On Tuesday, 15 Americans made a statement that the country desperately needed to hear: George Floyd’s life mattered. Of course, that was the message that millions of Americans delivered last summer, when mass protests erupted across the nation over his killing by a white police officer. This time, however, it came from a jury that had the power to exact justice for a modern-day lynching caught on camera.
And that, they did. After just 10 hours of deliberation, the jurors in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial announced that they found the former Minneapolis police officer guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
Despite the clarity of the footage of the incident, filmed by a 17-year-old girl distraught by what she was witnessing, the verdict was far from a sure thing. Local governments had braced themselves for widespread unrest. State and federal officials deployed the National Guard in major cities across the country. Minnesota even closed schools last week in anticipation of the announcement. It is exceptionally difficult, after all, to prosecute cops for crimes committed in the line of duty.
But any ruling other than guilty would have rightfully been deemed unacceptable. The facts of the case can’t be overstated: A police officer—a figure with immense institutional power and near legal impunity—killed an unarmed Black man in plain sight. He knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, long after he’d lost consciousness. When Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe, and when he called for his dead mother, Chauvin told him to “stop yelling.” It was therefore the responsibility of justice activists everywhere to keep yelling until justice had been served.
While we can all now breathe a collective sigh of relief that the jury made the obviously right decision, one thing is equally clear: We have to keep yelling. Not only for Floyd, but for everyone who has suffered as a consequence of the systemic racism so deeply entrenched in American life.
That’s why today’s verdict doesn’t really feel like a win. George Floyd should have never been killed in the first place. Rather, it is a sad recognition that justice has long been elusive for Black Americans—and that this moment is truly a historical exception.
The threat of state violence fundamentally affects how Black Americans interact with the world. It pervades our minds like an intrusive thought that just won’t quit. What if my mom gets pulled over today? What if my brother has a run-in with a street cop? What if I haven’t kept a low enough profile to keep the police from hurting me?
The hard truth is that Chauvin is more than just a culprit of a horrific crime. He is the embodiment of why America’s criminal justice system is fundamentally broken. He thought he could act the way he did—that he could kill a defenseless Black man with his fellow cops watching in plain sight—and get away with it.
He is not the only one. Cops have killed Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, and many others. As recently as last week, police officers fatally shot Daunte Wright, just ten miles away from where Chauvin’s trial was being conducted.
Federal officials can no longer treat ideas to reform the police like fanciful ideations from out-of-touch activists. Several nominees to the Department of Justice, for example, have largely distanced themselves from past calls to reallocate funds from police departments’ swollen budgets and funnel them instead toward more social services for communities.
But until those in the highest positions of power recognize that systemic racism in policing is a virus that needs to be eradicated as ferociously as Covid-19, Black Americans will keep dying at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve them.
Derek Chauvin will be heading to jail for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life. That is a good thing. That is a step toward progress. But it is not enough. The real work has only just begun.