Guilty as Charged
Terry H. Schwadron
April 20, 2021
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. All three charges.
Across the country, the moments before the verdict announcement were tense and dramatic in ways that few such events bring. The sense was that there was a lot hanging on the jury decision besides the individual guilt of one, now-fired Minneapolis police officer in the death of George Floyd — all beyond the scope of the trial.
A finding of not guilty would be read by anyone other than the two people at the defense table as a blow for American justice, hours of witness videotape of that seemingly endless nine minutes and 29 seconds and an overwhelming pile of prosecution evidence. We were all aware that for even one juror to hang a decision might launch a street reaction, a multi-racial reaction, that would careen on rage.
A finding of guilt on even one of the charges, however, might just show that we could acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to punish excessive force by police for whom this country has turned itself inside out to support.
The verdict itself was not anticlimactic, though it was read aloud by the judge rather than Juror 19, the foreperson. Individually, the jurors confirmed their decision; Chauvin showed no reaction, even as bail was revoked, and was led away in handcuffs.
In the street outside our Harlem apartment, there was cheering. It was true in Minneapolis as well.
But it came with an immediate chorus of reminders and rejoinders from all sides that this verdict did not solve or unravel the Gordian knot of community policing. It was meant all along to address bad judgment and bad action by Derek Chauvin in stepping into the arrest of a large, Black George Floyd outside a convenience store where he mistakenly had paid for his cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, subduing him onto the ground, and holding his knee on that man’s neck until several minutes after he was dead.
Jurors had known from the get-go that it would come to this, that the clash between street calls for justice would run into the realities of trying an actual police officer for actions in a single, tense encounter at Chicago and East 38th Street last May.
Even with all the caveats, this was a trial that never really mentioned race, was being read as whether, on some level it, America was rendering a judgment about whether Black Lives Do Matter.
There was a lot that had been remarkable about the more than two-week trial and 45 witnesses and expert perhaps the most noteworthy was the gap between what common sense and morality would say about right and wrong, and what is required in this country to prove legal guilt in a modern-day law court deluged by procedure. The depth of the technical information and a defense that would blame the victim here undoubtably played a role.
The trial had taken on iconic status — regardless of the verdict: This was being widely pictured as a showdown in which the safety of being Black in America, of Driving while Black, Shopping While Black, Walking While Black, was being pitched again against backing law enforcement with no questions asked.
The verdict would not by itself change fears — Black and White — about police immunity and force.
The city and the region had braced for the outcome by pre-positioning the National Guard, by erecting plywood protections for downtown stores and buildings, by canceling physical school for the rest of the week. But that was Minneapolis alone. Whatever reaction was to come would reach cities across the country, from nearby Brooklyn Center struggling to handle an “accidental” police killing of its own, to police stations and community centers in every city, to Washington where the usual people were readying themselves to take the usual partisan outcomes.
For jurors, the question became whether they could “believe their eyes” as prosecutors had asked or to put themselves in the shoes of a harried policer officer whom the defense depicted as making “reasonable” decisions to take actions to keep Floyd down. What the quickness of the decisions could only say was that jurors must have focused on the charges themselves, and not on reliving all the life choices that Floyd himself had made, an alternate version of vision that the defense tried to make Floyd’s death one seemingly of his own decision.
Policing Matters, So Does Race
What has not been addressed in this verdict remains crucial: Race and treatment of The Other still expose our critical American underbelly.
Whether we are talking race or housing, education, income or hope, our national legacy of differing treatment for White and non-whites, or citizens and non-citizens, of straight and gay and trans, of people of different religions is what stains our dreams. The unaddressed list of affirmative actions that require attention is long and disputed.
In this very week, we have had actual congressional byplay about whether we would have a White Caucus, by whatever catchy name, as well as voter suppression legislation under the name of “election integrity” that would dampen Black voting, and a passel of economic and public health issues that show more about difference than they do about agreement.
Topping the list is how we choose to police ourselves, and whether we will do anything beyond this individual prosecution or those considered in Brooklyn Center or Cleveland or Chicago, Kenosha, Louisville, Washington and Staten Island to re-create community policing from its assumed military stance to adopt tactics of de-escalation. The wild thing here is that there are actual bills on the table, just awaiting action in the Senate.
Again, even yesterday and today, we were hearing more criticism of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., for encouraging protest and “confrontation” to keep policing issues alive than for the circumstances under which police escalation to shootings, chokeholds and knees on necks is alive and widespread.
The question in the aftermath is not how wide the public rage, it is why we don’t have ways to channel that rage into building a better way.