Trials That Define Us
While legal trials take place all the time, every now and then a particular trial rivets the attention of an entire society. Such trials mark lines in the sand. While something more is at stake in every trial, namely justice, the trials I have in mind crystallize a moment and hold up a mirror to a society.
Such was the trial of Derek Chauvin, a police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd. Just as Floyd’s death last May captured a moment and galvanized a movement, so Chauvin’s trial focused issues that are today at the center of our national life and debate.
What was at stake here beyond Derek Chauvin’s guilt or innocence?
A long, terrible history of justice denied. Of African-American men, in particular, being falsely accused and condemned. And of African-Americans, who when victims of crime, being denied justice. For many years and in many places, such miscarriages of justice were the norm. They were “baked in.”
The principle at stake here is that all Americans are equal before the law. Having power or privilege does not put you above the law. Lacking power or connections does not put you below the law or outside its protections. But of course this principal has been kept imperfectly. Some would argue, it has not ever been kept at all. But this trial asserts it again: all Americans should be equal before the law.
Also at stake — police accountability. Police are not above the law. And yet, they often have been invulnerable to prosecution and conviction. Prosecutors and district attorneys have been very reluctant to charge police. Judges and juries have been reluctant to convict police. Police unions have protected their members from accountability. I get it. It is a hard job. In moments of crisis and tension few of us always get it right all the time.
That said, police too are and must be accountable. Might does not make right. Power makes us more, not less, accountable. The police are not above the law because “they are the law.” Now, Derek Chauvin has been held accountable for his actions. He does not get off “scot-free.” Too many have.
Police accountability is critical, but let’s not forget that these are our police. It’s not enough to blame or scapegoat the police. They are a reflection of all of us, of our society. We all bear some responsibility here. Accountability extends to a society that has asked police to be the catch-all for problems we, as a society, didn’t want to deal with. Accountability extends to a society that has allowed and encouraged the militarization of police as well as the insane proliferation of guns.
Also at stake here was the matter of evidence. The determination of guilt and innocence in a court of law requires evidence. That seems a common-sensical observation. And yet, we seem, increasingly, to be living in a society where evidence doesn’t much matter. Views are held — clung to even — despite the evidence or indifferent to it. Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him is case in point # 1.
Evidence and the facts (remember “Just the facts, ma’m” on the old TV show Dragnet?) do matter. When they don’t — warning to right and the left — we’re in very a deep do-do. As someone, maybe G. K. Chesterton, said, “It is axiomatic that everyone is entitled to their opinion; but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
On hearing today’s verdict, I was relieved. I was also, I confess, surprised. So many times over the years, justice has been denied. Police have escaped accountability. The facts did not matter. Today they did. Justice served.
Some are celebrating. While one can understand that response, I’m not sure celebration is the right response to a “guilty” murder verdict. What is? Sadness, I’d say. Sadness for life lost, for life taken. Sadness and prayer, “God, have mercy.” Sadness and maybe some peace that the legal system and jury system worked.
Even if this trial is a milestone — as I believe it is — it does not mean that everything has now, irrevocably, been changed.
Let us hope, however, that we will look back to see this trial as a step in re-thinking policing, for our sake and for the sake of the police themselves. I hope that this verdict will definitively underscore in boldest underlining that “Black Lives Matter” in America.
We would be so much stronger, so much healthier, as a society if we really believed and acted as if all lives matter. They do. Each one is a visible image of the invisible God. George Floyd, and yes, Derek Chauvin. Each one is a sinner for whom Christ died.