It took a lot less time for a verdict to come in the Derek Chauvin trial than many imagined. A lot of people were preparing for weeks of jury deliberation and either an acquittal or a hung jury — that has been the typical outcome on the occasions law enforcement officers have even been indicted for killing citizens. Much rested on the outcome of this trial as it was seen as a particularly gross violation of George Floyd’s rights, an outrageous display of police overreaction and a litmus test for how serious the United States was going to be about granting justice to a family grieving an unnecessary loss. What came as a more of a surprise that the rapidity of the jury’s decision was its conclusion: guilty, on all counts.
The verdict has been hailed as a reason to hope, a sign that there is the possibility cops can be held accountable for the deaths they cause. There has been almost nonstop analysis of how this decision could impact every aspect of American life, from professional sports to the stock market. To a degree, this air of celebration is understandable — this marks the first time an on-duty police officer has been convicted of criminal responsibility in a citizen’s death, at least in a high profile case such as George Floyd’s. Perhaps there is reason to be optimistic that a criminal conviction will usher in some renaissance in police procedures and behavior. Maybe, George Floyd’s death at Derek Chauvin’s knee will prove to be a catalyst for meaningful reform and reinvention in the law enforcement field.
But let us not hope too hard or cheer to loudly. Almost at the same time as Derek Chauvin was learning his fate, police killings in Ohio and rural North Carolina demonstrated that the conviction of one officer in a highly politicized and emotional case would not immediately have any influence on police work. Additionally, this case does nothing to bring justice to the families of countless other victims of overzealous and, arguably, sadistic law enforcement systems. There has been no justice for Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray or any of the others who have been assaulted, harassed or killed by police officers without someone recording the event on their phone.
While the Chauvin verdict certainly appears to be a step in a positive direction, our excitement definitely should be tempered by the knowledge that Rodney King was mercilessly beaten by members of the LAPD just over 30 years ago, on video and there was no justice for him either. In fact, there seems to be a lack of speculation about what the nation would look like if Rodney King’s assailants had been convicted all those years ago. If there had been justice back in 1992, what might policing look like in 2021? Maybe nothing would have changed. Maybe if those Los Angeles cops have been convicted it would have just been a one-off event, a statistical anomaly in a long line of future abuses. But perhaps if there had been a groundswell of action (not a ‘riot’, but directed and organized action) we could have saved lives and communities.
I do not remember the Rodney King assault or the ensuing disturbances in Los Angeles after the acquittals. I was too young (about 7 years old), too removed (central North Carolina) and, possibly, too white for this to cross my desk. I also attended a pricy private elementary school that, as I recall, did not put much of an emphasis on dissecting current events, at least not in first or second grade. I don’t even remember thinking much about it in the following years, except as an unfortunate historic event when I happened to watch a documentary or TV program that referenced it. It wasn’t until I started thinking about the ramifications, real or potential, of the Chauvin verdict that my mind went back to that grainy video tape recording from 1991 and how such a tremendous opportunity to provide closure and justice was ignored. Not only was the opportunity missed but it seems like there was no noticeable change in the way police departments handled violence by their officers. With some luck, this latest chapter will be a turning point, perhaps not today but soon. Then again, it has been a mere 57 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and we’re still grappling with entrenched racism and systemic prejudice, so maybe it will be a bit longer than soon.