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Unequal Justice

Community members gather in George Floyd Square following the verdict that found Derek Chauvin guilty on all three charges.

The trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd is over. It ended exactly as it should have, with guilty verdicts on all counts, including the most serious charge of second-degree murder. 

Let us not get carried away with celebration, or lulled into believing that institutionalized racism and police brutality are things of the past.

After the verdicts were read, Chauvin’s bail was revoked, and he was handcuffed and remanded into custody. In the coming weeks, he will be sentenced and ordered to serve as many as forty years in state prison. A stiff sentence is what he deserves.

So let us all breathe a collective sigh of relief, even as we remember those awful nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds when Floyd fought to take his last breath with the full weight of Chauvin’s knee pressing down on his neck.

The Chauvin trial is a resounding victory for racial justice and the principles of equal protection under the law that are enshrined in our Constitution but all too rarely achieved. So, let us not get carried away with celebration, or lulled into believing that institutionalized racism and police brutality are things of the past.

They are not. 

Derek Chauvin in handcuffs while his lawyer, Eric Nelson, watches. Chauvin now remains in a maximum-security prison in Stillwater, Minnesota, until his sentencing is announced in eight weeks.

 Derek Chauvin in handcuffs while his lawyer, Eric Nelson, watches. Chauvin now remains in a maximum-security prison in Stillwater, Minnesota, until his sentencing is announced in eight weeks.

Derek Chauvin in handcuffs while his lawyer, Eric Nelson, watches. Chauvin now remains in a maximum-security prison in Stillwater, Minnesota, until his sentencing is announced in eight weeks.

If there were true justice in the United States, Floyd would never have been executed on a Minneapolis street for the suspected crime of passing a fake twenty-dollar bill. He would be alive today, as he should be, along with Michael BrownTamir RiceSandra BlandEric GarnerWalter ScottBreonna TaylorDuante WrightMa'Khia Bryant and many others. Their lives, like Floyd’s, were extinguished by a system that regards communities of color as inherently dangerous and unworthy of basic human dignity and respect.

Like many Americans, I closely followed the Chauvin trial on television. As someone who has practiced law for decades and who also served as a judge, I knew the evidence against Chauvin was strong, thanks in no small measure to the heroism of Darnella Frazier. The Minneapolis resident, now eighteen years old, had the presence of mind to film Floyd’s encounter with Chauvin on her smartphone.

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During the trial, she took the stand and testified that when she looked at Floyd, she saw her Black relatives and friends and thought, “That could’ve been one of them.” 

Still, I was uneasy. I live in Los Angeles, where in 1992 a nearly all-white jury exonerated four police officers of savagely beating motorist Rodney King. Like Floyd’s encounter with Chauvin, King’s beating was caught on tape, filmed by an individual who lived in an apartment across the street. 

And yet, the police defendants who beat King were acquitted. Along with countless other viewers of the Chauvin trial, I asked if the same sad history could possibly be repeated. 

For me, the turning point in the Chauvin trial did not come until after both sides had rested and the trial judge instructed the jury. On the issue of causation, which was always going to be the trickiest and most difficult aspect of the prosecution, the judge rejected the defense counsel’s proposed jury instruction that an overdose on drugs or a sudden heart attack could be considered a “superseding cause” of death, negating Chauvin’s responsibility.

In the end, the judge gave a standard and straightforward instruction on the law of causation without any specific mention of Floyd’s pre-existing coronary artery disease or ingestion of illicit drugs on the day of his death. The instruction allowed the defense attorney to argue that other factors besides Chauvin’s knee caused Floyd to die; but, without any emphasis in the instructions on Floyd’s medical condition or drug use, the arguments proved unavailing.

During the trial, Floyd’s brother Philonise and Deborah Watts, a cousin of Emmett Till, met face-to-face in a moment of shared grief and hope. Till was only fourteen years old in 1955 when he was kidnapped, mutilated, and murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Two white men were indicted by a Tallahatchie County grand jury for killing the teen. 

But despite the overwhelming evidence against them, the defendants were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury that deliberated for a mere sixty-seven minutes.

The Till verdict, though cruel and outrageous, surprised no one. The defendants were never made to pay for their crimes—and in fact later admitted their guilt in an interview with Look magazine—but their acquittal became a catalyst for subsequent advances in civil rights.

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Emmett Till, though horrifically murdered, did not die in vain. Neither will George Floyd. But Derek Chauvin’s conviction is not some kind of final accomplishment in the struggle for equal justice—it’s just one important step in a very long, and seemingly unending, process. 

Bill Blum
The Progressive

Reposted with the author's permission