Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
That truth has existed since Chauvin spent more than nine minutes with his knee on Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis last spring. And it would still be true, even if a jury hadn’t convicted Chauvin yesterday of two murder counts and a manslaughter charge.
But the gap would have been wider between what we know, and what we live, in this country had that jury not convicted him. And we all know how many times we’ve seen that gap present itself, glare at us, and challenge us to the activism and speaking-out that has defined the worldwide movement that the murder of George Floyd has inspired.
George Floyd was murdered.
George Floyd was murdered by a police officer.
George Floyd was murdered by a police officer who smirked and snarled while he literally choked the life out of Floyd.
It does feel good to be able to say that, and know that the law has acknowledged as much today. As much as it brings legal justice to this particular case, it signals an opportunity for more officers to be held accountable when they recklessly or cruelly take Black lives in America.
This is an old song that plays over and over in the nation’s ears. Police feel threatened or challenged by an African American or person of color, and they act with extreme prejudice — shooting or choking or beating that person to death.
And the refrain goes: no charges. Or reduced charges. Or, always an outrage, an acquittal.
It matters that this case was different. It matters that Minnesota’s highest ranking law enforcement official, attorney general Keith Ellison, made sure Chauvin would not escape culpability. And it says to other officers, just a little, that they too could be held responsible for taking lives outside of emergency contexts.
Ellison, a Detroit native, said as much yesterday, and his words undoubtedly will ring through police stations nationwide, and — we hope — will help inspire the massive rethinking of policing that’s long overdue.
But as much as I’m hoping that’s true, as much as I need that to be true, for my 17-year-old son, for my 15-year-old daughter, for my friends and neighbors and fellow citizens — I know how far we still have to go on this issue.
I don’t just know it. I feel it. I feel it whenever my son drives his car to school, or to work, or to sports practice. I feel it whenever my daughter talks excitedly about her chance for mobile freedom, to be unfettered in the exploration of her city and world with a driver’s license, and a car.
Fear. That a police officer will see them only for the color they are, and that there’s not enough restraint — internal or external — on police to hold them back from the unimaginable.
The thing that keeps popping into my head about George Floyd today is the way that Minneapolis police first described his murder, in the first reports of it. The department said a suspect had died in a “medical incident” while being arrested. A medical incident.
From that initial lie to this moment, it has fallen too hard, too long, on people of strong will and determination to reach for the accountability, and justice that the police were instantly trying to avoid after Chauvin killed Floyd. It was instinct, on their part, to cover, to obfuscate, to lie, in order to protect their authority to kill at will.
Justice had to go way too far, in this case, to conquer that instinct. And this was too common a story in our nation. It is the very water in which we all swim as Americans.
Justice. Today, yes. We have it. But tomorrow? It’s not ever assured.