The verdict for former police officer Derek Chauvin is an urgently needed signal to all Americans who have lost faith in the judicial system. But much more is needed for real change.
It should not be anything remarkable when a former police officer like Derek Chauvin is held accountable for his behavior. No one who has seen the video of the barbarous encounter in Minneapolis, Minnesota will forget how the Black man struggled to breathe under Chauvin’s knee and begged for his life for more than nine minutes. It was exactly what President Joe Biden said in his reaction to the verdict: a murder in broad daylight.
And yet, after the case was presented, it was anything but certain that the jury would see it as such. Too often, the U.S. machinery of justice, from investigators to jury members, have stood on the side of the police officer in similar cases; too often, police violence has gone unpunished. In most cases, no charges were even prosecuted. The fear of renewed injustice, especially among Blacks, was well founded.
Structural Racism, Which the Black Lives Matter Movement Protested, Was Not Addressed
In that respect, the verdict for Chauvin is certainly unusual. His conviction on all three counts is a desperately needed signal to all Americans who have lost faith in the judicial system. It is a relief for the people in the nation’s cities who feared new outbreaks of violence. And it is hopefully a turning point in America’s attitude toward police violence, which for decades has disproportionately affected Black Americans.
The structural racism that the Black Lives Matter movement rightfully protested was not addressed in the courtroom. The trial also never addressed the American police culture that promotes excessive violence. Instead, the prosecution portrayed former officer Chauvin, who was fired after the incident, as a bad apple and an anomaly. It disappointed police critics, but from the perspective of the defense attorneys, the strategy paid off. It allowed the jury, who might have been sympathetic to police, to condemn Chauvin’s behavior.
Videos from Bystanders at the Crime Scene Allowed the Prosecution To Expose Attempted Cover-Ups
One may well wonder what the verdict would have been if the images of George Floyd’s murder had not been so clear, or if they had not existed at all. The statement that the Minneapolis police released after the fatal incident last May said only that Floyd had experienced a “medical emergency.” It was the video taken by bystanders at the crime scene that made it possible for the prosecution to reveal these and other cover-up attempts.
But there were similar images in some earlier cases of police violence, too. Police footage of the beating of Rodney King, a Black man, in Los Angeles in 1991 still did not prevent the officers from being acquitted. Even the many deadly police procedures that the law has since required to be captured on police body cameras have hardly ever led to a conviction.
The Vow of Silence among Police Officers Was Broken
For this reason, too, the guilty verdict for Chauvin is unusual. With some optimism, one can see in the jury’s verdict a shift in perspective on police violence against Black people, a shift that cannot be explained without considering the upheaval that much of American society has experienced since last summer. One can also view the appearances by 10 police officers who testified as witnesses against Chauvin during the trial in the same vein. In doing so, they broke a vow of silence under which police officers do not incriminate each other.
The U.S. will continue to experience setbacks in dealing with police violence and racism, and much more remains to be done to effect real change. But the verdict in Minneapolis is definitely a step in the right direction.