So much has been said in response to the guilty verdict this week of Derek Chauvin on all three counts in the killing of George Floyd. It is, truly, a pivotal moment in the struggle against racism and for equitable policing in this country.
We deceive ourselves if we think the fight for justice is anywhere near over. As former President Barak Obama said following the verdict: “True justice requires that we come to terms with the fact that Black Americans are treated differently, every day. … And it requires us to do the sometimes thankless, often difficult, but always necessary work of making the America we know more like the America we believe in.”
Nevertheless, there are some lessons that this trial can teach us and if we fail to heed them, we miss important aspects of the legacy George Floyd leaves behind.
First, let us consider the context in which this trial was set by recalling the unprecedented movement that George Floyd’s killing prompted. The massive Black Lives Matter protests over the summer provided an essential catalyst in awakening (finally) a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational public to inequities in our society. Deep in the midst of a pandemic, protests around the world ignited an outcry that Black people face a different standard under the law than do whites. The call for justice and compassion simply could not be ignored. The conviction of Derek Chauvin this week provided a catharsis for millions that the cause is just and that flagrant disregard for human life will not go unpunished—even among the police.
Special recognition must also go to law enforcement personnel who stepped into the spotlight to proclaim that Chauvin’s actions were indefensible. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo deserves special recognition for testifying against his own officer. Likewise, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison who kept a low profile during the trial but whose office orchestrated such a compelling, comprehensive case for the prosecution. Such activities—in the courtroom and behind the scenes—prove that when government officials are motivated by strong ethical underpinnings, justice is possible.
A word of deepest appreciation and gratitude is also in order for George Floyd’s family who, for almost a full year, fixed on holding accountable those who committed this crime with unimaginable dignity and grace coupled with multiple pleas to the public for peaceful protest.
Finally, there must be recognition of Darnella Frazier, the seventeen-year-old who had the presence of mind to videotape the unfolding murder she encountered while simply walking to the store. The power of Ms. Frazier’s gripping testimony on the stand, saying how George Floyd kept reminding her of all the Black men in her life was only eclipsed by her quick-thinking action to record the ordeal in front of her. Prosecutor Steve Schleicher instructed the jury to believe their eyes, but it was Ms. Frazier’s action in real time that allowed the eyes of the whole world to see what cruelty and injustice looks like.
The lesson for young people is immediately apparent. Ms. Frazier’s quick-and-righteous-thinking action provides a striking example of how an “ordinary individual can be extraordinary” and how critical each moment can be if we encounter life with our ears and eyes wide open. Black men have been killed by police far too many times in this country. But this time, the combination of widespread protests, a doggedly determined and gracious family, ethically driven government officials and a young girl’s quick action mean that there is a chance—perhaps, just a chance—that this time will be different.