Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Laquan McDonald. Alton Sterling. Terrance Crutcher. Stephon Clark. Breonna Taylor. Atatiana Jefferson. Daunte Wright. Adam Toledo.
That’s an all-too-incomplete list of people killed by cops other than Derek Chauvin. None of their loved ones have seen their murderers brought to justice.
Today, however Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, made history when he was convicted, on all counts, in the murder of George Floyd. All it took to get that conviction was: nearly 10 uninterrupted minutes of video documenting the murder in broad daylight; a victim who was already handcuffed and prone at the time of his murder; months of nationwide protests; years of organizing by Black activists; a narrative that rose above the noise of a pandemic; a Democratic state attorney general; a prosecutor willing to indict; a nationally televised trial that ran for three weeks; multiple cops testifying against one of their own; and largely incontrovertible testimony from medical experts.
That’s what it takes for justice. All of those factors had to line up, just so, to get one cop convicted of one murder. The Chauvin verdict sets the floor of criminal justice. It represents the very least the white justice system can do.
I’m thankful there is at least a floor. I’m thankful we’ve finally found the bedrock of basic accountability. I’m thankful that when we finally dredged up Chauvin, it was to inflict justice upon him.
But I’m sad that such justice comes too late for Floyd. Chauvin was a violent cop. He was accused of 18 conduct complaints before he killed Floyd. He should never have been on the street, and he wouldn’t have been if people took police violence against Black people seriously.
And let’s not forget, Chauvin had three accomplices. Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng were all there, and did nothing as Chauvin choked the life out of Floyd. Their trials for aiding and abetting the murder Chauvin committed—and has now, finally, been convicted of—are still pending.
The process of getting justice for Floyd is ongoing. The process of getting justice for the rest of us hasn’t even started.
Bringing the cops to heel cannot happen through individual prosecutions. We need to address systemic racism in law enforcement and the permissive culture of violence against people of color.
It’s not an intractable problem. It can be addressed constitutionally—by overturning cases that allow the cops to ignore the Fourth Amendment. It can be addressed legislatively—by passing laws that change the police use-of-force guidelines and setting up independent third parties to investigate and prosecute problem officers, perhaps before brutal police graduate to homicidal police. It can be addressed politically—by voting for mayors who aren’t in the pocket of police unions and by showing up to vote for local district attorneys who promise to treat police brutality like any other crime. It can be addressed with funding—by defunding and demilitarizing the police and funding non-police personnel to handle mental health crises and traffic duty. It can be addressed through the media—by demanding coverage that doesn’t simply parrot police reports and narratives that distort and harm real lives. It can be addressed in people’s hearts—by the simple act of believing Black people when we tell you what’s happening to us.
If the Floyd murder and the focus on the Chauvin trial inspires us to do these things, then we will not be back here in a year or two, nail-biting on Twitter while waiting to see whether a minimum of justice prevails.
But if we ignore the structural changes, the hard changes, the necessary changes, we will be back here. We will not break the cycle of violence against people of color or the polarization over whether our lives matter. It is literally already too late for Floyd to be the last unarmed Black man to be murdered by criminal police action. It is already too late for this time to be the last time the country is divided over whether a cop should be held accountable for their actions. Daunte Wright was killed a week ago. The next unarmed victim will be killed before the end of pollen season. We exist in a blizzard of police violence against communities of color, with only the occasional trial or funeral providing the occasional break to take stock of the storm.
The next victim is unlikely to die in a way that white people will recognize as flagrantly unjust. The next unarmed Black man killed by police is unlikely to spend nine minutes calling out for his mother as the cops slowly choke the life out of him. Most of us die far too quickly for the white news media to see our agony.
The Chauvin conviction is important, but it’s not repeatable. It’s a floor, not a ladder.
Floyd’s family can finally begin the process of healing. They have received some measure of justice, and hopefully they can find peace.
The rest of us have to get back to work.