On Tuesday, as Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd was announced, a mix of relief and celebration and grief swept through Minneapolis and other communities. Then the messages from elected officials started coming in. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey tweeted: “George Floyd came to Minneapolis to better his life. But ultimately his life will have bettered our city.” In a press conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked George Floyd for “sacrificing your life for justice.”
Pelosi’s and Frey’s words aren’t just tone-deaf expressions by two prominent voices in American politics. They point to something larger. They’re telling slips that illustrate how easy it is to view Black victims of police violence not as people, but as means to an end, even if that end is “just.” The active verbs alone are an offense: a life sacrificed; a life that bettered a city by being lost. As if Floyd had any choice in his death at the hands of Derek Chauvin.
The comments also reveal a deep misunderstanding of what happened on Tuesday. As Joel Anderson wrote in Slate, “I cannot call what happened in a Minneapolis courtroom on Tuesday ‘justice.’ ” To those who see Chauvin’s conviction as a sea change, I ask: What exactly has changed? Not only do responses like Pelosi’s and Frey’s demonstrate an inability to grapple with the moment, they reveal the lack of imagination for what justice should be. Sending Derek Chauvin to prison will not bring back Floyd or other victims of state-sanctioned violence. The vague specter of police accountability after a nine-minute recording of cruelty will not suddenly mitigate the over-policing that has historically harmed Black and brown and immigrant communities. Most of all, it doesn’t materially improve the lives of those whose underclass status and presumed criminality has justified the police’s use of lethal force in cases like Floyd’s.
So we must resist the urge—and the encouragement—to canonize George Floyd, to allow his death to become “synonymous with justice,” as Pelosi put it. Not only does this overstate what Chauvin’s conviction actually means, it serves to diminish the very concrete demands voiced by the uprising that Floyd’s killing inspired, including for some an end goal of abolishing the police. Chauvin’s conviction itself is not a step toward either the biggest of changes or the mildest of reforms.
That canonization is already happening. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has passed in the House of Representatives, leaves the current form of policing as we know it intact rather than interrogating how the police have been an arm of the state to subjugate its Black citizens. It calls for a federal registry for complaints and instances of misconduct for police officers. It mandates that police only use “deadly force” as a last resort. And it restricts the application of the qualified immunity doctrine that protects many officers for facing criminal charges, among other provisions. While the bill is named in George Floyd’s honor, it’s not likely any of these proposals would have prevented his death.
The instinct to immortalize Floyd’s death is in line with American tradition. It allows us to take comfort that bad people who do bad things will face the consequences they deserve. It packages the horror of Floyd’s murder in a way that preserves America’s rosy self-regard and allows white America to believe that justice prevails. It is a method of control. It serves to pacify demands for a broader, more radical approach to racial justice. It dehumanizes and diminishes the Black American experience. It suggests that our lives only have meaning in death.
The most important thing for us to remember is that Floyd’s death was meaningless, not meaningful. It meant little to Chauvin as he listened to Floyd take his final breaths. What had meaning, though, was Floyd’s life. His love of hip-hop. His battle with addiction. His relationship with his young daughter, who will have to grow to learn these lessons without her father. The power of his memory that will persist through his family and loved ones. “We will never get him back,” his sister Latonya Floyd told a Los Angeles Times reporter after Chauvin’s conviction. “There’s nothing left here to remind us of him but the memory of his face and the love we have for him.”
With each passing moment starting from Chauvin’s conviction, politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle will craft their arguments for why Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s punishment is in line with their American myths. That Floyd’s death was an aberration. That Chauvin was a bad apple who faced the rightful consequences of his actions. These stories will mostly not know what to do with the fact that it all continues: Moments after Chauvin’s conviction was announced, police in Columbus, Ohio, shot and killed a 16-year-old girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, who called the police to her home for help during an altercation.
Anything less than an absolute reckoning with the damage done by policing won’t prevent more Black people from falling victim to state-sanctioned violence. And any messages thanking Floyd for his “sacrifice” from those with the most power to right the wrongs of his death makes the necessary work more difficult to accomplish.
I’m glad Pelosi and Frey said what they did, saying the quiet part out loud. They gave voice to a belief that is still the dominant one among Democrats and Republicans alike—that the system will ultimately prevail, that it is capable of producing justice for Black Americans. It’s exactly why so much of America, even liberal America, sees Black deaths not as tragedies in their own right but as steps on the march toward progress.
If we are not careful, some of the loudest voices in America will succeed in bastardizing the story of George Floyd’s life and death, and use it as a means to further a shallow idea of justice. We must not let that happen.
In the seven years I’ve been covering news and politics for Slate, I’ve written about some of the United States’ best and worst moments, people, and ideas. Your continued support of Slate Plus will allow me to continue to give our country’s high-stakes struggle to define itself the coverage it deserves. Thank you! —Ben Mathis-Lilley, senior writer