I was driving on the highway as the verdict was about to come in. I was nervous that I would miss it, but then I remembered that AM radio exists. I tuned into NPR at the perfect time, the judge was just entering the courtroom. I listened nervously and attentively as I navigated the early-evening traffic. But then, the verdict was read: Derek Chauvin was pronounced guilty on all counts. I whooped and yelled in cathartic excitement, pounding the roof of the car, and gesticulating wildly. I cheered so much that my throat was soar for the rest of my drive.
But this isn’t about me, this is about us. We needed this verdict to come through the way it did. Anything short of a guilty verdict would have been the last proof anybody needed that the police system in America is broken. It is broken, but at least we have justice for George Floyd, and that’s an important first step. It was hard to imagine that a jury would be compelled by the defense’s case, whatever it was. It must have been difficult to defend Derek Chauvin. I don’t care how skilled a lawyer you are, you can’t fight the videotape.
Police accountability is something I’ve not seen a great deal of. Sure, when something goes wrong, police departments publicly announce a suspension or a firing, or the officer in question resigns. But, when it comes time for a trial, I can’t think of a single time in my memory when an officer was held legally accountable for a flagrant abuse of power and human rights. I have no recollection of ever being pleased with a verdict in the case of police murdering someone; the police always got off, and the landscape stayed the same.
Even police apologists can’t defend Chauvin’s actions. There was no real danger of Floyd doing anything at all, he was cuffed – and yet, for minutes on end, he was deprived of oxygen, dying on the street in front of a crowd of people watching – they’ll never forget that, we’ll never forget that. But often I’ve heard talks of police reform where Chauvin is separated from the rest of the police, citing that Chauvin was a completely different kind of case. It’s only different in that we all saw it, and that Chauvin’s naked cruelty was on full display. But you can’t separate Chauvin from the bigger police problem simply because his case was so unique, so heinous.
Chauvin is indicative of the power-tripping tendencies of the police. Despite citizens’ pleading, citizens who he swore to serve, Chauvin did not change his position, and Floyd died as a result. The police are not infallible, and clearly, they’re not setting the example for the rest of us. We want the police to help us, to handle things with delicacy, not brute force. But time and time again, that balance shifts against the citizens, and people die from a flagrant act of police brutality.
I watched as much of the trial as I could while working at home. But what I did see were attempts by the defense to diminish Floyd’s character, to say that he was a drug-user. I watched Chauvin’s bespectacled lawyer cross-examine witnesses for ungodly amounts of time, betraying no clear end-goal to his line of questioning, heading nowhere in particular. Chauvin’s lawyer was the definition of tedious, but this isn’t about him – he had a job to do as a lawyer, and I imagine that wasn’t an easy job considering the circumstances.
Chauvin didn’t take the stand, his attorneys advised him not to – a bad sign. It was thought that if Chauvin took the stand, the prosecution would ask about his previous misconduct, yet another bad sign. Chauvin likely shouldn’t have still been a cop after years of citations. It makes you wonder just how many cops have a record of misconduct, but continue to mete out justice their own way.
But what’s to come? We hope that major police reforms are to come as soon as possible, but not a defunding – no, a radical restructuring is more the order of the day. Police need training, not for a few hours a year, but substantially. Officers need to be confident that they have the tools necessary to end conflict non-lethally. Officers aren’t trained enough to feel that confidence, a little bit of instruction a year is forgotten the next day.
George Floyd became a symbol in the last year, a symbol of the change we so desperately need. But now that his killer has been brought to justice, we must remember George Floyd as a father, a grandfather, a lover, a partner, a sibling, a son, and indeed, a martyr. Floyd shouldn’t be gone, but he is, and we cannot let any of this be in vain. George Floyd will live on, the patron saint of police reform.