Op-Ed: What the Derek Chauvin trial says about America
OK America, despite us playing by different sets of rules, I’ll play along.
I’ll watch the Derek Chauvin trial. I’ll consider the evidence presented by prosecutor Jerry Blackwell, understanding it is his team’s job to prove Chauvin’s guilt and not the former Minneapolis police officer’s job to prove his innocence. I’ll play along despite the whispers of history telling me to prepare for the worst because my spirit needs hope to keep believing in the best.
Tuesday, as I watched Donald Williams, an onlooker to the killing, forced to relive the trauma he experienced watching George Floyd die, I was reminded of what Al Sharpton said on Monday: “Derek Chauvin is in the courtroom but America is on trial.”
At the time, I felt it was spot on. But after watching Williams tearfully relive his pain while Chauvin’s lawyer tried to saddle him with the familiar “angry black man” stereotype, I had a change of heart.
America is in the courtroom, that much is true. But to be on trial is to suggest she is the defendant. That she is not. America is the prosecutor. She is the one who labeled Black people as being three-fifths human. The one who provided white slaveowners with reparations as opposed to the enslaved. The one telling Black, brown and other people of color to go back to where you came from as if there would be a United States without us.
There is a trial, but the one we’re watching started long before Floyd was murdered. Century after century, Black America has watched the prosecution use every tool imaginable to try to prove that our lives do not matter. And each moment when it appears that Black lives do matter, America motions for a mistrial.
A new jury is selected.
And with that, another opportunity to have America try to have our testimony thrown out or used to attack our character. And make no mistake, that is exactly what Chauvin’s attorney was trying to do in portraying Williams as an angry Black man. This is why Williams responded, saying, “I stayed in my body. You can’t paint me out to be angry.”
This is no different than cries for police reform being addressed by the question “what about Chicago?” — as if gang violence in Illinois justifies Chauvin’s actions in Minnesota. This kind of turn is a familiar tool of America, the prosecutor. It predates “All Lives Matter” but it’s used in the same manner: to avoid one topic by introducing another.
This is the reason why we are still here.
In this courtroom.
Re-trying the same damn case.
It’s not that Black people can’t let go of race, as we’re so often accused by those conditioned to avoid the subject. It’s that America can’t let go of white supremacy and all of its manifestations and benefits — like the ability to storm the Capitol and still be allowed to go on a Mexican vacation afterward or be given a Burger King meal soon after murdering nine Black people praying in church.
We watched the abolitionist movement of the 1820s be met with the Fugitive Slave Act; Tulsa’s famed Black Wall Street burned down by racists in 1921; the 2020 election greeted with the Jan. 6 insurrection.
It’s why despite the video showing Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, many of us are worried that won’t be enough. Just as all of the other videos starting with Rodney King on, were not enough.
We’ve all followed so many Chauvin-like cases recently that it is nonsensical at best and insulting at worst to hear elected officials say, “We are better than this.”
No, we are not. We are exactly this. We are the country that looked at the historic turnout of our most recent election and drafted 253 bills across 43 states to restrict voter access, many of which target people of color. We may want to be better but for that to happen, we have to first be willing to do better.
The Chauvin case is less about the soul of America and more about the goal of America. Who and what are we trying to be and are we sincerely ready to do the work to get there? Not just write a check or post a statement but do the interpersonal work required to say, “You know what? I like my tax cuts but I can’t support politicians who would outlaw handing someone a bottle of water as they stand in line to vote.”
That’s what just became law in Georgia … you know, just in case you thought America was on trial.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.