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The calm with which Chauvin’s conviction was greeted contrasts with the 1992 explosion following the acquittal of all four Los Angeles officials who brutally beat black motorist Rodney King, the first and most famous incident of police brutality to emerge Video was captured. That ruling sparked historic days of riot in LA, not really because it surprised blacks but because it made them angry. To her, the King verdict was yet another insult that resulted in injury – literally in King’s case – and anger over the police misconduct that had simmered for years erupted into anger. The spontaneous protests, fires and looting were catharsis, but also a call for change.
The country did not rise at this point. The search for souls sparked by the 1992 riots was eventually overridden by a growing fear of urban dangers – drugs, violence, and gangs all attributed to black and brown people in big cities. The desire for racial healing turned out to be nowhere near as strong as the need for more law and order, and the police played a key role in this. For many whites, King’s blows and the exoneration of officials were regrettable and even wrong, but they did not constitute overt systemic racism or justify something as drastic as defusing police authorities. Indeed, the change has been in the opposite direction: tougher convictions, more prison terms for non-violent offenders, the full embrace of incarceration as punishment, but necessary – and seemingly unlimited.
Last year the country was in a completely different place. The protests after Floyd’s murder in May 2020 were also angry, born of frustration. But they affected an unprecedented number of whites and other non-blacks across the country, from big cities to small towns, who finally saw the big picture of American racism and the special place black men had in it. Thanks to this awakening, George Floyd immediately achieved a symbolism and a kind of heroism that Rodney King did not achieve. Floyd wasn’t just another black victim of police misconduct; it was a tragedy that belonged to all of us. He was black and a person who deserved empathy, which includes justice. This change of perspective was simple but radical, the very kind of change that Martin Luther King Jr. stumbled upon all his life but understood that it was elusive: a change of mind.
While we can call this progress, this change of heart is just the beginning. The new recognition of the true extent of racism has resulted in adequate punishment for chauvin and, hopefully, some degree of peace for Floyd’s family. But the grief over his murder and the fear of similar deaths in the future remain. While they praise this rare police conviction, everyone from Minneapolis prosecutors to police reform advocates fear that police brutality will continue rather than abate, and that convictions like Chauvin’s will remain rare. And of course, George Floyd won’t bring anything back. “To be honest, I don’t think one sentence would be enough,” said Shareeduh Tate, Floyd’s cousin, after the conviction. Not enough to compensate for what was done.
What was done to George Floyd – those nearly 10 minutes in which Derek Chauvin could have made another choice, as a friend of mine likes to say – will always haunt us. The officers who brutally beat Rodney King could have chosen differently. It was harrowing and insane to see Chauvin make his choice in real time because he was a cop and because he could. But at least we are being followed. To become spooky means to internalize the anger about the black pain that was so often ventilated on the street, after being beaten or killed or unjustly judged, because the anger had no other option and had few takers besides the blacks themselves. That seems to have changed for good – although the cost of the change from 1992 to date has been high.