by Ken Sehested
21 April 2021
As I pulled out of our driveway, the NPR radio host said that the jury in the Derek Chauvin murder trial had reached a verdict and would be announced shortly. I immediately felt my stomach tighten and swallowed an inhaled “oh no.”
Like most, I thought the evidence against him in the death of George Floyd was irreproachable. But history said otherwise, particularly given the massive loophole provided by the Supreme Court’s ruling granting “limited immunity” to law enforcement, for “breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.”
Each Tuesday I perform taxi service, getting my granddaughter to and from her gymnastics team workout. I was grateful the news didn’t break until after dropping her off. That came as I pulled into the grocery store parking lot on the way home, to pick up an item for dinner.
Entering the store, it seemed I was the only one who knew that a rare moment in US history had been announced. If I were more of an extrovert, I might have shouted out a few exclamation points.
More than 1,000 people are killed by police in the US each year, a number that is many times over the per capita rate in any other country. But few law enforcement officers are convicted. Between 2013 and 2019, only 1% of killings by police have resulted in criminal charges.
What follows is a list of significant observations and takeaways published or broadcast since the verdict was announced, rendered with my own commentary.
1. Yesterday was, I believe, “a new day,” as one emotional post-verdict vigil participant said to a news reporter. Not just for this one conviction, or for accountability for one Black man’s death at the hands of police; but because the period between Floyd’s death last 26 May and yesterday has been marked by a public outcry like never before.
In the last 11 months there have been marches in some 2,000 cities and towns in over 60 countries in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Last summer alone it is estimated that between 15 million and 26 million people had participated at some point in the demonstrations in the United States, making the protests the largest in US history.
2. There has been a debate over whether Chauvin’s conviction represents justice.
One unnamed source commented, “This is not justice. This is accountability. Chauvin is where we start. The whole system is next.” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison elaborated: “I would not call today’s verdict justice . . . because justice implies restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step toward justice. And now the cause of justice is . . . in the hands of the people of the United States."
Alencia Johnson wrote on Twitter: “The justice we seek is a world where George Floyd would still be alive.” And author and activist Shane Claiborne tweeted, "We’re not merely fighting for a world where cops go to jail for killing people; we’re fighting for a world where cops don’t kill people."
Keep in mind that since testimony in Chauvin’s trial began on 29 March, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement, with Black and Latino people representing more than half the fatalities.
At a minimum, Chauvin’s conviction is a foretaste that in the matter of police liability justice is at least possible. At the very least, Chauvin’s conviction will serve as a deterrent.
3. The verdict in this trial almost certainly turned on the evidence of the videotaping of the brutal nine-and-a-half-minute, slow asphyxiation of Floyd by Chauvin. This incident could easily have been erased from history: unacknowledged, unexamined, corruption hidden from public viewing.
Consider the initial public announcement of this confrontation by the Minneapolis Police Department.
“[Floyd] was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
In other words, nothing to see here.
Without that video, we would not have heard the emotionally wrought testimonies of other bystanders. We would not have heard the testimonies of Minneapolis police officials, crossing the “thin blue line” of silence to say no, this conduct betrays our standards and training. We would not have heard from multiple medical experts verifying the accurate cause of death.
4. It’s all the more remarkable that 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who was about to enter the convenience store just feet away from where Floyd lay, had the presence of mind to pull out her phone and make that damning video. The success of this trial outcome is largely a result of her gumption, along with the many millions of those who took part in a collaborated citizens’ uprising against police malfeasance.
Remarkably, even the Fraternal Order of Police—the nation’s largest police union—supported the verdict, saying “‘Our system of justice has worked as it should,’ according to the group’s president, Patrick Yoes. ‘The trial was fair and due process was served.’”
Due process didn’t lead to this outcome. It was not the criminal justice system or politicians who paved the way for this trial’s outcome. It was “we the people.”
As the actor Will Smith commented in an interview, “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”
It was “we the people” who provided sufficient political cover for President Joe Biden, in a televised statement to the nation following the announced conviction, to say “It was a murder in full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see. For so many, it feels like it took all of that for the judicial system to deliver just basic accountability.”
For people of faith, the breath (wind) of God is the active agent in history, aspiring (breathing) to life all living things. It was such a breath that hovered over the “dark void” and breathing into the nostrils of humanity (Genesis 1:2; 2:7) in Creation’s initial dawn. It is by breath that praise is offered (Psalm 150:6) and by breath that dry bones are revived (Ezekiel 37:9). Even the hills and the trees join in festal praise (Isaiah 55:12-13).
Left: The Black Madonna of Sacred Activism by William Hart McNichols.
It was by breathing on his disciples that Jesus imparts the presence of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22; “spirit” and “breath” stemming from the same root word). It was a mighty wind (breath) that anointed the disciples at Pentecost, announcing a renewed community of conviction that aligns with Creation’s intent and Redemption’s promise (Act 2:2).
Nevertheless, these words of hope and assurance for a future brimming with justice—a future that invites our active participation as conspirators (breathing together)—are delivered in moments of calamity when hope often crashes on the jagged shoals of history.
As he often does, Charles Blow delivers this wrenching judgment. “A society that treats this much Black death at the hands of the state as collateral damage in a just war on crime has no decorum to project. That society is savage.”
Darnella Frazier did not awaken on the morning of 26 May 2020 intent on leveraging history. In that moment of travail she could have looked away. She could have continued her shopping. She could have frozen in place at the sight of Chauvin’s nonchalant savagery.
Instead, she took out her phone—and kept filming in spite of the witnessed agony. And then braved an emotionally fraught judicial hearing, under dogged questioning, with Derek Chauvin staring, and the televised world watching.
Darnella was unable to save George Floyd. But her simple act of courage may save future lives. Her reflexive action sparked a “breathing room” movement in our nation whereby genuine reform of our criminal justice system—so long demanded, so little delivered—might actually take shape.
In the end, our coinciding, breath-stealing pandemics—the COVID virus’ attacks on lungs, the asphyxiating effect of our impending environmental collapse, and the smothering results of our deeply-rooted patterns of systemic racism and economic inequity—are symptoms of spiritual crises.
“I can’t breathe” is the groan from every quarter. To respond, we ourselves must again learn to breathe and publicly, vigorously, maybe even contentiously perform resuscitation measures, creating breathing room for the Spirit’s aerating work.
Above: Ieshia Evans, being arrested in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Baton Rouge, La., 9 July 2016. Photo by Jonathan Bachman.
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