Derek Chauvin’s Guilty and So Is the Whole Damn System
It felt like a stunning relief when Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted for a murder caught on camera. Real relief will come when justice doesn’t feel like a surprise.
He did not deserve to die.
It should never have mattered that he was a drug addict who suffered from myriad health issues, or that he had allegedly attempted to pass a counterfeit bill at a corner market. George Floyd should still be alive today. On Tuesday, a jury agreed.
Less than a day after closing arguments concluded, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He was remanded into custody and will face sentencing in a few weeks. He deserves every hour he will spend in prison. They are hours Floyd will never have at all.
But for all those relieved by the verdict, there are others who believe it to be a galling miscarriage of justice. They think that Floyd, a 46-year-old father and grandfather, forfeited his civil and human rights long before he encountered Officer Chauvin. In their telling, Chauvin should be enjoying the fruits of his service even if that record includes 18 previous complaints, internal investigations, disciplinary actions and reprimands. But Floyd didn’t die of a heart attack or a drug overdose, as one blogger said. He didn’t succumb to complications of COVID-19 or even from carbon monoxide poisoning due to car exhaust, as one defense witness posited. His death was a homicide. Floyd choked to death from continuous neck and back compressions. A police officer murdered him.
Candidly, it was difficult to watch the trial unfold. The parade of prosecution witnesses—from bystanders on the scene to a sitting police chief and forensics experts— collectively presented irrefutable proof of the officer’s guilt. More than a preponderance of evidence, the state’s attorney came with an avalanche that overwhelmed and buried any notion of innocence. Tragically, a then 9-year-old girl witnessed the horror. She told the courtroom that Chauvin ignored requests by medics to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck.
The defense case, it should be said, was as thin as unsweetened tea and offered nothing that rose to reasonable doubt. That Chauvin chose to go to trial, at all, should tell you something about this justice system and how he sees it. He was betting against the 9-year-old witness. He bet against the video and everyone else who witnessed his depravity.
He thought he could stand on a Black man’s neck until he took his last breath and get away with it. After all, that’s how justice has usually worked out. Justice is not blind. It sees color. And, it sees the blue of a police uniform clearer than any other.
Rarely is a white police officer indicted, let alone taken to trial and convicted, for the death of an unarmed suspect—no matter the brutality, no matter how minor the offense—especially when the victim is Black. Prosecutors often run the calculus and routinely rule cases unwinnable even before the body is cold. But Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison took a gamble, too, betting that the jury would see and embrace Floyd’s right to live.
As Chauvin sat stoically at the defense table, I was reminded that Floyd never made it to court. He never made it to a local precinct where he might’ve been booked, charged and released on bail. Instead, Floyd suffered positional asphyxiation and died on the scene. Chauvin was lionized in some quarters and, even as Floyd lay in his grave, defense attorneys put the victim on trial.
Chauvin supporters, who are now banking on an appeal, will tell you that people shouldn’t be marching for Floyd or or the many other high-profile deaths in the name of Black Lives Matter. Without a hint of shame, they say we shouldn’t be shaken by the images of a law enforcement officer openly flouting their training and the law. After all, they say, not one of them—not John Crawford, not Michael Brown, not Daunte Wright, not Walter Scott, not Eric Garner—were angels. They were all guilty of something, right?
Lest one believe that these are simply ugly images that dance across cable news and social media, the traumas are, all too often, connected. If these horrors hit us more profoundly, it’s because they strike and keep striking us at home. You see, as Kali Holloway noted in the Beast, Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, a motorist targeted by Virginia police officers, was Garner’s cousin by marriage. Floyd’s girlfriend was once Wright’s teacher. And, Black Panther Fred Hampton’s mother used to babysit Emmett Till—whose family members were with Floyd’s family as they awaited the verdict.
The reaction to Floyd’s death, as well as many of the other police-involved killings, is an example of what The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer calls the Rice Rule. Named after Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed by a white police officer while playing in a snowy Cleveland park with a toy gun, Serwer explained that there are no circumstances in which the responsibility for the death of a Black suspect at the hands of a police officer cannot be placed on the victim. A Black body can never be innocent enough not to incur blame for its own murder, plunder or maiming.
Nine minutes, 29 seconds.
That’s how long, Officer Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as he lay handcuffed and face down on the asphalt. At one point, two other officers knelt on his back while another kept the growing crowd, including an off-duty firefighter and emergency medical technician, at bay. They wouldn’t allow her to check his pulse.
“I can’t breathe,” Floyd said, repeatedly. In desperation, he even called out for his dead mother.
No matter how he pleaded, no matter the entreaties of witnesses on the scene, Chauvin was unmoved. It’s hard to watch the video clips and not believe that Chauvin knew exactly what he was doing. His indifference to Floyd’s life seemed to deepen with every passing second. During what would be his last two minutes on earth, as Floyd’s body went limp, Chauvin refused to relent. By then, Floyd was motionless, unconscious and reportedly had no pulse.
No one can know the full extent of Chauvin’s intent, but either he intended to kill Floyd, or his actions were a callous disregard for the outcome. But Chauvin, who displayed a devil-may-care expression as he allegedly used a mixed martial arts maneuver called a “blood choke,” appeared to respond to the urgent calls from witnesses by digging in harder by applying a “shimmy” to add more pressure.
And nobody stopped him.
Not one of the other officers on the scene intervened. If law enforcement has only a few bad apples that need to be rooted out, I want to see the good ones.
“You were told Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. And now having seen all the evidence, having heard all the evidence, you know the truth,” prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said in a powerful closing statement, “and the truth of the matter is the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”
For many of us, our suspicions took root long before jury selection. It was hard to believe, despite the video evidence, that Chauvin would be condemned for murder. Even before the memorial flowers outside that corner market began to wilt, we understood that justice might hide itself. For Black people, justice is an open-eyed gamble. We understand that even though Chauvin was convicted on three murder counts, the system remains stacked against unarmed Black suspects in police custody.
We know that the burden of evidence tilts against us, no matter the circumstances, and that our sons and daughters are suspects before they rise from bed in the morning. True justice, Ellison reminded us, is more than one case. It requires a transformation.
Like Chauvin, we know the math. This verdict didn’t change it. And, that’s damning.