The trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd is over. The jury convicted Chauvin of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter. Trial aside, anyone who saw the video(s) or witnessed the murder knew that Chauvin was guilty, and that includes Chauvin and his lawyers, who, because the prosecution buried any possibility of doubt under mounds of evidence and testimony by police, resorted to the most clichéd and threadbare defense of killer cops, that of blaming the victim and then claiming victimhood for the perp, a defense centered on barely concealed racism and which stinks of the Republican Party’s 2016/2020 platform.
And, yet… no matter that the evidence was rock solid, the prosecution skilled and razor sharp, and the defense pretty much defenseless, every single one of us was prepared for the absolute worse. Our fear of Chauvin getting off wasn’t simply based on our distrust of the legal system, but a lack of expectation of ourselves. Even those who were certain Chauvin would be held accountable for Floyd’s murder expected him to be acquitted of at least one charge. That didn’t happen. The jury convicted 1-2-3, one manslaughter charge and two murder charges.
The one word I kept reading in reaction pieces to the verdict is relief and I think that is the right word to describe what most of us felt upon hearing the verdict. That certainly was the case with me. After shock and satisfaction, my feelings defaulted to relief. My relief wasn’t that a killer cop was now off the street – there are far too many still in uniform – or that our cities would be “spared anger” – social unrest is a necessary reaction to injustice.
My relief came because cynicism suffered a significant blow.
I’ve participated and studied too many cultural, social and political movements to peg a win or loss on one event, so there was no way I was going to use the verdict as a Yes/No stamp on the movement that gelled around the Floyd/Taylor killings. Whatever the verdict, the protests, the unrest, the politicking, the defense of public space and political rights, the new allyships, the raising of public consciousness, everything that grew from the reaction to the Floyd/Taylor killings (and the many that came before) was validated by the actions themselves and the continued thrust of the movement to end systemic racism and police abuse. My faith in what people can achieve when we organize and fight is rock solid. However, I am not most people.
Many Americans do not believe change is possible. Many who think change is possible, doubt that change is probable. Any belief in change is fragile and very susceptible to cynicism. Because of that, no matter how large and vibrant the protests of 2020 were, I feared – really, really feared – that an acquittal of one, two, or all three of the charges would send people into a spiral of cynicism that would severely wound a movement that is much stronger than most people realize.
But there was no acquittal: The murderer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of all three of the crimes he was accused of, put into handcuffs, and led away to jail. I am relieved.
It should be obvious that, whatever the verdict, no matter what people said, the trial was of Derek Chauvin, not America. Also, true: The jury was not ruling on the movement that built in reaction to the Floyd/Taylor murders in any way whatsoever. Nor were they ruling on the possibility or probability of change happening. The verdict happened independent of the movement. However, without the protest movement, I am certain that what happened in the wake of the Floyd killing would not have happened.
Normally, when a cop kills someone or is engaged in brutality, abuse, or harassment, the police control the narrative. Witness statements – if there are any – are buried by the police’s version of events, which too often rely on statements from the officers involved in the incident in question. Often, these statements are full of half-truths or outright lies, distortions which are passed off to the public and reported on as unassailable fact.
If there is footage of an incident, usually its release is controlled by the police or the district attorney. This is true both of video from police bodycams, as well as footage obtained from security cameras. When footage is released, it is common that the police have selectively chosen content that bolsters the official narrative. Often, footage is not released until months or even a year after the incident.
Heather Cox Richardson reminds us that the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) first press release on George Floyd’s murder referenced his death as a “medical incident.” The official version reads “Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
The first two sentences in the MPD’s initial official statement are true. Two officers – one of them Derek Chauvin – located George Floyd in his car and ordered him to “step from his car.” Nearly everything else in the statement is a lie. Floyd did not resist arrest and he did not “appear to be suffering medical distress.” While George Floyd was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, he died on the street, choked to death by police officer Derek Chauvin.
We know that Chauvin murdered Floyd because there were eye witnesses. We know that the eye witnesses reported the truth because one of them, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, had the wherewithal and courage to film Floyd’s murder and post the video on the internet for the world to witness. MPD’s official version was destroyed. Any attempt to spin Floyd’s murder did not work. We saw what we saw and what we saw was horrific. We also did not have to wait on MPD to see what we saw.
Within hours of Frazier’s video being posted online, we saw protests in Minneapolis and cities where we expect to see protests after a cop kills a Black or Brown person, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Portland, New York, and Chicago. We also saw protests in cities that react when a police-killing makes national news – Sacramento, Madison, Boston, Austin, Atlanta, Houston, and Denver. Cities like Reno, Orlando, Phoenix, Green Bay, Little Rock, and Stockton rarely protest police-killings unless they happen in that town, however, all of those cities reacted to Floyd’s murder with protests. The same thing happened in Boise, Council Bluff, Rapid City, Anchorage, Bakersfield, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Spokane, Scranton, Wilmington, Oklahoma City, Dayton, Huntsville, and Medford, as well as thousands of cities and small towns across America, and many more around the world.
While the big cities saw seasoned activists hit the street, many of the protesters were simply “concerned citizens.” These were not radicals or “professional protesters” but students, service workers, teachers, nurses, firemen, line cooks, bus drivers, lawyers, office workers, carpenters, plumbers, and even cops, many protesting for the first time in their lives. The protesters came from every ethnicity, wore skin of every tone, were of all genders, from every religion, citizens as well as immigrants. The protesters were a true snap-shot of America.
