Updated: May 4
By Rev. Dr. Kenneth Harris
President, Ecumenical Theological Seminary
Lead Pastor, Detroit Bible Tabernacle
Like millions of Americans, I am still breathing a sigh of relief. The jury in this case obviously did the right thing. That sigh of relief is bitter-sweet, however. Derek Chauvin is going to prison, but George Floyd is still dead. To what amounted to a 21st century horizontal lynching that slowly choked the life out of Floyd, I never thought I would hear those words again, “I can’t breathe.”
Floyd family representatives who spoke about him reminded us of how this event has affected their close-knit family. They waited a whole year for the verdict that brought some closure to the family’s grief. Mr. Floyd joins a long list of unarmed black men and women who have died at the hands of those who have sworn to defend and protect: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, and the list continues to grow as I write.
The celebration of Chauvin’s conviction on all charges gives us a moment of hope. I am so happy for the Floyd family, and I am trying to be hopeful.
Hopefully, this may give pause to rogue law enforcement officers who might think twice before pulling the trigger or applying choke maneuvers on unarmed, handcuffed fellow Americans. The image of the smirk on Chauvin’s face as he applied his knee to George Floyd’s neck will haunt me for years to come. As he posed for the camera and arrogantly ignored pleas from the crowd and fire and rescue personnel, he and his fellow officers showed no compassion. In open display of their disdain for Floyd and his community, they tortured and murdered a fellow human being who happened to be black. The memory of Eric Garner’s pleas of “I can’t breathe” had no impact on Chauvin and his colleagues.
The image of a pathetic Chauvin in the courtroom taking notes and then being led away in handcuffs without bail was a far cry from the video played repeatedly this past year. “Qualified Immunity” would not help this time!
So what does it really mean? It means one murderous cop is off the streets. For me and millions of other black men and boys, it reminds us of the ugly reality we face every day. When will we be pulled over by some rabid cop who just wants to muck up our day? The badge, the gun and the notion of qualified immunity serve as a license to treat certain citizens with disrespect, violence and sometimes death without consequences or accountability. It seems to be a badge of honor to behave in this manner and get away with it. Body cams don’t matter with rogue cops. They even turn them off when convenient. Smart phone cameras don’t matter either.
These cops are ticking time bombs! U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, found that out recently in Virginia while in full uniform. Windsor, Virginia, police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker pulled their weapons, threatened to shoot him and used pepper spray in a frightening display of mindless escalated bigotry. They were fired, but the question remains, “What does it really mean?” Will Gutierrez and Crocker show up in another town or city wearing a badge and gun?
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office prosecuted the Floyd case. Ellison did not characterize the verdict as a matter of justice, but primarily an issue of accountability. As long as the “justice” system fails to make law enforcement officers accountable for their actions, there can be no justice. Some levels of accountability were executed recently on law enforcement officials who helped storm the Capitol and beat Capitol police officers. One officer was killed. Some rogue officers were identified and fired. The problem? The rest are back working on the streets of our cities.
For someone who is normally the optimist, I now find myself being the sceptic. Chauvin’s indictment and conviction are the exception, not the rule. Keith Ellison is the exception. The Minneapolis police chief is the exception. The diverse jury that voted to convict Chauvin is the exception. We observed a slight crack in the “blue wall of silence” this week. We also saw diverse citizens speak up this week. We saw “truth” triumph the “lie” this week. It’s a start, but the issue of voter suppression doesn’t help.
I am reminded of the appeals of the ancient Hebrew prophets whose cries for justice and righteousness resonate with the cries of the oppressed today:
3 'Thus says the Lord, "Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place. NASU
23 "Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
24 "But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. NASU
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? NASU
What does the Chauvin verdict really mean? I’m not sure. The shootings continue. The funerals continue, families and communities grieve, and black Americans ask, Who’s next? Trumpism has emboldened acts of violence against African Americans, Asians, Jews and immigrants. I long for the day that these words from the fourth verse of “My Country, Tis of Thee” will ring true for all Americans:
Our fathers' God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom's holy light.
Protect us by Thy might.
Great God our King.