Is it enough to bearwitness?
Relief was probably the first feeling most of us experienced on Wednesday. Relief that there had been accountability for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, even if many agreed with Minnesota’s attorney-general, Keith Ellison, that there was not yet justice.
Ellison’s point is that justice implies ‘‘true restoration’’, which is still a long way off. But accountability, he says, is the first step towards justice. The rest is up to the people of the United States.
There was relief because if former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had been acquitted instead of convicted on two counts of murder and one of manslaughter, the unrest that would have followed would make the US in 2020 or Los Angeles in 1992 look minor by comparison.
But there was another kind of relief. It was about reality defeating fiction. All court cases boil down to that, of course. They are about finding truth by testing and rejecting competing claims and arguments. But this was different. The Floyd case asked the jury, and the wider United States, plus the rest of the world: do you still believe what you see?
‘‘Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw,’’ prosecutor Steve Schleicher told the jury.
We all saw the footage, shot by a teenage bystander, of a police officerwith his knee on a man’s neck for more than nine minutes, looking like a predator that has pinned down its prey and is patiently waiting for it to die. Even former president Donald Trump could not deny the evidence before us. ‘‘We all saw what we saw, and it’s very hard to even conceive of anything other than what we did see,’’ Trump said in 2020, although he diluted the point somewhat by saying that more white people are killed by police than black people.
Not even a politician whose presidential career was partly defined by arguing that up is down and black iswhite, that facts can be ‘‘alternative’’, and that Covid-19 would miraculously vanish, was prepared to dispute the fact of amurder that played out on screen, in real time. The good news is there are still truths we can all agree on.
The footage of Floyd’s death asked amoral question too. We became used to seeing the point of view of Darnella Frazier, who shot the footage from outside a shop in Minneapolis. Yet there is another perspective, looking back from the body camera of former police officer Tou Thao, that shows around 15 people lined up, watching the crime unfold. Several, including Frazier, are filming. Thao and two other former officers are yet to stand trial, and a US Department of Justice investigation continues.
We always ask ourselves: what we would do at such amoment? Would we dare to intervene? Is it enough to bear witness? Now, at least, in the age of the phone camera, we all become witnesses, and we can all be believed. No-one can deny that it takes a lot of courage for the public to film the police.
As well as the bystanders who stood their ground, the verdict also owes much to police who dared to testify against their own. As columnist Dahlia Lithwick put it: ‘‘What was astounding, watching this trial, were the cops who could have faded back and held their tongues who decided instead to speak truth not merely to power, but to their own best interests.’’ We all hope we would also do the right thing at such moments.
As well as bystanders . . . the verdict owes much to police who dared to testify against their own.