These Americans hit the streets day after day, no matter the weather, with no regard for negative reaction directed at them. They marched when the protests were peaceful; they marched when the police violence turned peaceful into riots.
In Portland, Black Lives Matter, antifa and other hardcore activists parked themselves in front of the federal building in opposition to Floyd’s murder and the Trump administration’s hostile reaction to the protests. Trump responded to Portland’s 24/7 resistance with an authoritarian crackdown by federal cops, a crackdown that saw extreme police violence and the kidnapping of protesters by federal secret police. Because Portlanders refused to back down, the number of protesters grew and became more mainstream. Moms marched, dads marched – and whatever the post-protest controversy – the images of white, middle-class, middle-age parents joining BLM and antifa on the street, facing down federal and Portland cops, gave the daily activists a boost and moved others to act.
Read me regularly and eventually I will lecture you about persistence. Change cannot happen without months or years of hard work by nameless activists, people who spend every day doing little, important things to keep issues alive. While the activists are dedicated to working for a cause, their persistent presence keeps the door open for others to engage. Every time you see a small group of activists standing on a street corner, waving a sign that says “Honk For Peace,” know that that is an invitation for you to join them. It is a message to you that your voice matters and you should not be afraid to speak up. They bear witness so that you might do the same.
For years, Black Lives Matter, antifa, and other activists have hit the street, trusting that their persistence would help grow their numbers and turn their protests into a protest movement. They held ground and suffered police violence waiting for the moment that moms and dads worked up the courage to join them. As the thousands on the street turned to millions, people who never took a public position on something like police brutality started filling their social media feed with their thoughts and feelings about injustice. People who previously only played politics on social media, took to the street. Street activists engaged in voter registration drives and fights against voter suppression. And, most important, people who walked through life in a cynical haze started to embrace the possibility that change could happen.
It is this awesome spirit of resistance that forced the city of Minneapolis to take the murder of George Floyd seriously, to put the murderer Derek Chauvin, to ensure that the prosecution do everything to send Chauvin to jail, and to make Minneapolis PD hierarchy break the blue wall of silence. That is not all.
Without a doubt, Trump’s willful neglect of the pandemic was the main issue that led to his defeat. However, Trump’s neglect by itself, did not move people to vote, certainly not in record numbers. It would have been very easy to react to Trump’s neglect with cynicism – “What do you expect from politicians. Government can’t do anything right. They are the problem, remember?” Hell, for more than 40-years, we’ve been told change is impossible and that this is as good as we get. We’ve been distracted with bright colors flashed on screens and intoxicated with sugar, alcohol and dope.
I don’t think that you have to be a cynic to think that a cynical America – dying or not – would respond to Trump’s neglect by saying “Fuck them all” and refusing to vote. But that is not what happened.
I believe that the Floyd/Taylor protest movement created the momentum that led to Trump’s defeat. The tens of millions of people in the street felt their collective power. Ideas generated and propagated through the movement – criminal justice reform, rethinking policing, defeating systemic racism, and more – expanded the pallet of the politically possible beyond what we are told is “reasonable.” Policies once deemed “too radical for middle America” showed to be very popular in the polls. The mainstream media stopped framing Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ plans as “excessive” and “extreme.” The Democratic Party opened itself up to progressive ideas, not because it was forced to by the base, but because that is what Americans want. Which is why Biden ran for president as someone who would return the country to “normal” and an agent of change. It is why once Biden took office, he proposed a trillion-dollar pandemic relief bill without hesitation and without first consulting with Republicans. It is why Schumer said “Fuck it” and rammed the bill through the Senate.
In 2020, Americans rethought what was politically possible and gained the courage to demand what they wanted. That rethink started the moment Darnella Frazier hit Record on her phone and uploaded the video of George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin onto the internet. Hundreds and then thousands and then millions and then tens of millions of people reacted to that video and took action. Through action, we felt our power, gained courage, and started to re-conceive what is possible. Change, we concluded, can happen and we can make it happen.
As great as this shift in thinking is, it is also new. It has not been tested by a huge defeat. I feared that a Chauvin acquittal would have caused us to doubt not only our power, but that anything that we did over the past year was worth the effort. I feared that cynicism would creep into our consciousness, we’d second guess ourselves, voices would waver, steps would be hesitant, and punches would be pulled. Desperation would set in and we would, as Voltairine de Cleyre once wrote, act desperately. But that didn’t happen and it probably won’t happen, and that is why I am relieved.
I am also relieved that those who felt relief over the verdict know that one verdict solves nothing. At best, the verdict is a stepping stone. We understand that Chauvin being condemned by his peers, does not change that Chauvin was acting within a system of policing that has been accepted by the status quo for decades.
The system within which Derek Chauvin thrived is the same system that led to Daunte Wright’s killing after a rinky-dink traffic stop, mere miles from where George Floyd was murdered and while Chauvin was on trial. It is this same system which enabled police to open fire on 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant just an hour before the verdict was announced. It is the system that murdered Adam Toledo, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, and too many others. And it is the system that will kill more unarmed Black and Brown people, and brutalize countless others until we have forced the change necessary for it to stop.
I am grateful that Derek Chauvin was held accountable for his crime. I am relieved that we dodged the bullet of cynicism and are not being duped by false hope. Let yesterday’s verdict make the fire in our eyes burn that much hotter and our numbers so strong that when we march, we make the earth tremble.