After America watched the murder of George Floyd on video in May, people across the country took to the streets to protest. I was among them. We voiced our anger, sadness and frustration — but that’s not all we did. Many people also started attending their local city council meetings. Police violence against Black men and women is a national issue, but local government is where accountability takes place — and where ordinary folks can push the levers of power.
People can accept that reform happens slowly, if they see signs that the system will hold people accountable at the most basic level. Absent hope, reform is impossible. For that reason, an acquittal for Derek Chauvin would have been devastating. The resulting cynicism would have deflated pushes for local change across the country.
Chauvin’s murder and manslaughter convictions were hardly inevitable, despite the overwhelming evidence. (The officers who ruthlessly beat Rodney King 30 years ago in Los Angeles — an attack also captured on video — were acquitted. The officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold in New York, in 2014, was never charged. Police killings have continued during the Chauvin trial.) And Tuesday’s verdict is still not a moment to celebrate — not, in the larger sense, justice: George Floyd is still dead. The system is still broken. But the outcome allows us to maintain the expectation that incremental progress is possible — in Minneapolis and elsewhere.
After Floyd’s death, I threw myself into local action, too. A professor of African and African American studies, I — along with my fellow Oklahoma City residents Maurianna Adams and Quintin Hughes Sr. — formed an organization called Communities for Human Rights, to combat racism and discrimination in our city. We have seen substantial, if incomplete, advancements here, but the convening of ordinary citizens, activists and organizations has been impressive. As we looked at what other municipalities were doing, we noticed a glaring omission: Most large cities have human rights commissions on which community members serve — or related city departments — that address these concerns. Oklahoma City had one for 30 years, until it was dissolved in 1996; we asked that it be reestablished, and we asked residents and community partners to help us make that case to the mayor and the council.
Networking nationally, we researched the difference that such commissions have made in other cities. In 2014, for instance, the Durham Human Relations Commission, in North Carolina, issued a report finding that the police in that city were racially profiling Black and Latino residents during traffic stops. Although the police chief denied these claims, the report called for the Durham Police Department to get written consent from drivers before conducting searches. The city eventually implemented such a policy.
Oklahoma City’s mayor appointed a task force to study our proposal; it then voted in March to reestablish the commission we sought. The task force will present the ordinance to the city council in the coming weeks, making the case that a human rights commission can be an important independent monitor of city policies and city employees’ behavior. It’s clear the city is at least listening.
Our efforts are bearing fruit beyond bureaucratic commitments to enforce human rights. Our local Arnall Family Foundation, for instance, created a Black social justice fund “to advance racial equity and justice in Oklahoma City,” and it has already distributed almost $300,000 to support 17 projects run by Black-led organizations.
And what’s happening here — a steady push for racial justice — is happening across the country. Efforts to remove Confederate monuments gained new momentum last year: In Birmingham, Ala., despite a state law that makes it illegal to remove or relocate such monuments, the city’s mayor sided with protesters and removed an obelisk honoring Confederate soldiers and sailors — knowing he’d trigger a lawsuit. In Portland, Maine, Black Lives Matter protesters pushed for the elimination of a powerful city manager position, whose occupant they saw as hostile to efforts to improve protections for Black and Brown residents. (The position was created after a push by nativists in 1923 to take power from Jewish and Catholic immigrants.) That effort is moving forward, as a new commission has been empowered to revise the city’s governmental structure. Under pressure, San Francisco’s leaders redirected $120 million from law enforcement budgets to invest in Black communities, while massive protests in Seattle led that city to cut the police budget by 17 percent, with Mayor Jenny Durkan saying she planned to “scale up alternatives to policing.”
A year ago, I wrote that I was at best cautiously optimistic about the ability of justified protests to sway public opinion and about the potential for police reform — even given what the Floyd video showed. White people, I observed, tend to express enthusiasm about racial justice in the abstract yet retreat when presented with specifics. After the Chauvin verdict, I have been nudged, however slightly, toward the view that through community engagement, we can get closer to justice for everyone. The jury could have gutted grass-roots activism by failing to hold Chauvin to account. It did not do the wrong thing, and that is not nothing.