When Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the killing of George Floyd we sighed, we rejoiced, we danced a little – but now what? What does true justice look like for Black America?
There are probably very few people in the world who don’t know the name Derek Chauvin. The now convicted murderer has crafted an identity inextricable from his heinous acts. But how many of us know the name Brian Encinia, the Texas state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland? How many people know the names Betty Shelby, the officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher; Joseph Weekley, the officer responsible for killing 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones; or Brett Hankison, the Louisville detective who shot Breonna Taylor?
Of the many reasons their names aren’t as ubiquitous, the most impactful, perhaps, is the fact that none of them have actually been convicted in the deaths of these Black people. Data collected and analyzed by the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, according to CNN, shows that of the 140 officers arrested on murder or manslaughter charges related to on-duty shootings since 2005, only seven (5%) were convicted of murder and only one-third were convicted of any charges at all.
For weeks, the trial of Chauvin occupied the headlines, commanding attention from news outlets across the world. And, for many, his conviction was cause for celebration. But should it have been? The murder of George Floyd is so present in our minds because we were able to watch it. There was seemingly irrefutable evidence of Chauvin’s guilt.
However, many of us still held our breaths, expecting a result more in alignment with this nation’s history. Many of us prepared for the familiar inevitability of erasure, understanding that each time an officer is acquitted and allowed to remain unaccountable for their role in ending Black life, our nation is declaring a fervent belief in our lack of value.
When Shelby, Encinia, Weekley and Hankison are allowed to remain free, it is an irrefutable statement on behalf of the government that the lives of Bland, Crutcher, Stanley-Jones and Taylor are deemed worthless. Or, at least, worth less than the necessary effort. And so, we rejoice in the small victories. We celebrate the outlying events, settling for the unfulfilling punishment of one man rather than the belated justice of an entire system.
I remember as a child watching the legendary Johnnie Cochran strut across the television screen. Whether contesting in the courtroom, advocating at a press conference or arguing in an interview, Cochran exuded an unabashed confidence, a belief in his ability to see justice done. An entire generation of Black youth grew up admiring this belief. We watched Cochran with awe. Unable to have seen Thurgood Marshall in action, we crafted Cochran into our generation’s hero and used him as an entrance into the understanding of American justice.
We ran to the library and – yes, using the Dewey Decimal System – immersed ourselves in knowledge, learning the names Constance Baker Motley, Damon Keith, Barbara Jordan, Jane Bolin and Fred Gray. We devoured information, seeking an understanding of the intersection of legal advocacy and grassroots activism and wondering how to reconcile the ideologies of Malcolm X, W.E.B., Marcus Garvey and Dr. King. We embraced the belief that participation in the system was the pathway to reform and that reformation was the pathway to justice. We needed this to be true.
But now, after shouting sometimes seemingly into the wind, we have to ask ourselves: were we wrong? Some individuals have, over the past few weeks, attempted to use Chauvin’s conviction as a barometer of change, a predictor of progress. It has been suggested that this is a microcosm of the moment, a metric with which we can measure the arc of societal advancement. We know things are getting better because we can see it. “See!” These well-meaning individuals shout. “Chauvin was convicted. Things are improving. This wouldn’t have happened before. Please let me know how I can hold space for you as you process your generational trauma.”
For the recently woke, this conviction is a watershed moment. Why then do we remain angry? Why are we not pacified? Black people across the country cringe every time we see police in our rearview mirror. Our heartbeats quicken and beads of sweat form at our temples. Regardless of whether or not we’ve done anything wrong, we hope that everything will be OK. We cross our fingers that the officer is in a good mood and won’t react too quickly as we reach for our wallets. We send up prayers that we will get home alive.
The world watched as for nine minutes and 29 seconds one man ended the life of another. We all watched George Floyd die. And if this is what it took to convict his murderer, then it seems all our prayers are necessary. If this overwhelming tide of evidence was required to bring Chauvin to a measure of accountability, then the fears of every Black mother are motivated.
If this is what was needed to reach a semblance of justice, then how can we ever imagine an eventual loosening of the grip on our steering wheels? It is unfair to paint the picture that progress has been mute. We can clearly see the fruits of our ancestors’ labor. But it is perhaps equally unfair to see this moment as a promise of equity. Incarceration is not accountability. Accountability, as a process, seeks a measure of reconciliation, offering a pathway to restoration – no matter how eventual.
So where do we go from here? For those of us that grew up with the expectation that we could reform this system of injustice, that perception has been shattered. You don’t build a house on sand and wonder why it shakes. This system is not broken; it is functioning with the intent of those by whom it was built. This system uplifts those who share the identity of its designers, maintaining social hierarchy rather than creating equity. We need therefore to divorce ourselves from the idea that it can be reformed.
Names matter. Words are important. The words “abolition,” “divestment,” and “defund” have taken on lives of their own, their common cultural definitions still in process of becoming. The controversy inspired by their mere utterance rips across the headline of media outlets and causes arguments within communities. Disinformation mixes with mistruths, and clearly defined concepts become muddled. In order to abolish a system of inequity, a new structure of justice needs to be built in its place.
In order to invest in an equitable future for our youth, we need to divest from the present persistence of their oppression. In order to fundamentally shift the way we hold killers accountable, we must first all agree in the necessity of accountability.
That is what these words mean; they’re a collective cultural cooperation in the seeking of equity, an agreement that restoration is preferable to incarceration, and that systems of safety are best defined by the most affected, marginalized communities. These concepts are not foreign to our culture. They aren’t the scary screams of an unruly rabble. They are the cries of common decency, the acknowledgement that what we are doing now works to the benefit of some and the oppression of others.
When I was a child I embraced a wide-eyed idealism, a seemingly naive hope in the power of American justice. And maybe that childlike earnestness was not entirely misplaced. The conviction of George Floyd’s murderer may very well prove to be a guidepost, a propelling moment in the ongoing quest for equity.
Perhaps, once we are able to acknowledge the absurdity in its uniqueness, we can see in this moment the hope for who we can become. Perhaps we can use recent events as propulsion to a more just system. Perhaps, someday, we can truly overcome – if we’re first willing to acknowledge that this moment is not enough.