for a lethal outcome? Will Black mothers and fathers have to continue to tell their 8-year-old sons and daughters about the special care that they must take if they come in contact with the police? Conversations that white parents simply do not have with their children.

The Chauvin verdict does indeed represent the opportunity for change – but to be clear, it does not represent change itself.

The American justice system got it right this time.

We need for the American justice system to just be right.

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