I expect I would have been angry had the police officer who killed George Floyd been acquitted. But I also didn’t feel happy or celebratory, as many people did, when Derek Chauvin was found guilty. I felt numb. Empty.
While they may have been sparked by the video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for an excruciating 9.5 minutes, the uprisings that swept across the world in summer 2020 were about more than just these two men. The images struck a nerve in the American collective consciousness.
A stone-faced white police officer kneels on the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed, prone Black man accused of a petty and nonviolent crime as he pleads for his life. The Black man gasps that he can’t breathe, calls for his mother and then goes limp. All the while, the white police officer, his face cold and disinterested, keeps the pressure on, even after the Black man has died. It would be difficult to conjure an image that better epitomizes the criminal justice system’s brutal and bureaucratic suffocation of Black America over the past several decades.
Yes, last summer’s uprisings were a condemnation of Derek Chauvin. But they were also a response to deep-seated, large-scale, systemic pain.
That pain was exacerbated by a pandemic. George Floyd was murdered during the first wave of Covid-19 in the United States, in which a disease buoyed by government inaction and mismanagement was disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities. Like Derek Chauvin, the virus was deadly and unrelenting. For that reason, too, the image resonated.
Recall that at the time, U.S. unemployment was hitting the highest rate since the Great Depression, the government was printing money to pay for relief bills and nonviolent offenders were being released from prisons and jails because of the public health threat. To act like a guilty verdict represents justice is to accept that, even in such circumstances, the appropriate response to someone who was made unemployed by the pandemic and who was allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill is to lock him up.
It was illegal to kill George Floyd; the guilty verdict affirms that. But it would have been wrong to arrest George Floyd even without incident — a fact that seems to have been completely lost in the wake of the murder conviction.
Perhaps that’s why the conviction of Derek Chauvin left me feeling empty. One man has been condemned, but the system he came to represent is still intact. One of the core roles of a police force is to protect and serve capital. Police officers routinely do so by depriving human beings of their lives and liberty. That core dynamic remains firmly in place.
Still, continued calls to defund the police and invest in life-giving systems give me hope. While some may take solace in the Chauvin verdict as evidence that the system has righted itself, others remember it was always about more than just two men. True justice entails grappling with the systems that shaped them and their experiences, that sent them careening toward each other and that ultimately destroyed them both.
Anand Jahi is an In These Times board member.