Yesterday was the day a Minneapolis jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on three criminal counts, including second degree murder, in the killing of George Floyd.
It was also my 50th birthday. I live in Washington, D.C. and had planned to pick up a carry-out dinner from a restaurant a few blocks away from the White House. As I got ready to drive downtown, I heard reports that the verdict was going to be announced within the hour.
I headed out, listening with some anxiety on my car radio. The evidence against Chauvin was overwhelming, including compelling statements from fellow police officers who testified against Chauvin. But there was, of course, uncertainty. I assumed it was likely that Chauvin would be convicted on at least one of the three counts, but worried he might not be convicted on all three.
If Chauvin was not convicted on all counts, I wondered how people might react. I thought of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after police officers caught on video savagely beating Rodney King were acquitted. Rage would be understandable if Chauvin was not convicted on all counts, but I didn’t want to be caught in the middle of it.
I made my way downtown, finding a parking space near the restaurant at 5 p.m. Eastern time, with the verdict expected at any minute. It was a beautiful sunny day and pedestrians were strolling casually. A man on a street corner was loudly playing a radio broadcast that was tracking the proceedings in Minneapolis. I picked up our order, walked back to my car and turned on the radio.
Still no verdict. I started driving north through the Dupont Circle area in downtown Washington. The verdict was finally in. As the judge read the jury’s verdict of guilty on all counts, I felt relieved. As I heard the judge poll each individual juror, I thought of the jury’s diversity — men and women, black and white, multiracial, immigrants. Some spoke English with an accent. All answered “yes” when the judge asked them, in turn, whether they had indeed reached a guilty verdict.
I am white, and teach a university class on U.S. presidential power. Each semester we discuss cases in which jurors refused to convict people accused of crimes under a proclamation President George Washington issued unilaterally without congressional support. The framers of the Constitution believed jurors had an essential role to play in setting limits on government power. Jurors in 1793, all white men, fulfilled that duty when they refused to allow Washington the power of a monarch to unilaterally define and then punish criminal offenses without legislative support. A diverse jury in Minneapolis this week performed a similar function in rejecting the notion that a police officer could unilaterally serve as judge, jury and executioner.
I thought of efforts by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and others to form an America First caucus, efforts that seemingly unraveled when a document was made public that described the caucus as seeking to focus on “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” while defending the (presumably white) nation against threats from “foreign citizens en masse into [the] country”.
After the Chauvin verdict was announced, Greene falsely claimed that Washington, D.C. was “completely dead,” and that people supposedly were “scared to go out because of fear of riots”, with “[p]olice everywhere [with] riot gear.” In fact, as I drove home, the scene outside was placid — people who looked like they were returning home from work, parents pushing strollers. There was no indication that anything momentous had happened, not even a shout or honking of car horns. I passed a solitary police car, part of a line of traffic, no siren blaring, no sign it was doing anything other than routine duty.
I returned home and had my birthday dinner with my family. After dinner, I went out to play a baseball game. It was getting dark as I drove to my game, and everything remained normal as I headed to the field in suburban Maryland. I listened to more coverage of the Chauvin verdict and grew encouraged. I later heard that President Joe Biden remarked “this can be a moment of significant change.” That was how I was feeling as I drove into Maryland — that this verdict could be a start and a crucial and necessary step in the right direction for this country.
What I encountered when I arrived at the baseball field deflated much of my hope. I walked past a group of men who were talking about the verdict. All appeared to be white, though there were one or two people of color nearby who seemed to hear their conversation but were not participating in it.
The most vocal speaker was quite obviously unhappy with the result. I heard him say something to the effect that the verdict means that no one will want to be a police officer now because they will fear unmerited punishment for simply doing their job. I felt my blood boiling and jumped into the conversation, pointing out that many police officers see Chauvin as a disgrace to their profession, and noting the parade of police officers who testified against Chauvin during his trial.
The man who said no one will want to be a police officer mockingly responded that I probably have a “Black Lives Matter” banner at home. I asked him whether he thinks black lives don’t matter — he didn’t directly respond to my question, but said that anyone with fentanyl in their system deserves to die.
By now I was furious, and I expected others in the assembled group would share my outrage. I asked — does everyone here agree with that? Do you think the police can kill someone in those circumstances? Are you ok with what this guy is saying? There was no clear response — I think one person quietly said “Yes, I’m ok with this,” but can’t be certain. What I do know for sure is that no one else said a word.
As Vice President Kamala Harris said on Tuesday night, racial injustice is a problem for every American. Part of what this means to me is that white people have a number of important choices to make — some dramatic, some relatively mundane.
This moment, with the attention focused on police killings of Black Americans, provides an opportunity for reflection, and an opportunity for action. For starters, we can speak up when others condone racism and police violence.
Some white Americans understand this. Conservative radio host and former congressman Joe Walsh said today that he now agrees with former President Barack Obama’s observation that “Black Americans are treated differently, every day”. As Walsh, who is white, put it, “Now I understand it. Barack Obama has always gotten it. He hasn’t changed. I have.”
But how many people are capable of the change Walsh has made? What I found chilling about my encounter with the group in suburban Maryland was the silence. As one man espoused the dehumanizing rhetoric that encourages and enables racism and disregard for others, no one else called him out. Someone who had heard our argument asked the group what it was about. One person said politics, another said morality. I agreed with the latter observation, and said so — this is a moral question, and the silence of others spoke volumes.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. He has written two books on presidential power. Follow him at @ChrisEdelson on Twitter.