Immediately after Derek Chauvin’s conviction, American elected officials rushed to nearby podiums and social media to share their relief over the jury’s decision Tuesday evening.
But in their attempts to express gratitude, they also showed a certain callousness toward what exactly was lost the day George Floyd died in police custody, and what was gained in the 330 days that it took to hold the officer who killed him responsible.
“So again, thank you, George Floyd for sacrificing your life for justice,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a press conference Tuesday less than an hour after a Hennepin County judge read out the jury’s verdicts finding Chauvin guilty on all three criminal charges. “For being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that, call out for your mom, 'I can't breathe.'"
Pelosi’s remarks, which she’d try to rephrase in a tweet later, simply don’t match the truth of what happened on May 25 of last year. Floyd didn’t opt in to becoming a martyr for America’s larger issues around criminal justice. He became one despite the low stakes of his alleged crime: using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes at a downtown Minneapolis convenience store.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who’s had his fair share of gaffes since protests rocked his city in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, had an arguably less offensive though somewhat similar take that missed the mark in the same way.
“George Floyd came to Minneapolis to better his life. But ultimately his life will have bettered our city,” Frey said Tuesday. “The jury joined in a shared conviction that has animated Minneapolis for the last 11 months. They refused to look away and affirmed he should still be here today.”
To imply Floyd’s death somehow represents a turning point in America is one thing. But thanking the late 46-year-old father, brother, uncle, for supposedly laying down his life is another.
It not only equates his murder, which shouldn’t have happened in the first place, to that of a noble sacrifice, it also minimizes the role that law enforcement once again played abruptly ending the life of an unarmed Black man.
The speaker’s remarks also betray the reality that Chauvin’s conviction remains an outlier; indeed this was the first time a white police officer had ever been convicted of murdering a Black man in Minnesota, according to the state’s ACLU. But less than 2 percent of police officers who committed a fatal shooting since 2005 have been arrested for murder or manslaughter, according to data from Philip Matthew Stinson, a criminal justice expert at Bowling Green State University. Just seven of these 138 cops who were charged in someone’s death actually faced prison time, according to Vox.
More than three dozen others were found guilty of lesser charges, according to Vox, and in some cases, avoided prison time altogether.
Considering police have killed nearly 1,000 people every year since 2015, and the fact that Black and brown Americans like Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo are still dying at the hands of police, it’s hard to equate Floyd’s death and the outcome in Chauvin’s trial to some kind of moment of redemption for America.
Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three counts: second- and third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He will likely only face prison time for the most severe charge, which is punishable by up to 40 years in prison in the state of Minnesota. Because the former officer is a first-time offender, he faces a recommended 12 and a half years in prison under sentencing guidelines, though prosecutors may argue for a more severe sentence barring any aggravating factors.