Guilty verdicts in murder trials don’t usually trigger widespread jubilation, but Tuesday’s conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who held his knee to the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, was different from the start. Rarely, if ever, has a case of police brutality — a white officer callously, needlessly, publicly slaying a subdued Black suspect — been more clearly documented, thanks to a cellphone video. Yet how many Americans still worried that the jury, after two weeks of trial and 10 hours of deliberation, would not render justice? Across the country, communities braced for that very possibility and the expectation that violent protests might erupt had the prosecution fallen short. So when the verdict of guilty on all counts did come in, the relief was palpable. The criminal justice system had worked. The defendant left the courtroom in handcuffs. A grateful nation cheered.
Yet, not long after this result rang out, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison summed up the circumstances in more realistic, less celebratory terms. What had happened, the 57-year-old Detroit native observed, was not justice but a first step toward justice. It was, he said, an act of accountability “because justice implies true restoration.”
What Mr. Ellison is likely getting at is that, first, George Floyd’s murder was made possible not just by the actions of one rogue officer, but by the indifference of many. Racism played a role. So did a tradition of unchecked police brutality and the “thin blue line” mentality that so often fails to hold law enforcement accountable. But it also runs much deeper in American life than that — in widespread white fear of Black men, in the poverty, lack of opportunities and the entanglements with drugs that plagued the victim and his family for much of his life.
This wasn’t the first such incident of deadly police misconduct to receive national attention; it won’t be the last. And it is not difficult to draw a connection between this trial and a broader “Black Lives Matter” racial reckoning that has been going on in this nation, from the removal of Confederate symbols to the mass public protests over events such as the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of Baltimore police six years ago. Putting police officers on trial can’t by itself heal the United States of its long-standing divisions and the animus that simmers, whether on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 or in recent efforts to create an openly white nationalist caucus in Congress with “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
What would restorative justice look like? It’s already in progress. The police reforms approved by the Maryland General Assembly earlier this month — some over the vetoes of the state’s Republican governor — are a prime example of such progress. So are investments in better public schools, health care and drug treatment, in companies making diversity a serious hiring goal (and opposing efforts to restrict voting rights), in decriminalizing drugs and, finally, unreservedly, completely acknowledging this nation’s slave-owning past and the prejudice that lingers more than a century and a half later.
To some extent, nothing has changed. The Chauvin-Floyd case has been an outlier from the start. Even in the most far-right media outlets, one doesn’t see much sympathy for the officer’s appalling behavior that spring day. How could they? Seeing is believing. But what about cases where there is no eyewitness bystander to record it all with an unblinking cellphone video camera? Perhaps the Floyd case will serve as a marker. But of what? Of not putting one’s body weight on the neck of a suspect contrary to police training — or not to do so when there’s a camera present?
Still, this is a time for renewed faith and hope. There is still the matter of sentencing, of course, but there can be no doubt that, as Mr. Ellison notes, accountability is happening. It has not been easy. It won’t be easy going forward as the reckoning continues. But this week provided a win for all Americans who believe we can do better, that we can be a nation of equality, that justice is possible. A former police officer was found to be a murderer. That’s a terrible thing. But how reassuring it has been to see him found guilty and not the American system of justice, at least not this time around.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.