A Trial Can’t Solve America’s Racism Problem

The trial of the accused murderer of George Floyd, a Black man, is packed with expectations. But the jury can’t be expected to heal the wounds of American society. Its assignment is already big enough: justice for the victim.

The evidence is clear. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on the neck of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd cried on May 25, 2020, pleading in vain. He died in the aftermath of the violent arrest.

The video of the brutal act in Minneapolis, Minnesota, circulated around the world. Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe,” became the motto of the largest global protests against racism and police violence in decades. In the U.S., the protests repeatedly turned violent.

One could almost presume that a trial for the suspended officer Chauvin would be merely a formality. Sounding out a penalty for a blatant crime. In some respects, just another agenda item in the mill of a constitutional democracy.

As if! The expectations for the trial, which began on Monday with jury selection and whose opening statements are scheduled for March 29, could hardly be higher. The prosecution is trying Chauvin for second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.* If convicted, he faces the prospect of a long prison sentence. His lawyers argue that Floyd resisted the officer, and that his death was the result of preexisting conditions and drug use.

It is feared that the verdict and sentence, if any, will further polarize American society. There are many indications that the public will say the court yielded to pressure and punished Chauvin “too harshly.” That the Black Lives Matter movement led to an excessively harsh verdict. Or, if there is a lesser verdict, there is fear the public will say that, once again, the judicial system demonstrated leniency for white police officers, and that Floyd’s death as well as a lenient verdict will perpetuate systemic racism.

But the jury in Minneapolis is not convening to solve America’s problems with structural police violence and racism. That is the job of society as a whole; Congress is currently discussing legislation for police reform. The jury’s duty is straightforward and difficult enough: justice for Floyd.

*Editor’s note: On March 11, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over the trial of Derek Chauvin, reinstated a third-degree murder charge against the former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing Floyd.

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