1. Sometimes I think about all the times that police murdered or beat a Black or brown person and no one was there to record it. It makes me sick to my stomach, as it should every person, as it especially should every white person. I can’t get my head around that, and I’m not just talking since the Rodney King video came out 30 years ago, in March 1991, showing a group of Los Angeles police officers beating a Black man, King, who was on the ground and who was trying to shield himself from the batons and kicks and Tasers, which was taken as resisting arrest, which prompted more beating, until the cops put a sheet over him because they thought he was dead. I’m talking going back, in the entire history of policing in this country. Think about that. Think about all the times people read an account of a cop shooting a Black suspect and saying that they were armed and then people just accepted it as the official story and moved on.
2. Think about the fact that had then-17 year-old Darnella Frazier not taken out her phone and recorded George Floyd being murdered by then-Officer Derek Chauvin, Chauvin would have almost certainly gotten away with it. The line from Rodney King to George Floyd, from the acquittal of the King assaulters to the conviction of Floyd’s killer, is one filled with horrific acts of racist, often officially-sanctioned violence against Black and brown bodies, but it is one that extends far before King, all the way back to the bodies of slaves, and one that will continue after this verdict.
3. But for a moment, just for a moment, all but the worst of us could actually exhale, briefly, yes, but still, a breath for this justice being enacted. When the judge read Chauvin was guilty on all three counts – second and third degree murder and manslaughter – it was like the moment when you spark a flame in the wilderness. You don’t know if you can get it to grow into a full campfire that will keep you warm and keep the animals at bay, but, damn, you know there’s hope as you try to fan it into something more, something that you can add fuel to.
4. Our failure to radically address the systemic racism and military tactics that our police forces use is a profound lack of imagination and a profound lack of effort by our political leaders at all levels. I’m not going to get into the entire history of how the police became a paramilitary force or how the existence of police departments go back to slave patrols and as a white control on poor and Black populations in northern urban areas. But we have to know that it’s all led to this moment of crisis.
5. We have to know that things must change. The verdict today is an early step in a long, difficult road that threatens to collapse under our feet at any moment. We have to conceive of a new way for law enforcement to engage with communities. We have to allow that an understanding of mental illness and drug addiction, something that is fairly recent in our history, must have an effect on how authorities handle so many cases. We must take funds from police forces and use them for mental health intervention specialists. (That’s what most of us mean by “Defund the police.”) We have to conceive of a new way to train law enforcement, to come up with a new meaning for law enforcement itself. Perhaps most importantly, we have to acknowledge that the status quo is unsustainable and just plain wrong.
6. That starts with a very public, national reckoning on a few levels. The first is with systemic racism, especially with regards to how disproportionately non-white people are dealt with violently and abusively by law enforcement. Another is with the goddamn guns. The racism and the surge in gun sales go hand in hand. It’s white panic against a completely made up enemy, and it’s promoted by right-wing media for pure power and profit. Until we are ready to say that some things are objectively wrong – like that white officers are more likely to use their weapons in Black neighborhoods – and then act to make them right, we can’t move forward. Until we are ready to vote out politicians who use racism as an appeal to foolish white voters, we can’t move forward.
7. We must look at this day in another way: We’re celebrating that a cop didn’t get away with a murder that we all saw happen. That’s perhaps the bare minimum a civilized society should expect. If you’re video-recorded killing someone, you go to prison. It should be that simple. Yes, the Chauvin verdict might be the breaking of a dam on cases involving murder or assault by cops. But it’s a sign of how low our expectations have become that, honestly, many of us, especially in the Black community, wouldn’t have been surprised if Chauvin had been acquitted. What I’m expecting now is, at best, an assertion on the right of “See? Justice can be done” before proposing even more draconian crime policies. At worst, I expect a retrenchment by most of the GOP, a clinging to the old campaign tactic of showing scary Black people protesting while praising the clean, white police establishment.
8. The supposed good cops should be relieved at the verdict today. They should be glad that those who make them look bad, who make them look like racists, who make them look like bad apples might now be punished and make it easier for them to be the good cops they believe they can be. In fact, the supposedly good cops need to be encouraged, even rewarded, for turning in the bad cops. Or else let’s finally admit that the whole barrel is rotten.
9. Finally, I want to end this with a moment to remember George Floyd, a flawed man, like all of us, who suffered so awfully before our eyes, who it’s not hyperbolic to say died for our sins. But you can’t remember him without remembering every single name, every Eric Garner, every Breonna Taylor, every Adam Toledo, and you can’t remember them without thinking about all those whose names we never got to learn.
We can breathe where they can’t. But we need to use that breath for something more than sighs of relief.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on April 20, 2021 on The Rude Pundit, a website featuring commentary by Lee Papa. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Papa.