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History has been a stern instructor of Black people in this country, beating out hope wherever it dares to emerge.
As James Baldwin once put it, there is embedded in the American Negro the “wise desire not to be betrayed by too much hoping.” The possessor of dashed hopes is in some ways more injured and dangerous than the consistently hopeless. The possessors of dashed hopes spread their wings, which make them vulnerable, and get them clipped. Bitterness is a natural byproduct of such betrayal.
Before Tuesday’s guilty verdict for a former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, in the murder of George Floyd, many of us were afraid to hope that justice would be done. It doesn’t matter the strength of the case or the preponderance of evidence; convicting a police officer of killing a Black man is so rare in this country that I can count the recent cases I recall on my fingers … on one hand.
So when the verdicts came down, for me, there was a moment of shock: The justice system had administered justice to a Black man, a Black family, the Black community, the country and the world. We are so used to the system betraying us that it was stunning to see it serve us.
Could we celebrate? Should we celebrate? Of course we should have, and did.
But even in celebrating that victory, there is sadness. Why is the hurdle set to that nearly impossible height? Must your killing be in slow motion and caught on not one video but multiples?
Must the “Blue Wall” crack and your police chief testify against you? Must a child be put on the stand to explain how your killer’s depraved act has traumatized them?
Most killings of unarmed Black people by the police won’t have that. Most will have the officers’ account and the police department’s statements.
The Minneapolis Police Department’s initial statement on Floyd’s death was headlined, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” and it went on to say of Floyd:
“He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers … Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
That would have been the story, were it not for witnesses and cellphone video. The truth would have circulated in the community, but the lie would live on in the official record.
This is how many cases live, unresolved, in oral history told from a barber chair or barstool. This is also how hostility, resentment and contempt grow toward policing, criminal justice and politicians. This is why the fundamentals of our criminal justice system must be reshaped in order to restore trust.
So, yes, we celebrate. Even warriors, in an uphill battle, those outgunned and accustomed to loss, are afforded and allowed a moment of celebration over a surprise victory. Such moments can be recharging and restorative. It doesn’t mean that we are confusing the war that still rages for the battle in which we were victorious.
The fight against rules on every level of government that insulate officers and criminalize Black people are part of the war. Systems of racism that have created segregation, concentrated poverty, poorly resourced communities and failing educational systems are part of the war. A public perception that what ails Black people is pathological and that all policing is good and gallant is part of the problem.
It is important to remember that the verdict against Derek Chauvin didn’t change a single police union rule that protects officers from incriminating themselves. It didn’t change a word of the criminal code, which can shield them from prosecution. It didn’t alter a single federal or Supreme Court precedent that prevented them from being convicted.
There are enormous hurdles to overcome in the arrest, charging, trial and conviction of an officer. What this case demonstrated was that there is — at least in this jurisdiction and with these jurors — a limit. It took a case so obvious, so egregious, so depraved, that it could clear the hurdles.
In this extraordinary case, there was justice for George Floyd. But until justice for Black people killed by the state exists not only in the extraordinary case but also in the mundane, until it is not shocking that an officer is held accountable for murder, the crusade continues. One battle is won, but we are still in the middle of the war for equality."