By TERRY LEE FREEMAN
On April 20, 2021, 12 individuals agreed that former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George P. Floyd. He was found guilty on all three counts. The reading of the verdict was a moment of both jubilation and vindication. I could see the ancestors – Emmett and Mamie Till, James Chaney, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — raising their hands in acknowledgment of movement in the right direction. But I could also see the parents and loved ones of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and so many more are asking why it has taken so long. Yes, it was a moment, but only a moment. The movement to change a system of oppression that too often views black bodies as targets requires strict and dedicated attention to reform and reimagining and tangible change. Without that next step, we are doomed, and we will continue to experience assaults on black humanity.
I am overwhelmed with joy for the Floyd family that someone has been held accountable for their brother, father, uncle, friend, and son’s death. But we must hold accountable a system that allows individuals within their ranks to patrol neighborhoods while believing that it is okay to kneel on another human being’s neck for more than 9 minutes, watch them die, and show no remorse. Would we have even known about George Floyd’s brutal death if a 17-year-old girl hadn’t had the foresight to record the entire event? And if we had a criminal justice legal system that valued the lives of those they were sworn to serve and protect, we might not be waiting to hear the next steps in the Duante Wright case. Another Minnesota man killed at the hands of a veteran police officer.
My skepticism of the success of creating a just criminal legal system is based on the racist roots of American policing “slave patrols,” which were created during slavery to protect the economic interest of white people. Squads made up of white volunteers were empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws. Their sole purpose was to locate and returned runaway slaves to their owners. How do you morph such a system into one that protects and serves everyone? What actions must we take to ensure that police officers view black bodies as having equal value to white bodies? How do we help police officers view African American community as a part of the solution instead of being viewed as the root of the problem? And when do we value the tears of black mothers and fathers with equal empathy to white mothers and fathers? Until we see our success hinge on the success of others, we will not be successful. And to get to that place will take both individual and collective work.
You don’t have to be a racist to buy into racist policies. You don’t have to be a racist to believe that a racist narrative is true. But you do have to accept that our socialization has occurred within a narrative that has always skewed toward a white truth over the truth.
Our society would operate more effectively as a whole if we fully acknowledge the horror of our past and recognize that we continue to allow that ugliness to seep into our present. A future free of that will not just magically occur because of one just verdict. It will require the continued tenacity to create systems that provide everyone equity and access to opportunity. It will require more than exercising our vote but monitoring the actions and inactions of our elected officials. It will require courage, sacrifice, and persistence. And it will require us to work not only with our allies but with those who consider themselves accomplices in this fight for Justice and freedom.
My skepticism remains, but not on whether things can change, but more on how long it will take to see substantive change. Yesterday’s verdict was a step in the right direction, but the hard work is ahead and requires us to change minds, policies, practices, and systems.