In considering the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on all counts in the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd, we celebrate a system that we perceive to have worked in this case — but we must do so against a backdrop of thousands of other cases in which no one was called to account for police killings, disproportionately of Black people.
The jury found that the officer acted so far outside the bounds of proper policing as to have committed crimes — second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — when he knelt on Floyd's neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
There will be attempts to read the result as some kind of vindication for American policing and our system of law, because it arguably demonstrates that good law enforcement agencies and good laws will ferret out and hold to account rogue officers. Such a reading would be tragically mistaken and no longer viable given where we are now, a year after Floyd's death and the protests that followed.
Those demonstrations focused Americans' attention on the racial inequities that endured decades after the end of racist laws meant to hold Black people apart and below white society. Some of those protests turned gratuitously violent, but that tragedy takes nothing away from the self-evident truths that have always been in front of our noses yet are too often ignored — that even though we profess that all men are created equal, we have built a society that dispenses unequal treatment by race and by class, especially in encounters with police.
Chauvin's attorneys argued that the judge's decision not to lock the jury away during the course of the trial was a fatal flaw that tainted the proceedings. But there was no indication that the fairness of the trial was undermined by an awareness of the world in which it took place. For too many years, denying the real world and the real conditions in which many Americans live and interact with police has not protected justice but has, in fact, brought us its opposite.
What was on trial was not merely one officer but the entire U.S. legal system and its ability to deliver equal justice in a nation built in part on the subjugation of Black people.
It is not naive to believe that the legal system can deliver on that promise, and it is our duty to believe that it must — and to know that we have much work before it finally becomes the justice system we told ourselves it already was.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES