The NPR radio host said the jury in the Derek Chauvin murder trial had reached a verdict.
I was pulling out of my driveway, immediately feeling my stomach tighten.
Like most, I thought the evidence against him in the death of George Floyd was irreproachable.
But, as UCLA professor Joanna Schwarz noted, history said otherwise, particularly given the massive loophole provided by the Supreme Court’s ruling granting “limited immunity” to law enforcement, for “breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.”
More than 1,000 people are killed by police in the U.S. each year, a number that is many times over the per capita rate in any other country.
But few law enforcement officers are convicted. Between 2013 and 2019, only 1% of killings by police have resulted in criminal charges.
What follows is a list of significant observations and takeaways published or broadcast since the verdict was announced, rendered with my own commentary.
- April 20 was “a new day,” as one emotional post-verdict vigil participant said.
Not just for this one conviction, or for accountability for one Black man’s death at the hands of police, but because the period between Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s conviction has been marked by an unprecedented public outcry.
Last summer alone, it is estimated that between 15 million and 26 million people had participated at some point in the demonstrations in the United States.
- There has been a debate over whether Chauvin’s conviction represents justice.
One unnamed source commented, “This is not justice. This is accountability. Chauvin is where we start. The whole system is next.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison elaborated, “I would not call today’s verdict justice … because justice implies restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step toward justice. And now the cause of justice is … in the hands of the people of the United States.”
Keep in mind that since testimony in Chauvin’s trial began on March 29, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement, with Black and Latino people representing more than half the fatalities.
At a minimum, Chauvin’s conviction is a foretaste that in the matter of police liability, justice is at least possible.
- The verdict almost certainly turned on the evidence of the videotaping of the brutal, slow asphyxiation of Floyd by Chauvin.
This incident could easily have been erased from history: unacknowledged, unexamined, corruption hidden from public viewing. Read the initial public announcement of this confrontation by the Minneapolis Police Department for proof.
Without that video, we would not have heard the emotionally wrought testimonies of other bystanders, of Minneapolis police officers, of medical experts.
- It’s all the more remarkable that 17-year-old Darnella Frazier had the presence of mind to pull out her phone and hit record.
The success of this trial outcome is largely a result of her gumption, along with the many millions of those who took part in a collaborated citizens’ uprising against police malfeasance.
Remarkably, even the Fraternal Order of Police – the nation’s largest police union – supported the verdict.
Due process didn’t lead to this outcome. It was not the criminal justice system or politicians who paved the way for this trial’s outcome. It was “we the people.”
For people of faith, the breath (wind) of God is the active agent in history, aspiring (breathing) to life all living things.
It was such a breath that hovered over the “dark void” and breathed into the nostrils of humanity (Genesis 1:2; 2:7) in creation’s initial dawn.
It is by breath that praise is offered (Psalm 150:6) and by breath that dry bones are revived (Ezekiel 37:9).
It was by breathing on his disciples that Jesus imparted the presence of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22; “spirit” and “breath” stemming from the same root word).
It was a mighty wind (breath) that anointed the disciples at Pentecost, announcing a renewed community of conviction that aligns with creation’s intent and redemption’s promise (Acts 2:2).
These words of hope and assurance for a future brimming with justice – a future that invites our active participation as conspirators (breathing together) – are delivered in moments of calamity when hope often crashes on the jagged shoals of history.
As he often does, Charles Blow delivers this wrenching judgment: “A society that treats this much Black death at the hands of the state as collateral damage in a just war on crime has no decorum to project. That society is savage.”
Frazier did not awaken on the morning of May 26, 2020, intent on leveraging history.
In that moment of travail, she could have looked away, continued shopping or frozen in place at the sight of Chauvin’s nonchalant savagery.
Instead, she took out her phone – and kept filming in spite of the witnessed agony. And then braved an emotionally fraught judicial hearing, under dogged questioning, with Derek Chauvin staring and the televised world watching.
Frazier was unable to save George Floyd. But her simple act of courage may save future lives.
Her reflexive action sparked a “breathing room” movement in our nation whereby genuine reform of our criminal justice system – so long demanded, so little delivered – might actually take shape.
In the end, our coinciding, breath-stealing pandemics are symptoms of spiritual crises. “I can’t breathe” is the groan from every quarter.
To respond, we must again learn to breathe and publicly, vigorously, maybe even contentiously, perform resuscitation measures, creating breathing room for the Spirit’s aerating work.
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.