Yesterday at five o’clock, the jury rendered its verdict in the Derek Chauvin case. I was hardly the only person on pins and needles, waiting for that verdict. (I’m certainly not the only person to comment on the result, and I’m unlikely to say anything particularly original. Nevertheless, this verdict was too significant to ignore.)
As a lawyer–albeit a “recovered” one– I am well aware that what the public sees through publicity and trial coverage, is not necessarily reflective of the full evidence presented to a jury. Nevertheless, the video of Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck was so shocking, so inhumane, it seemed unimaginable that a jury could see anything other than an entitled officer’s utter contempt for Floyd’s existence.
And yet, as we all know, in so many previous cases the justice system has excused police behaviors that led to the death of Black and brown Americans. In case after case, judges and juries have given police officers an expansive benefit of the doubt–even when, to the observer, there would seem to be very little doubt from which to benefit. Most cases, of course, lack the impact of a 9 and a half minute videotape. There may be witnesses, there may be allegations–but its hard to overstate the impact of visual evidence.
It also bears noting that the video in this case followed several years of other videos, most less horrific, but nonetheless capturing reprehensible behaviors of which most White Americans had been unaware–and doing so with an immediacy that verbal testimony cannot provide.
When the verdict was read, those of us who have followed the trial and worried about the aftermath let out a collective sigh of relief. But that sigh was followed almost immediately by a realization that the battle against systemic racism in–law enforcement and elsewhere– has just begun. President Biden said it best: this could be a giant step forward, but there is no guarantee.
That said, this verdict does represent an inflection point. It was an immensely important signal that Black lives do matter, that although police are entitled to a lot of leeway, they are not entitled to act as judge, jury and executioner–that murder is murder even when the perpetrator wears a uniform and a badge.
I think it is possible–not certain, but possible–that America is finally facing up to the deeply entrenched racism that has stained, and continues to stain, our national history. The Trump Administration’s blatant bigotry, the emergence of “out and proud” White supremicists, and the appalling embrace of racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism by the GOP, all have made it impossible for Americans of good will to ignore the pervasive bias that distorts virtually every aspect of our common lives–not just the criminal justice system.
The verdict in the George Floyd/Derek Chauvin case was compelled by a mountain of evidence that the defense simply could not minimize or explain away. But there have been mountains of evidence before, and verdicts that ignored that evidence. The relief at this result–and the hope it kindles–is the possibility that it represents a turning point–that we may have arrived at a time when we are finally prepared as a nation to confront the deeply entrenched belief that some people are less human than others, and that their lives don’t matter.
As many observers have said, the verdict doesn’t represent justice. Justice would be George Floyd alive. But it does represent accountability, and that’s the next best thing.