I had just finished a meeting midway through last Tuesday afternoon when I saw an email pop up on my screen. It was news I didn't expect so soon: a verdict had been reached in the Derek Chauvin trial.
That verdict, it was quickly reported, would be announced sometime between 3:30 and 4 p.m.., and I've got to admit to being a little bit on edge for that next hour or more. But if I was on edge, I thought, imagine how George Floyd's family was feeling — not to mention the throngs of Americans not just in Minneapolis, but across the country — while waiting for a pronouncement that could potentially spark even higher levels of anger and violence than we've already seen over the last several months.
And then, stunningly, came the words that almost certainly were a huge relief to many.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
Perhaps "stunningly" isn't the perfect word to use in this instance, but I'm sticking with it. It shouldn't be surprising that a man who kept his knee on another man's neck for nearly 10 minutes while the victim uttered the words "I can't breathe" was found guilty of murder. Yet, somehow, it was shocking, as we've seen time and time again the deaths of Black people at the hands of police go virtually unpunished.
There's so much to unpack with last week's verdict that it's hard to know where to start. One place to do so is with the notion of justice.
One could easily say that the announcement of Chauvin's guilt brought justice in the form of a legal conviction. Stating merely that "a man was killed, and justice has now been served" fails, though, to look at the big picture. George Floyd should have never lost his life in the manner that he did. Perhaps justice truly comes only when changes are made that end police brutality against people of color. But how many more people will lose their lives before such change comes? Witness the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in North Carolina less than 24 hours after Chauvin was found guilty.
As the U.S. Congress considers the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, talk about police reform and "defunding" will no doubt continue and remain contentious. However, a failure to act toward change, which naturally will require some degree of compromise, is unacceptable. And then there's the matter of a far bigger, more subtle change that's needed in society, and it involves transforming a way of life that was part of this country long before we called ourselves the United States. I recently read the book "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" by Isabel Wilkerson, and to say it provoked me to think about our country and its people in a different way is no understatement.
"Caste" is some heavy lifting, indeed, and by no means a breezy, on-the-beach read.. Neither, for that matter, is another book I just finished, "Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory" by Claudio Saunt, which encompasses the history of the expulsion of Native Americans from their lands east of the Mississippi River during the 1830s. (You're probably thinking by now, 'Do you read ANYTHING fun?' Lighten up, dude!) Along a somewhat similar vein, and much shorter, is a recent article in The New Yorker, "The Forgotten History of the Purging of Chinese from America," by Michael Luo.
My point is, there are instances upon instances throughout our nation's history of white European Americans essentially punishing non-whites to retain their grasp on dominance. Shattering this cycle clearly doesn't happen overnight, but being consciously aware of at least some of these shameful episodes of our past should be instructional going forward. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and this has been true from the time slaves were brought to the American colonies beginning in the 17th century to the time when a Minneapolis police office knelt on a Black man's neck.
There can be no doubt that justice is extremely difficult. There is also no question that we must put forth the effort to deliver it, for all.