I sat at my computer, focusing on calming my breath as the talking heads droned on, filling time while we waited for the jury. We. As I sat there, President Biden, along with key members of his administration, set aside his prepared remarks on the business of this country to sit in front of a TV with no more insight into the words that would be read than I had. From coast to coast, at desks, in living rooms, even some schools, we sat, with bated breath awaiting the decision of these 12 people.
So how has this moment united all of us? It is because we all watched George Floyd die. We all watched as a cop crushed the life out of him. We watched as he cried “Mama.” We watched as he begged to breathe. We watched as he begged to live.
After the verdicts were read, the tension eased from my body. My shoulders relaxed. I felt relief, joy, even. And then the sad wonder: What difference will it make?
Derek Chauvin with his too-small heart is headed off to jail. He will never again have the law’s blessings to wield power over another Black body. But what about the other 800,000 or so officers with their broad authority to use force?
In a truly mystifying and terribly long-winded closing argument, Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s counsel, defended the “awful but lawful” reality of police violence, seemingly asking the jury to congratulate Chauvin for his restraint.
“Officer Chauvin made a decision not to use higher levels of force when he would have been authorized to do that, including punches, kicks, elbows. All of these tools were available to Officer Chauvin,” Nelson said. He pointed to expert testimony that just “because a person is not actively resisting, that does not mean that [police] cannot use force.”
This legal reality contributes to the sad truth that the police kill about 1,000 Americans each year. Few are ever charged with murder or manslaughter. Even fewer are convicted. In theory, the police are sworn to protect and serve, and yet they kill with the relentless regularity of a disease.
So what difference will this verdict make? Not much. But the importance here isn’t that the verdict will make a difference, but that the verdict showed a difference. It showed a willingness for people to stop and argue with authority, to film, to call the cops on the cops, to testify. It showed a willingness to break the police code of silence and testify against a fellow officer.
It showed a willingness of a jury to look past the smears, to look past the color of skin, to see the human life that was extinguished, and to care. All of these things happened because so many people were willing to do the right thing. The change is glacial. We need to speed up. We have so much work to do. But today, a bit of justice was served.
I picked up my son from middle school, and the first thing he asked about was the verdict. “Three for three,” I told him. “YES!” he exploded, fists pumping the air. “YES, YES, YES! Let’s go!”
Well said. Let’s go.
Andrea Hartsough, legal director for WhoWhatWhy, graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. In addition to a career in civil and criminal legal work, she has worked in real estate as a broker, manager, and investor.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Tony Webster / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).