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In June 2020, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison (white shirt, center) and officers took a knee with protestors to remember George Floyd's struggle under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
In June 2020, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison (white shirt, center) and officers took a knee with protestors to remember George Floyd's struggle under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

For people, especially white people, who always side with police and give them the benefit of the doubt, the Derek Chauvin verdict — and the overwhelming evidence against him — demands doing something that makes everyone with hardened ideas uncomfortable: Trust your eyes, not what you’ve always believed.

The prosecutor said similar words in his closing argument to the Chauvin jury on Monday: “You can trust your eyes.” That was a remedial message to all of us. That was a man telling a nation that there were no “alternative facts,” no parallel realities to what we had seen in a video and heard from supporting witnesses, no reasonable doubt about Chauvin’s guilt. I couldn’t help but hear it as a counter message to the previous four years, when so many lies were told, when the president of that time said, “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening,” and when thousands of Americans refused to believe the unrefuted outcome of the presidential election.

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Yes, there is such a thing as objective reality. Yes, my fellow Americans, we can find our way through all the noise to facts and truth.

Yes, the jury found, George Floyd was murdered.

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Yes, what Derek Chauvin did as a Minneapolis police officer last May was murder.

What we saw in the video was what actually happened, with no possible justification.

That is shocking to all those who believe all police are well meaning, disciplined and well trained to serve and protect us. It’s been hard to let go of that belief, despite voices telling us that it’s not so for the last several years — and despite taxpayers funding millions in damages to the victims of police.

All of us want and need to believe certain things. All of us have prejudices. In fact, we do everything possible to reinforce those prejudices.

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What many have always believed is that police officers have impossible jobs that demand the full support of the public, that police officers have to make split-second decisions and that we should not question their judgments, that most of the people police encounter on the streets of America are up to no good, that the use of force is almost always justified.

It’s what many have always believed and will still believe. If you’ve lived the privileged life of being white in America — never being treated poorly by an officer, never having your sons or daughters come home and say they were stopped and questioned on the street for no reason — then it’s understandable. The absence of bad experiences will reinforce what you believe about police.

But Chauvin’s brutal treatment of Floyd in Minneapolis, captured in a nightmarish video, has got to be, finally, the difference maker, the one awful case out of so many awful cases, that pushes more Americans — some of the most hardened white Americans — to the side that says, at the very least, “Something is deeply wrong with policing in this country.”

That’s not political side-taking. That’s not a condemnation of all police officers. That’s just believing what you see.

Of course, the video taken by a teenage girl made clear that Chauvin had brutalized Floyd; the supporting testimony confirmed for the jury that he had committed murder under Minnesota law. I won’t say proving Chauvin’s guilt was easy, but the evidence was overwhelming.

That’s what it took to convict a bad police officer, with 18 conduct complaints on his record, of murder. What about all the cases that came before this, with no video evidence, and with few law enforcement peers or superiors willing to testify against police officers who went too far? What about all the other times prosecutors refused to charge cops?

This is hard, among the hardest problems facing a country that seems now overwhelmed with problems.

We want to believe that most of the men and women who are police officers today are good people, good at what they do, that they are well-trained, well-meaning public servants. We need more of them. We need more young Americans to take on the duties of law enforcement. But we need it done right. If that wasn’t clear before George Floyd’s murder, it is now. Let us believe our eyes, learn from what we’ve seen and set sights on a better country.

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