The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, unfortunately, countless others demonstrate this country has a pattern of violence against Black people. Police departments are the first responders to homelessness, mental and physical health distress, substance misuse and school discipline issues. As police departments’ roles are widened beyond their expertise, police are granted vast discretion to employ tactics of force, and there is no meaningful oversight or accountability. Now at the center of all debates is Derek Chauvin’s trial and the codefendant: race.
George Floyd’s murder sparked protests worldwide, and governments tried to respond to their constituents’ outrage at the state and local levels by implementing changes. For example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the “Say Their Name” reform agenda package, which permits the disclosure of officers’ prior disciplinary records and designates the New York Attorney General as an independent prosecutor for matters relating to civilian deaths. City councils in Philadelphia approved resolutions that would create independent oversight commissions with subpoena power to complete witness testimony and seek records from police departments. Additionally, The Seattle City Council opted to reduce the public’s exposure to policing on the front end by decriminalizing certain lower-level offenses.
While local governments attempted to respond to their constituents’ cries for racial justice, the attorneys on the Derek Chauvin case began preparing their cases, and one thing is clear: while the Derek Chauvin trial is technically not about race, it is, in fact, all about race. This case brings to light striking statistics and our society’s devaluation of Black lives, and yet, both sides must carefully tread the line of making this trial about race, as doing so could be grounds for a mistrial. "Something that's going to be jarring to some is that this trial is not going to be about race," Professor Mark Osler said during a recent panel discussion at the University of St. Thomas. "In criminal law, what the government has to prove is the elements of the crime … and none of those elements has to do with race." He added, "That means that there's going to be a real disconnect between what goes on [outside] the courthouse, where people will be talking about race, and what goes on inside."
This paradigm has been confusing for those following the trial. Early on, Schleicher, part of the prosecution team, never called this a race-based assault and made no reference to multiple other recent deaths of Black men and boys at the hands of white officers. Nelson, Chauvin’s defense attorney, also did not begin discussing race. Then buzzwords started to emerge as the trial went on—the description that officers were in a “densely populated urban environment,” the initial call to police from a convenience store manager who described Floyd as six feet tall or taller, paying with a counterfeit $20 and seeming "under the influence,” officers noting “potential signs of aggression.” On the procedural side, much of Chauvin’s history was kept out of the debate, although he was charged with two separate counts of murder, while accusations and allegations against the victim, George Floyd, were allowed. Although race was not directly discussed, it was the elephant in the courtroom.
Chauvin was convicted April 20, 2021 of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Additionally, Hennepin County District Judge Peter A. Cahill found state prosecutors had proved beyond a reasonable doubt four of five aggravating factors in Floyd’s killing that they argued should result in a tougher prison sentence for the former Minneapolis police officer. And while the world awaits Chauvin’s’ sentencing on June 25, 2021, it is undeniable that this verdict is about accountability, not justice. Can we provide any justice to Black and brown people who face violence at the hands of police officers? Will this guilty verdict make a difference? The jury’s decision will never be enough, as the current system is built on a foundation of structural racism and chronic poverty. This systemic disparity was put under the magnifying glass last summer as George Floyd and many others died at police’s hands. Reform and justice are missing one key piece—a reckoning of how we got to this failed system and why officers like Chauvin had the power and opportunity to use excessive force. To truly change this system and discard race-based hate practices, it is necessary to divert funds to things that actually help people and their families—reentry programs, mental health services, education, job counseling, financial counseling, childcare and other programs and services. Patrick Yoes, a retired sheriff’s office captain and President of the National Fraternal Order of Police said, “In a lot of cities it has to do with people feeling hopeless.” He continued, “It’s poverty, it’s a failing education system. It’s all of these things that are vitally important to stability of a community.” In hopes of implementing changes, seeing accountability and continuing to wait for real justice, we must maintain saying his name, saying Breonna Taylor’s name and saying Daunte Wright’s name.