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Opinion We shouldn’t have been surprised at the Chauvin verdict

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks about a jury's verdict in the case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd on Wednesday. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)
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I was glad that former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder in the death of George Floyd. But my reaction was also unsettling. Feelings of relief, thanksgiving and, yes, surprise should not have entered my mind.

That gruesome video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes was all the evidence needed for a conviction. The prosecution’s case was airtight. A jury verdict of anything less than second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter would have been a gross travesty of justice.

So why tears of joy? Prayers of gratitude? Sighs too deep for tears?

Because the simple truth is that in a country that elected Donald Trump as president, injustice is possible. And bad things can and do happen, especially when race is involved.

On the day of the verdict, the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the Rev. Canon Leonard L. Hamlin Sr. and the Rev. Robert W. Fisher, writing on behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, spoke as one: “What we did not know until today was whether our criminal justice system would render justice in a case of a White officer taking the life of a Black man.”

No less than Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted the Chauvin case, was of the same mind. He wasn’t sure they were going to get “a just result” until he heard Judge Peter Cahill announce the verdict. Voicing the fears of justice-minded Americans, Ellison said, “Particularly when the victim is a person of color, it’s just rare that there’s any accountability.”

It’s a sad commentary that spirits were raised because Chauvin’s jury simply did what the facts and circumstances led them to do. Truth is, confidence is scarce that the system works fairly for people of color or those with different religious creeds, sexual orientations and gender identities.

Race seems to drive so much: where people live, send kids to schools, take vacations, spend evenings out, the workplace atmosphere, choice of friends and our politics. And it is fertile ground for exploitation. The bitter fruits were on display last May 25 in Minneapolis, with Floyd in handcuffs and face pressed to the ground.

Last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland rescinded Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions’s memo blocking the Justice Department from pursuing consent decrees that established strict reform measures for police departments found to have engaged in abusive tactics. Trump had a strong aversion to such consent decrees. And before he was confirmed, Sessions said that consent decrees can “undermine the respect for police officers.”

That powerful legal tool had been used successfully by President Barack Obama. According to Politico, during his eight years in office, Obama’s Justice Department launched 23 investigations, found constitutional violations in nearly all of them and forged reform agreements.

Garland signaled a return to use of that federal legal authority, starting with the Minneapolis police. In Floyd’s case, of course, federal intervention comes too late.

Trump’s retreat on consent decrees was predicted. Contemplating the prospect of a Trump victory in 2016, I wrote on Sept. 30 of that year, “Now imagine a Justice Department under Trump’s control. … Hard-won changes will be reversed. … Police and the black community? The chances of a Trump administration vigorously overseeing state and local law enforcement, imposing reforms on departments that show patterns of civil rights violations, and issuing federal mandates for change are unlikely. For goodness’ sake, the man likes ‘stop and frisk.’”

Voters didn’t seem to care. Police misconduct won a new day with Trump’s election.

The newly elected president signaled his stance on police brutality in a July 2017 speech to police on Long Island. Trump told cops to not worry about injuring suspects during arrests. “When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over,” Trump said, miming the physical motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car.

“Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head,” Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”

From the president of the United States: Roughing up suspects is okay. Three years later: George Floyd, unconscious, pinned to the ground, life slipping away.

“Take the hand away” is not okay. It was never okay, and it will never be okay.

Elections have consequences.

Of that, I’m glad.

Read more:

Philonise Floyd: For my brother George Floyd, this is what justice feels like

Eugene Robinson: Derek Chauvin’s conviction shouldn’t feel like a victory. But it does.

Karen Attiah: The verdict isn’t the end of this story

James Hohmann: Derek Chauvin’s conviction should be an inflection point, but it won’t happen automatically

Christy E. Lopez: The lessons we learned from Minneapolis this week