To Convict Derek Chauvin, Prosecutors Couldn’t Tell The Truth About America
We saw the video. We know what happened.
It started with the waiting. The jury in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial had reached a verdict, and it was going to be read in court — but not yet. First, we’d have to wait. So, for about an hour, we did.
There was great cruelty in the slowness of that hour. Chests tightened and nerves frayed. To pass the time, Black people shared that they felt sick with anxiety, joked about waiting to find out if their lives mattered. There was prayer and deep breathing and holding each other. The minutes dragged on and it felt like an eternity.
And when the verdict was read aloud — Chauvin, guilty of all charges in the murder of George Floyd — there was sweeping relief. Tears. People dropped to their knees. An intense wave of profound disbelief that, for once, a cop was found guilty of killing an unarmed Black man.
But just as the disbelief began to subside, I found myself wondering: What, exactly, do I not believe? On May 25, 2020, Chauvin murdered George Floyd. I saw it with my own eyes in a painful video that popped up on every social media feed. Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, disregarding anguished cries from Floyd and desperate pleas from bystanders, and he stayed there until he extinguished Floyd’s life. He did it while holding an icy glare and appeared to have no flicker of doubt about his actions. I witnessed a murder that day in May. So what, exactly, do I not believe?
The verdict is a victory. But in order to get there, prosecutors had to tell a lie about America.
It should not be shocking that a court of law and a jury of Chauvin’s peers found him guilty of murder. We knew he was guilty going into the trial. It is far more telling that we were hit with disbelief that the court managed to see it, too. It is far more damning that people braced for a different outcome and hoped against hope that the American justice system would say “yes, what you saw is real” — because such an admission happens so infrequently.
The verdict is a victory. But in order to get there, prosecutors had to tell a lie about America. In front of a jury that admired law enforcement and hated the idea of defunding the police, the prosecution had to rely on an argument that is, on its face, not true. In his closing arguments, prosecutor Steve Schleicher told the jury, “Policing is the most noble profession.” He also wove a story about how policing is fine, how the institution is good — and that in fact Chauvin’s actions were a betrayal of the badge.
Schleicher framed this narrative mere days after police killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright about 10 miles from where the trial was held. Wright was killed by a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police force, who apparently accidentally pulled out her firearm instead of her stun gun. Schleicher talked about the nobility of policing the same week Chicago police released horrific body camera video showing an officer killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo while the boy’s hands were in the air.
We know that Chauvin’s murder of Floyd was not an aberration or a statistical anomaly. We have the data on this. Since the Washington Post began keeping track in 2015, police have killed about 1,000 people a year. We know that police kill Black Americans at a much higher rate than white Americans. What is an aberration is that Chauvin was found guilty. This rarely happens to cops; one study showed that only about 5% of officers arrested for shooting someone while on duty end up being convicted.
Chauvin’s monstrous actions, on their own, weren’t going to be sufficient to get a conviction. We know this because of the initial public statement Minneapolis police made after Floyd’s death, which said he died “after a medical incident during police interaction.” The statement said officers “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress” but left out why Floyd might have been in such a condition. The police were prepared with language that would protect Chauvin despite his peers having witnessed him commit murder.
So it wasn’t enough that people, including other officers, saw him do it. The bar to convict a police officer had to be higher. Ask Darnella Frazier about that. At the time, she was 17 and out taking her 9-year-old cousin to get ice cream when she found herself involuntarily enlisted in the losing war of holding police accountable. She saw them confront Floyd, took out her phone, and started recording. If it weren’t for her video of the entirety of the encounter, we would not be here. Frazier wept as she told the court, “It's been nights I stay up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”
The video wasn’t enough. Millions had to pour into the streets in protest. They had to skip work, stop traffic, get arrested, shut down cities, and do so every day for weeks in order to bring a nation to a standstill. To have a nation pay attention. They had to weep and shout and organize. That’s the bar. All this to get a court to say, “Yes, what you saw is real.” There is indignity in this. There is humiliation in the wait. And in the aftermath of the verdict, there was more indignity: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.” Elsewhere, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said Floyd’s life and death will have “bettered our city.”
As Chauvin’s verdict was announced, police in Columbus, Ohio, shot 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant. An officer fired four rounds about 10 seconds after arriving on the scene. The teen called the police, her aunt told the Daily Beast, because she felt unsafe. She called 911, and police killed her.
Now we wait for more information, despite having all the information we need — that it shouldn’t have ended this way. Again.●