When Judge Peter Cahill read the verdict that Derek Chauvin was guilty on all three counts for the murder of George Floyd I imagined ghosts dancing around the courtroom. They leapt from chair to chair. Shouting, laughing, and crying all at once. They were the dead who haunted this trial—Black people, across generations, who died by the hands of police. The verdict was, in a sense, vindication for them. Chauvin cuffed and walked out of court, a semblance of justice for those who never saw it.
The evidence was overwhelming. The prosecution put on a clinic in their presentation of the case. With the compassion and courage of Darnella Frazier’s testimony, the innocence of a nine-year-old who knew that what she saw the police doing was wrong, and with the expertise and clarity of Dr. Martin Tobin, the prosecutors relentlessly and methodically detailed how Chauvin killed George Floyd. They repeatedly showed what most of us saw with our own eyes: nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds of utter cruelty.
I still had my doubts. It was—and this is not my view alone—a kind of earned skepticism about the police and us. The court would never hold him accountable, I thought; when it comes to policing in this country, Black Lives do not matter in that way. And, then I watched Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, mount a defense that sought to blame Floyd for his own death. He seemingly appealed to that one juror who might believe this big, Black man, high on drugs and uncooperative, posed a threat that warranted the use of deadly force—that Floyd’s death, as Nelson suggested in his closing remarks, was “the natural consequence of the deceased.”
The world intruded, too. The New York Times reported that since the trial began on March 29, the police had killed 64 people across the country, with Blacks and Latinos making up half of the dead. Video footage of Lt. Caron Nazario being humiliated by police in Virginia went viral. Daunte Wright was killed by Officer Potter in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, just a few miles from the trial. We saw that on video, too. In Chicago, footage of 13-year-old, Adam Toledo, showed him with his hands up (and empty) being shot within seconds of being ordered by an officer to turn around and to put those very hands up in the air.
I was skeptical. When prosecutor Steven Schleicher declared in his closing remarks that this trial was not the State of Minnesota against the police, but the State against Derek Chauvin and when he said Chauvin’s actions were not policing but assault, I could not help but think about what was happening outside the walls of the courtroom and who was dying at the hands of American police. I understood the tactical move: Schleicher had to give jurors license to convict an officer without condemning police. I also understood that no matter his surgical effort this trial was about policing in this country.
Guilty on all three counts, Derek Chauvin is now going to prison. The verdict signals the beginning of a possible shift in how we think about policing in this country. Minimally, it lets police officers know they cannot act with impunity as if they are above the law. The verdict may help disrupt decades of policing shaped by the ideological framing of “law and order” or “the war on drugs” or “being tough on crime,” views fueled by insidious assumptions about the inherent criminality of communities of color that rationalized the militarization of the police, justified the incarceration of millions, and placed violence at the core of the policing of particular Americans. It is clear, at least to me, that the jurors’ decision in this case does not resolve the problem of policing in this country. That decision only sets the stage for what we do next.
People feel a sense of relief. You see it in the wet eyes of people outside of the courthouse, in their laughter and in the sounds of joy among the old and young. I must admit the knot that has been in the pit of my stomach doesn’t feel as tight. The last few weeks have been rough (and we are still in a damn pandemic). Of course, there is the temptation of immediately drafting the verdict into the American fantasy of our inherent goodness. We did the right thing, we tell ourselves. We pat ourselves on the back. Job well done, we say, and leave the ugliness right where it is. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. President Biden, to his credit, refused that comfort. But we must push him to be even bolder in reimagining safety and security for all Americans.
Relieved though I may be, I am still thinking about those ghosts. I am reminded of a moment in Jesmyn Ward’s brilliant novel, Sing Unburied Sing. She writes of a tree of ghosts—of those who didn’t die right and who haunt still. In the shadow of this decision to hold Derek Chauvin accountable for the death of George Floyd, police in Columbus, Ohio, killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 15-year-old girl. I wonder will she be among the ghosts in the next trial.