Politics

This Isn’t Justice

After years of covering police killings of Black men, I can’t help but feel that “guilty” is only better than the alternative.

Mourners link arms at a memorial of flowers at the site of George Floyd's murder
A vigil for George Floyd in Minneapolis after the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was announced on Tuesday. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

I was standing outside of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department on a chilly night in November 2014 when a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict former officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Weeks later I marched in Staten Island alongside Erica Garner, who dramatically lay down in the spot where New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo fatally choked her father Eric Garner for selling cigarettes. A day later, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in Garner’s killing. The next December, I sat in a downtown Baltimore courthouse when the first trial of a police officer charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray ended in a mistrial. Three more officers involved in Gray’s death were later acquitted, and the rest had their charges dropped the following summer.

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This is what I was thinking about when I saw Courteney Ross on TV on Tuesday. Amid the teeming throng of protesters and reporters in downtown Minneapolis, a news crew found Ross walking down the street with her friends, arms wrapped tightly around each other’s waists. It had only been a few minutes since former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts for murdering Ross’ boyfriend, George Floyd.

Since Floyd’s death in May, Ross has been one of the many people projecting and articulating the suffering Floyd’s family and friends were experiencing to the rest of the world. Ross, called to testify in Chauvin’s trial earlier this month, was also the first witness to give the jurors a glimpse of Floyd as something other than a martyr or a suspect. “Floyd is what I would call a mama’s boy,” she said before dissolving into a puddle of tears.

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Tuesday afternoon was different. Ross wore a red T-shirt and face mask with Floyd’s image emblazoned across the front, and she could barely conceal her relief as reporters gathered around her in the street.

“There’s going to be change in the future,” Ross told the crowd. “We still have a lot of reparations to be made from the past.”

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Ross’ optimism was almost charming, and also understandable for someone who had no reason to believe her boyfriend’s killer would ever be held accountable. For once, a law enforcement officer accused of wrongdoing was being punished, criminally, for his callous indifference to Black life. Tuesday’s verdict was, in fact, unprecedented: It was the first time a white police officer was convicted in the killing of a Black man in Minnesota, according to the state’s ACLU chapter.

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But after years of crisscrossing the country to write about yet another viral tragedy caused by yet another police officer using excessive force against yet another Black man, I cannot call what happened in a Minneapolis courtroom on Tuesday “justice.” All I can say is that it was definitely preferable to the alternative.

Chauvin’s conviction was the best-case scenario amid an array of wildly unsatisfying outcomes: The jury didn’t even need a full day to reach a guilty verdict, and Chauvin will go to prison for fatally pinning Floyd beneath his knee. He now faces decades in prison when he returns for sentencing in eight weeks.

But even as we waited for news of the jury’s decision on Tuesday, it appeared an officer in Columbus, Ohio, had shot and killed a 16-year-old Black girl. That may seem like a macabre coincidence, but actually it’s just another day—another death at the hands of police in a long line of them. Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Adam Toledo, and on and on. In city streets and courts across the country, there continues to be little proof that Black lives truly matter. Tuesday’s verdict doesn’t change that.

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“I wouldn’t call what happened today justice,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in the post-verdict news conference. “Justice implies full restoration.” Ellison’s words echoed those of Katie Wright, mother of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was killed last week by a police officer during a traffic stop in suburban Minneapolis. His killer, former Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer Kim Potter, was arrested and charged with second-degree manslaughter. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

That Potter is facing any charges is unusual, as fatal shootings by police rarely result in them. There are about 1,000 fatal police shootings reported annually in the U.S., but as Vox noted recently, the arrest rate is “around 1 percent, never higher than 2 percent.”

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Again, this is better than the alternative. But regardless of what happens to Potter, Katie Wright intuitively understands what Ellison was saying, and what I was thinking watching a hopeful Ross just two days before Wright will bury her son: that the legal system could never restore what it had already taken.

In May 2015, when I was sitting with Freddie Gray’s family as prosecutor Marilyn Mosby announced that the six police officers involved in Gray’s death would face felony charges, the prospect of justice was still on the table. Mosby’s decision felt like a watershed moment. Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden, cried, and so did the family’s attorney, Billy Murphy. “I feel good because we got all six of them,” Darden told me that afternoon. “You can rest, Freddie. You can rest. You can be in peace now.”

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Alone in a room with Freddie Gray’s family that day, we all allowed ourselves to believe, if only for a moment, that that might be true. That things were finally changing, starting that day. But six years later, even with a guilty verdict for Chauvin, the only change I see is that a woman whose son was just killed by police is no longer under such delusions.

“Everybody keeps saying ‘justice.’ But unfortunately, there’s never going to be justice for us,” Katie Wright said at a press conference last week. “Justice would bring our son home to us, knocking on the door with his big smile coming in the house. … Justice isn’t even a word to us.”

In my six years at Slate, I’ve written about multiple national elections, social movements, and major cultural phenomena. With support from Slate Plus members, I’ve also gotten to dive deep into stories and angles no other outlets were covering, and that Slate wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to tackle. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer

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