On Tuesday, a jury unanimously found Derek Chauvin guilty of a range of charges in the murder of George Floyd. However, the verdict is a drop in the sea of the broader issue of police brutality and violence, and many argue that now is not the time to sit back in relief but to stand up and continue the fight.
Lisa Robinson of Washington reacts as the guilty verdict is announced in in Minneapolis.
“Guilty!” the shout rings across George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. A beat of silence and then cheers erupt.
Just under a year after the murder of George Floyd that sparked waves of protest and outrage across the world, Derek Chauvin was convicted of three charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. A large sign has been tallying the days since Floyd’s murder at the gas station across the road. As the verdict is read, an individual removes the count from beneath the title that reads “Justice for George Floyd” and puts up the words “justice served?”.
25 minutes earlier and roughly 800 miles away in Columbus, Ohio, 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant was on the phone to police about attackers at her home. Ma’khia reported that a group of older females were attacking and attempting to stab her and required police assistance. Police showed up at the scene shortly after that, and within seconds of arriving, an officer shot Ma’khia four times in the chest. Ma’khia was taken to hospital, where she was unfortunately pronounced dead. The news-breaking mere hours after Chauvin’s verdict, the death of Ma’khia Bryant serves to highlight just how deeply penetrating police violence against black and brown communities really is and how for communities of colour, small victories are often short-lived.
During the month-long process of Derek Chauvin’s trial, several cases of police brutality caught the world’s attention, including the deaths of 20-year-old Duante Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo. Both cases saw the victims shot dead, with Wright shot at close range by an officer claiming to have mistakenly reached for their gun instead of their taser. Toledo’s death in Chicago involved him complying with the police in dropping his weapon and raising his hands, only to be shot by the officer, who had previously claimed Toledo pointed the gun at him in an armed confrontation. The cases of Wright, Toledo and Bryant, and countless others outside the national spotlight illuminate just how deeply entrenched systemic racism and police violence are against people of colour. The Washington Post’s police shooting database reports grim statistics, with reports of 984 people being shot and killed by police in the last year alone. The database also shows the disproportionate rate at which communities of colour have fatal encounters with police. Statistics show that while half of all people killed by police are white, black and Hispanic people are disproportionately targeted. The rate at which black Americans are shot being over twice as high as that of white people. Accounting for the population size, white people are shot at a rate of 15 per million, whereas the rate is 27 per million for Hispanic people and 36 per million for black Americans.
The conviction of Derek Chauvin serves as a potential turning point in the fight for equal rights. For the first time in Minnesota, a white police officer has been convicted for the death of a black man. It is a somewhat rewarding statistic in that it brings hope for change but is also incredibly shattering. Despite a slew of killings and cases of police violence, not once in Minnesota’s 200-year history has a verdict like this. Unfortunately, this phenomenon echoes true across the country, with minimal numbers of law enforcement being held accountable for any harm or casualties they inflict.
It is also not a uniquely American problem, as the last year has served to uncover numerous cases of police violence across the world. In the United Kingdom, the death of 24-year-old Mohamud Hassan in Welsh police custody sparked protest in Cardiff. Still, little action was taken, and officials’ notices of misconduct were the only response to the incident. Black citizens form only 3% of the British population and yet account for 8% of all deaths in police custody. What’s more, police in Britain face minimal levels of accountability, and the last time a police officer was convicted for the death of an individual in custody was in 1969. This is despite the fact that over 1,700 individuals have died in custody since 1990.
Standing outside the capitol building in Washington, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thanked Floyd for his ‘sacrifice’ in the name of justice, much to the outrage of many online. The notion that an innocent black man has to die for the system to change is an incredibly distasteful one and speaks to the wider disillusionment activists are fearing across the country and the global stage. There is worry that the trial served as a token form of action and that it remedies years of injustice communities of colour have faced at the hands of those in authority. Indeed, many black activists took to social media and news channels to emphasise that the conviction of Derek Chauvin should not be considered the end-all of outrage. Now is the time to work towards more effective measures with policing in the United States and to reconsider and challenge our views on what we consider to be adequate responses to violence.
One common feature in these cases is the dehumanisation of the victims, as defenders of the police look to find any fault with the victim to justify the use of force. For George Floyd, it was a history of addiction. For Adam Toledo, it was an association with gangs, and for Sandra Bland, it was confronting an officer about her arrest. There have been several cases in which police have wrongly reported the victims as violent or intimidating and have had to change their statements based on evidence suggesting otherwise. The presentation of the victim as a threat is an attempt to justify the use of force against them. Activists are attempting to counter that view through their work, highlighting how several white offenders, including individuals like Dylann Roof and Kyle Rittenhouse – both of whom had killed with semi-automatic weapons at the time of their arrest – were safely apprehended by law enforcement. With this in mind, we have to question the use of force in the first place, especially against individuals like George Floyd or Daunte Wright, who presented no immediate threat to police. As many have argued on social media in light of Pelosi’s statement, why is there the need to tamper with an individual’s image to paint them as deserving or undeserving of violence? Why must innocent people of colour be killed in the name of exposing an unequal system?
It is for this reason that now more than ever is the time to enact change. The conviction of Derek Chauvin is not neatly wrapped, ending the story of racial injustice in America. It is a story that has spanned centuries, beginning in the 1520s with the first journey in the triangular slave trade, that has played out in the form of segregation, Jim Crow laws and ongoing prejudice. It is a story of power and those who believe they deserve to wield it and requires us to confront deep-seated elements of white prejudice that plague our societies to this day in the way that we paint victims of police violence. We have to be active in our pursuit of a fairer and more peaceful system, one that does not dehumanise individuals based on the colour of their skin. We should not have to wait for another George Floyd, another Breonna Taylor, another Adam Toledo, or another Ma’khia Bryant for the system to change. We should not have to wait to watch another harrowing body cam video on our television screens or phones. None of these victims deserved to die, and no one else deserves to suffer at the hands of a society that does not fundamentally see all people as equal.
There is some relief for the family of George Floyd with this verdict and some glimmer of hope for change. However, this should be the bare minimum of accountability we expect to see in a case such as this. Derek Chauvin will likely face the consequences of his actions on that May evening, but countless others will not until something seriously changes.
The billboard at the gas station that stands above the crowds gathered at George Floyd Square questions whether justice has, in fact, been served, and for many, the answer is no. Not yet.