(RNS) — Much of Black America flinched on Tuesday (April 20) while awaiting the outcome of the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, unsure if the day’s menu of racist abuse would include Chauvin’s acquittal in the killing of George Floyd last May. Cities around the United States braced for unrest.
In what feels like a political miracle, the jury unanimously found Chauvin guilty on all charges. Scenes of joy from around the world flickered on our TV screens and laptops as seemingly everyone exhaled in relief.
But before we speak of “hope” in the wake of this anomaly of accountability, we should first examine the Chauvin trial as a precedent for handling police violence. If this is success, we are still accepting an incredibly high bar to get the basic accountability we should expect. If this is success, the U.S. criminal justice system’s attitude toward Black Americans remains a hard pill to swallow.
There will be more police killings. There already have been, even in Minneapolis, where, as the Chauvin trial loomed, Minneapolis police shot unarmed 20-year-old Daunte Wright. In Chicago less than a month ago, police shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo. Minutes before the Chauvin verdict, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant’s name was trending on social media in the form of a hashtag — our generation’s version of the NAACP’s “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag. Those are just a few we know of because they’ve made the news.
The vast majority of victims of police violence will not become household names. Their deaths won’t be watched by a billion people. Protesters won’t chant their names from New York to Bristol, England, to Montego Bay.
Confederate statues won’t be toppled in protests questioning the premises of white supremacy that caused their deaths; colonizers’ memorials won’t be tossed into the sea for them. The president won’t call to check on their families, publicly signaling that the right thing to do is convict their killers.
It took a global uprising to get a city and a jury to convict one cop for one lynching. That exchange rate for accountability is too high.
If the system wants to tout this aberration of the system as an argument to legitimize itself, it will have to lower the cost for guilty verdicts moving forward, as it gets its affairs in order.
If hope is based on our memory — the knowledge that what has happened before can happen again — then those who fight racial injustice can take this little victory in Minneapolis as a testimony to the power of protest and community organizing for change. It may signal that the political weather has shifted. Changes are possible today that weren’t in 2013, when George Zimmerman walked free in Florida after fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, a teenager who walked through Zimmerman’s neighborhood.
If we keep pushing, through collective action, we may see more meaningful change. Perhaps this is a time to heed the Prophet Zechariah’s words: “Do not despise these small beginnings.”
At the same time, it signals how steep the hill to a new normal is.