Derek Chauvin's conviction is not a moment of 'racial progress'

Derek Chauvin's conviction is not a moment of 'racial progress'
Comment: Chauvin's conviction would look more like 'progress' if we could be sure it wasn't a one-off, brought about by circumstance, writes Khaled Beydoun.
5 min read
23 Apr, 2021
A mural in memory of George Floyd at the site of his murder [Getty]
This week, the nation held its collective breath awaiting the Minnesota court's verdict. In the midst of a pandemic, yet another police killing of an unarmed Black man, and a year coloured by explosive protests, the result of the Derek Chauvin trial would determine far more than the fate of one policeman and his department.

For Gregory*, a 61-year old Black man from Baltimore, the weight of the evidence against Chauvin and the nine-minute and 30 second video that clearly indicted him, was stacked against a backdrop of American history that vindicates policemen - particularly white policemen who have killed Black men (and women). "It didn't matter what we saw, I had that bad feeling. That same old bad feeling that he would be found innocent," the father of two shared with me in the days leading up to the verdict.

Much of America, particularly Black America, felt and feared the same. Gregory's position is hardly irrational, rather, rooted in statistical evidence that reveals the sheer rarity of police officer convictions. Philip Stinson of Bowling Green University found that, since 2005, only seven police officers have been convicted of murder after fatally shooting a victim.

Jury convictions of police charged with homicide over that span are about one in 2,000, suggesting that the Chauvin trial - for Gregory and Black Americans conscious of this pattern - would likely render the same unjust result.
  What if Darnella Frazier, the Black teen who recorded all nine minutes and 30 seconds of the episode, had chosen to step away and not take out her camera phone?  
But this time, it didn't.

On April 21, the Minneapolis court found Chauvin guilty on all three charges - second and third degree murder, and second degree manslaughter. Prosecutors requested the maximum prison time of 40 years attached to the conviction, and Chauvin will return to court to face sentencing in roughly two months' time.

His conviction has been lauded as a "step forward" and a "landmark moment" by many who jockeyed to put a positive cap on a case that served as a symbol for rising racism, police violence, and their furious overlaps.

To a nation ravaged by four years of Trump, a pandemic shifting in an unknown direction, and a streak of police shootings that have claimed the lives of unarmed Black men and women, young boys and girls, Chauvin's conviction was once again proffered as a symbol of "racial progress".

But close scrutiny of the peculiar dimensions of this case - and its conclusion - reveal that it is anything but. What if Darnella Frazier, the Black teen who recorded all nine minutes and 30 seconds of the episode, had chosen to step away and not take out her camera phone? She didn't, and her courageous decision spurred on a series of episodes - particular to this case - which delivered that rare conviction on Wednesday.

Read more: Remember, it's Derek Chauvin who is on trial - not George Floyd

The video illustrated Chauvin's disregard for Floyd's life, lucidly and luridly. When it emerged, protests exploded in every major American city, with actions also held in cities beyond the United States, marking the biggest movement since the first wave of Black Lives Matter actions.

How might things have looked different, if these protests had fizzled out quickly, and in turn, failed to accelerate the mainstream championing of "Black Lives Matter" by corporations, on NBA courts, and other spheres of American life that had rebuffed that motto and mission?   

George Floyd was not merely another Black victim of unchecked police brutality, but Frazier's video - and its global dissemination - anointed him a talisman of a second generation anti-racism movement that raced across the globe.

A failure to convict Chauvin, after the world had already seen what he did on the corner of 38
th and Chicago in Minneapolis on 25 May, 2020, could not have been hidden under the anonymity of statistics or the coverup of police departments. Frazier's video captured every bleak stanza of Floyd's murder - from Chauvin sinking his knee against the unarmed man's neck, to his final plea of "Please, I can't breathe" - then circulated it for all to see. 

Shortly after the conviction, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison commented, "This is not justice. This is accountability." This sentiment was echoed by many, flagging that convictions of murderous policemen should not be celebrated or lauded, but expected.

  Convictions of murderous policemen should not be celebrated or lauded, but expected  

Sadly, in a nation that has equipped policemen - particularly white policemen - with a virtual carte blanche to do whatever they wish, particularly in Black and minority communities, and then be legally excused, neither accountability nor justice are words that could characterise the prosecution of policemen.

The Chauvin trial, juxtaposed with a stack of cases involving the murder of Black men and women whose names we do not know, whose faces we have never seen, does not signal "racial progress" or a "landmark moment". It is a case that stands alone, in factual character and historical significance. Just this once, the forces of American racism, and the leeway given to policemen to gun down and bury faceless victims, have been called out, but the scales of racial justice remain definitively off-balance. 

*The man's anonymity is protected here with a pseudonym.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, and author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

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