Why does it take such incredibly tight and spectacularly incriminating evidence to convict a police officer of murdering a black man?
On Tuesday, a friend was sending me pictures of downtown Washington. As in several other cities, all the windows had been put up. We were holding our breath awaiting the verdict in the trial of George Floyd’s murderer. Fortunately, his pictures revealed an Olympian calm.
Even if it was hard to believe that a minimally reasonable person could have attended this trial and doubt the guilt of ex-policeman Derek Chauvin, an aborted trial was a real possibility.
The United States had a narrow escape
The whole country was holding its breath. Would a jury member choose to hang on to one of the poles desperately stretched out by the defense, which sought to sow doubt by demonizing George Floyd?
Would a juror cling to the implausible hypothesis that the death could have been caused by something other than the nine minutes of torture knowingly inflicted by Chauvin? Could a juror have believed in the innocence of a man whose very expression betrayed a total indifference to the humanity of his victim?
Yes. It was absolutely possible. This is why the guilty verdict made the entire country breathe a sigh of relief. We may have taken a step towards justice.
A tempered optimism
Even if Chauvin will surely go to appeal, we must underline the exemplary nature of this trial, where the judge was able to maintain control despite the incredible tension surrounding the case. This case is historic because of the crumbling of the wall of resistance of the police, while several colleagues of Chauvin testified against an action which, in their eyes, dishonored their profession.
In almost all cases of police violence, the “blue wall” of police solidarity and the resulting omerta prove insurmountable. If this case may have breached that wall, perhaps a glimmer of optimism is possible.
More generally, in the current context, it is astonishing that a sample of 12 Americans managed to agree on anything. In a hyperpolarized country where millions of people refuse to see reality and persist in believing the worst nonsense, it is perhaps permissible not to give up hope.
An exceptional case
As a result of this judgment, however, the optimism must be strongly tempered. Indeed, tragic examples of police violence are piling up and there are surely millions of people who still believe in the innocence of Derek Chauvin.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the Chauvin case, it is that securing his conviction required a rare combination of impeccably presented irrefutable evidence and, most importantly, a video that went around the world.
Before this video became known, Minneapolis police had accepted Chauvin’s report, which reported the uneventful arrest of an accused who died of natural causes. Without video, the murder of George Floyd would have gone unpunished, like so many others.