On May 25, 2020, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes while he called out for help. Nearly a year later, on April 20, 2021, Chauvin was found guilty on three counts of manslaughter and murder. He now faces up to 40 years in prison. But as many understandably celebrate this verdict, after decades of fighting for Black lives against police brutality, it's important to remember: This isn't justice, this is accountability.
Since Chauvin’s trial began several weeks ago, police officers killed at least 64 Americans, mostly Black and Latino men. Just 20 minutes before Chauvin’s verdict was announced, Columbus, OH, police shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old who had reportedly called the cops for help. At the end of last month, just miles from where Chauvin murdered Floyd, another officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright. Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in 2014, was not indicted. And when Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in her bed while she was asleep, the officers were relieved of their duties, but no one was charged for her death.
It took multiple videos, testimonies from 45 experts and witnesses, and a year of protests until Chauvin was convicted. And while the verdict brings some relief, it doesn't change the entire system, nor does it prevent the ongoing killing of Black and brown people at the hands of police.
After the verdict was revealed, many people — including politicians — were quick to celebrate. President Joe Biden called the results of the trial “a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a particularly disturbing statement, thanked Floyd for “sacrificing [his] life for justice.” But when the word “justice” is used in these instances, what does it really mean? As Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison put it, “I would not call today’s verdict justice, because justice implies restoration.”
“This trial has always been about one police officer in a corrupt and violent system that continues to disproportionately target Black and brown people,” Missouri Rep. Cori Bush wrote in a statement. “We’ve all been forced to grapple with the question: What is justice? Because our criminal-legal system is not a just system — it’s a violent and oppressive one.”
While Chauvin's conviction shows that he is being held accountable for his actions, it doesn't mean that every similar offender will be held accountable for theirs. It's rare to see an officer convicted for killing anyone in the United States, let alone a Black man; so rare, in fact, that experts said the odds were in favor of Chauvin being found not guilty.
Accountability must also include wide acknowledgement that our police and carceral systems are intrinsically tied to racism and violence. Many activists and abolitionists who have been working toward reforming, defunding, and abolishing the police don't see Chauvin's conviction as an indication of progress, because it happened within the same carceral system that empowered Chauvin to kill Floyd in the first place.
“I’m glad George’s family got what they want but am not looking forward to people using this verdict to pretend that progress has been made or that this system is redeemable,” tweeted Mark Martinez, a Boston lawyer, State Senate staffer, and abolitionist. “The system that killed George Floyd can never bring him justice. The only justice is abolition.”
Martinez says there are several reasons the verdict isn’t exactly something worth celebrating. For abolitionists, punishment is never the goal — prevention is. “Abolition is not about retribution for harm caused, it’s about preventing the harm,” he told Refinery29. “I have trouble calling [the verdict] a win when it only happened because the entire murder was caught on tape and there’s been almost a year of nonstop protest as a result. A system in which we have to work so hard for a ‘win’ and have to have every second documented is not a system we should be celebrating.”
After Chauvin’s trial ended, one viral tweet asserted that this week has been a difficult time to be an abolitionist. For many people, it’s complicated: It’s tempting to celebrate the fact that, this one time, our justice system actually acknowledged Chauvin’s crime, and it’s also important that Floyd’s family feels a sense of relief. “I believe because of prayer, we got the verdict we wanted,” his brother, Terrence Floyd, told a crowd of supporters. “We said, God, we need justice. We need it now. And He answered.”
But a punishment for Chauvin doesn’t guarantee tangible change. “We are owed so much more than a guilty verdict,” says abolitionist Rena Karefa-Johnson. “Even if we disagree on whether our carceral state can bring us any justice, I hope we agree that we’re ultimately demanding and fighting for a world where George Floyd lives and thrives, not a world where his killer is punished.”
The official acknowledgement that Chauvin is guilty matters, but whatever the verdict had been, the truth always was that Floyd was murdered by the police — and still, despite nationwide protests and outrage, the police have continued to kill 319 people so far in 2021. Chauvin is just one example in a long history of police brutality, racist violence, and injustice. And if we want to see justice, we need change. In Rep. Bush’s words: “A just world is one where George Floyd is never murdered. It’s one where Daunte Wright isn’t pulled over for having air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror. It’s one where Black lives matter.”