Jurisprudence

This Verdict Was About the Power of Bystanders

This is the sliver of hope to hold onto.

A Black woman stands on top of a truck with her fist up.
People react after the verdict was read in the Derek Chauvin trial on April 20, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Scott Olson/Getty Images

It is hardly an original observation that getting to “guilty” on all three counts for Derek Chauvin took too much. His conviction required too much video, too many eye witnesses—far more evidence, argument, and proof than most victims of racialized police shootings will ever be able to amass. By that measure, tonight’s verdict is both a huge win and an impossibly small one. Police killings of unarmed Black men have happened since George Floyd was murdered, and more will come. It cannot be the case that this quantum of proof will be required to bring them to justice.

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And yet. There is something profound that brought about this verdict and that thing may be new and worth celebrating: This was a lesson in the power of bystanders. Not just the bystanders who stood by and filmed the police as the travesty was unfolding and not just the bystanders who implored the police to stop, or the bystanders who improbably and amazingly called the cops on the cops. This verdict was also the result of the police officers who stepped in to testify against their own. What was astounding, watching the Chauvin trial play out, wasn’t just the fact that people who had every reason to bolt at the scene stood their ground and bore witness. What was astounding, watching this trial, were the cops who could have faded back and held their tongues who decided instead to speak truth not merely to power, but to their own best interests.

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Perhaps as important as all that is the fact that millions and millions of Americans saw the video of George Floyd’s death. People who could have reacted by turning away, or persuading themselves it didn’t matter, who also chose to bear witness, and then chose to stand up, to march, to learn. For the people who witnessed the actual truth of things and decided that the time for silence was over, this too, is a lesson in the transformational power of bystanders. In an age in which celebrity and individualism seems to count for everything, this verdict stands perhaps for the possibility that crowds of millions may count for more.

Maybe the lesson of “what’s different” now—after George Floyd’s tragic death and the outpouring of anger that resulted and this past summer in which it seemed possible to think maybe this time was different—isn’t that the future Black victims of a police system that has been careless and cruel to Black lives since its inception will have an easier time proving it. It will clearly never be easy. The system will continue to demand that it be Herculean to bring about change for a long time to come. The victims will far too often be dead—killed, unfairly, too soon, and for nothing. But maybe what is different is that we will be more careful both about defending bad apples who are rotted to the core, and also more careful about understanding that we operate within a system that either protects and promotes and rewards those aggressors, or stands up and says this cannot stand. And that is a story of bystanders; of bystanders who chose not to stand down.

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I’m the last person to suggest that everything will change in the wake of this verdict. But I would like to be among the first to say that this verdict lights a way to real change. Crowds who witness racial and power indignities should not disperse. Police officers who see violence and abuse in their midst should not persuade themselves that their voices don’t matter. It’s entirely possible that one small lesson of the Chauvin verdict is that the “rugged individualism” ideal that comes cloaked in violence and state-sanctioned authority has finally had its day, and that brave, anonymous, collective action is capable of standing up to it. That doesn’t bring back George Floyd and it doesn’t fix systemic police violence. But if offers a template of how change ultimately comes. It comes whenever we are faced with the choice to stand up and speak up, or to hang back and do nothing. Bystanders brave enough to see the difference and demand big systemic change won’t bring back George Floyd. But they will be the ones to lead us forward.

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