The Derek Chauvin Conviction Is a Victory for Justice and Democracy

When state officials can murder ordinary citizens in plain sight and get away with it, our society is less democratic. The Derek Chauvins of the world need to be in prison.

People march through the streets after the verdict was announced for Derek Chauvin. (Megan Varner / Getty Images)

When Judge Cahill read the guilty verdict earlier this week, Derek Chauvin sat in silence. Some commentators described his demeanor as “emotionless.” Others thought they saw shock in his expression. Since he was wearing a mask, it’s hard to know for sure.

If Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, was surprised by the outcome, it would be depressingly sensible. When the New York Police Department’s Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death for selling loose cigarettes, a grand jury let him off the hook, and federal investigators ultimately decided not to pursue the case. When Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot a twelve-year-old boy to death for playing with a toy gun, local prosecutors didn’t even bother pressing charges.

When Jeronimo Yanez of the St Anthony Police Department in Minnesota pulled over Philando Castile, a cafeteria supervisor at a local school where many of the kids saw him as a role model, Castile informed Yanez and the other officer on scene that he had a gun in the car. It was legally purchased, and Castile had a permit to carry it, but Yanez was spooked enough by the possibility that Castile was reaching for the gun (he wasn’t) to end Castile’s life as his girlfriend and their four-year-old daughter sat and watched.

Unlike Loehmann or Pantaleo, Yanez was at least put on trial — for manslaughter. He’s believed to be the first policeman in the state of Minnesota ever tried for such a shooting. But he wasn’t even charged with murder.

At the trial, Yanez’s attorneys focused on the fact that Castile, like a substantial percentage of American adults, sometimes smoked marijuana. They argued that if he’d smoked recently, his reaction times would have been delayed as he followed the orders being barked at him by Yanez, and that this put Yanez’s actions in a different light. Yanez himself claimed to have smelled marijuana and said — I swear that I’m not making this up — that the smell made him fear for his life. He was acquitted.

The New York Times reviewed these cases and dozens of similar incidents. The pattern that emerged from the review was disturbing.

Though many cases prompted public outrage, that did not always translate to criminal indictments. In some cases, police officers were shown to have responded lawfully. In others, charges were dropped or plea agreements were reached. Some have resulted in civil settlements. But very few have resulted in convictions at trial.

A standard conservative talking point is that it’s hypocritical for the Left to care more about police killings of unarmed black people than we care about “black-on-black crime.” This misses the point in a remarkable number of ways.

First, while there’s an unmistakable racial dimension to the problem, that dimension doesn’t exhaust the issue. Racial prejudice often plays a role in these cases, since officers often perceive black suspects to be more dangerous and threatening than white ones. But the kind of aggressive policing that took all these men’s lives is a general problem in poor neighborhoods.

An important reason for the turn toward a harsher regime of policing and incarceration over the course of the last several decades is that it’s both politically and financially cheaper for the state to manage the social ills that accompany poverty this way than it would be to tackle the underlying problem of severe economic inequality. As historians Barbara Fields and Adam Rothman point out, while black people are disproportionately likely to live in such neighborhoods due to America’s history of racial discrimination, about four out of every ten unarmed people killed by the police are white.

Regardless of the identity of the victims or the combination of motives in officers’ heads, it’s a problem for democracy when public officials are able to murder ordinary citizens in plain sight and avoid imprisonment. When conservatives trot out the “black-on-black crime” talking point, they’re missing (or pretending to miss) the distinction between murders committed by ordinary criminals, who have every reason to fear punishment if they get caught, and murders committed out in the open, by state officials who have every reason to believe they’ll never have to serve a day in prison.

The core of democracy is legal and political equality, the idea that all citizens have the same legal rights and obligations and exercise the same kind of political power. When a police uniform creates such a severe imbalance of power between the person who wears it and everyone else that officers can see something that might be a gun or might be a cell phone and err on the side of ending the life of the person holding it, just in case, that makes a mockery of such equality. Officers Terrance Mercadal and Jared Robinet didn’t have to hesitate before shooting Stephon Clark eight times as Clark stood in his grandmother’s backyard holding that phone because they knew that there was no risk that the decision would land them behind bars.

Not all cops are killers. Many, perhaps most, would have hesitated before shooting Clark in the same situation. But saying that this means that the level of deference prosecutors routinely show to police in such situations isn’t a problem is like saying that it wasn’t a problem that the Roman Empire concentrated so much political power in the person of the Emperor because not all or even most Emperors were as unbalanced and depraved as Nero or Caligula.

Derek Chauvin spent eight minutes and forty-six seconds choking the life out of a defenseless, handcuffed George Floyd. He did this in broad daylight in front of multiple accomplices and a crowd of bystanders, one of whom stood and filmed him with her cell phone as Floyd called out for his mother and begged for her life. Chauvin could have stopped kneeling on Floyd’s neck at any time. He didn’t because the possibility that he would face the same legal consequences as any other murderer never even crossed his mind.

The ugly truth is that he quite possibly would have gotten away with it if not for the nationwide wave of protests and riots that followed his murder of Floyd. Chauvin’s training commander and police chief turned on him in their testimony at the trial. It’s hard not to suspect that without all that instability and all the attention that it generated, his department would have closed ranks around him.

Police officers block a road on the fourth day of protests over the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, May, 2020. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Portraying Chauvin as one bad apple or claiming that his conviction proves that the system is fine would be absurd. We need to demilitarize policing, bring police departments under some kind of meaningful community control, and see to it that murderous cops are routinely prosecuted to the full extent of the law, so that future Chauvins and Yanezs and Loehmanns and Pantaleos actually start to worry that they’ll end up in prison if they take the lives of the citizens they claim to be serving and protecting.

These are immensely difficult political tasks, as of course is the much larger project of undoing the poverty that leads to police being deployed in poor neighborhoods like an occupying army in the first place. But in the struggle for justice and democracy, the conviction of Derek Chauvin is a victory.