The murder of George Floyd was a heinous crime, as Minnesota Attorney-General Keith Ellison aptly put it, that “shocked the conscience of the country.”
It was cathartic for Americans to see his asphyxiator, the blank-faced, stonehearted Derek Chauvin – his look reminded me of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – shackled and incarcerated. Guilty on all counts.
This thug cop’s act is carved in the national psyche. It sparked some of the largest protests against racial injustice America has ever seen. With the verdict, protest turned to celebration and to hope for a new era.
President Joe Biden, with first Black Vice-President Kamala Harris standing next to him, struck the right note after the verdict, saying Mr. Floyd’s death had “ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism” in his country.
“Enough, enough, enough,” he said. Don’t let Mr. Floyd’s dying words be forgotten. “This can be a moment,” he said solemnly, “of significant change.”
Most everyone, at least non-Republicans, expressed similar sentiments – that the verdict was a seminal moment, that it was a day that will be remembered 50 years hence. “Monumental,” said George Floyd’s brother Philonise. “Today we are able to breathe again … A pivotal moment in our history.”
But will it be that? How many other landmark moments of racial reckoning have there been since the Little Rock, Ark., desegregation drama of 1957? Will one more turn the tide?
Seminal too – even more so – was the election of Barack Obama in 2008. A Black man was given control of a White House erected by slaves. But not much came of it. Race relations became more polarized.
The murder of Mr. Floyd occurred 11 months ago. If it shamed and shocked police into changing their behaviour toward Black Americans, it’s not evident. The rate of police killings of Black people in the U.S. rose during this period. During the 16-day trial, police killed on average more than three people a day, a disproportionate number of them Black or Latino.
While the reaction to the guilty verdict was joyous among Democratic Party supporters, the response among Republicans hardly seemed to herald a watershed. They were subdued.
They have attacked defund-the-police measures. They have not softened their visceral resistance to gun control despite a recent rash of mass shootings. Along with his legion of followers, Donald Trump, who won more Black votes in the 2020 election than in 2016, shows no sign of moving off his racial biases. He’s had little to say about the workings of Mr. Chauvin’s knee but scathingly attacked football players for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest racism.
At the Chauvin trial, the verdict seemed a foregone conclusion. Defence attorney Eric Nelson had to resort to the far-fetched to make a case. He tried to claim that Mr. Floyd’s drug use in combination with car exhaust fumes caused his death. As if Mr. Chauvin’s knee pressed against his neck for almost 10 minutes had little to do with it.
All the prosecution needed was the sledgehammer of the knee-on-the-neck video. “Use your common sense,” prosecuting attorney Steve Schleicher told the jury. “What you saw, you saw … you can believe your eyes … what you saw was murder.”
But while the verdict seemed obvious, the tension was palpable. Social justice was on trial like rarely before. Given the difficulty of convicting a police officer in such cases, there was a sense of dread that a juror would go rogue, prompting an acquittal. The social upheaval to follow would have been calamitous. Hence the torrent of relief.
While there is reason for pessimism about the verdict effecting enduring change, the Black community sees real hope. Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, said it could constitute “a Selma, Ala., moment for America.” What happened in that city in 1965, he said, “demonstrated the need for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” Similarly, he added, a broad reform could come from the Floyd killing.
The level of public consciousness of racial injustice has been dramatically heightened. But this new spirit is mainly seen on just one side of the searing political divide. In Washington, Senate Republicans stand in opposition to Mr. Biden’s reforms in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Mr. Floyd’s death and the subsequent conviction of his asphyxiator mark another national reckoning on racial injustice. It’s a step forward. But the hope that it’s a leap is belied by precedent.
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