The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The guilty verdict brought relief. But justice belongs to an alternate reality.

People react after the verdict was read in the Derek Chauvin trial on April 20, 2021. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

I didn’t watch the Chauvin trial. That murder had been sitting in my chest like a stone since I marched last summer, and guilty or not guilty, I knew there’d never be anything that could remove it. I was reluctant to watch the defense mount its case and worried about what it might mean to witness those arguments, no matter how ridiculous they were, taking hold. I didn’t want to hear anyone tell a story of this Black man — who would never again do simple things like crave a pork chop, or scroll online to read the latest about a new album, or sleep in his bed — being expendable enough to have the life choked out of him. I couldn’t walk those steps, so I didn’t.

I did, however, walk a literal set of steps late Tuesday afternoon before the news broke, descending into the basement of the house I’m guesting at in Martha’s Vineyard, into the studio of a hip-hop legend. He’s a Black man close to my age whom I quietly befriended not long ago. As I made my way down into his space, I tried to let go of what I was leaving above: the worry, the apprehension, the potential anger, the fear curled in my back pocket like a sleeping snake. Inside, sitting on the studio floor, I spent half an hour listening to new, unreleased hip-hop. Music that was made of the now: at times mournful, then hopeful, then resigned, then fatigued, then passionate.

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This legend and I don’t know each other well, so as I sat there, I squinted my eyes to pinch back the tears. When the music was over, we talked as two 40-something Black men are wont to do at this point in their lives and in these circumstances. A Brooklyn boy and a Trenton boy, finding their fates overlapping in, of all places, Martha’s Vineyard — that supposed utopia, separate from mainland America. As the clock ticked closer to the verdict, we talked about what it meant to get to this place, this time, this moment together. We talked also about all the people we knew who would marvel that the two of us were in this place at this moment. And we talked about all of those we’ve known who would never make it to Martha’s Vineyard because they’d never made it out of their teens, 20s or 30s.

George Floyd was murdered at 46.

Thinking about the inherent injustice of that fact, an injustice that lingers even when something we call “justice” is served, I find myself meditating on alternate realities, ones able to give us more than this country is willing to. Like a lot of kids raised in traumatic environments, I grew up reading comics religiously, fervently, fearfully. One of my favorite stories was an arc in Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men. Shortly after being beaten down by a group of cyborg supervillains, a number of the heroes enter a mirror-like portal called the Siege Perilous. When they cross its threshold, it drops them into the lives they longed to have. Some of them become artists, some become movie stars, some lead the most beautifully mundane lives. They are not worried about being feared and hated and hunted. For once, they don’t have to fight for the basic right to move through the world like everyone else. They just get to be.

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I am never not wanting to be Black. I love and embrace it deeply. But I want America, someone, to create a Siege Perilous for Black Americans, a portal that can transport us into a world that doesn’t treat us as if we were disposable mutants.

I want, too, a similar magic to be concocted for Derek Chauvin. I don’t want him locked away. I don’t want him executed. I don’t want him beaten. I want him and all our oppressors to endure everything that my ancestors had to endure to get me to where I found myself Tuesday afternoon: cross-legged in fuzzy, worn-out blue joggers, talking about the fate and obligation of telling Black stories before you die. I want Chauvin to know the weight of generations that sit on our backs, in our hearts, and seed themselves in our minds. I want him to live through the American Black experience, from slavery to now, and then ask how the judgment handed down against him weighs up against all that. Is it enough? Is relief a just reward for so much? Has the storm actually passed? I want to ask him what we should feel when we’ve yet again watched one of our own be robbed of the beauty of a natural, mundane death.

Right now, though, we’re working against dark magic. We find ourselves asking for normal lives, normal deaths in a macabre reality that wants us to exist abnormally. Floyd, and now Daunte Wright and Ma’Khia Bryant — just 20 and 16, respectively — have been killed. These are abnormal deaths, abnormal circumstances. This is dark, abnormal magic. It requires abnormal responses. We shouldn’t be asking for accountability; that’s a counter spell, one that gives too much to those who first cursed us. It’s just not enough. It never has been.

What would be enough? I mean, really, what’s enough when you’re talking about the repeated normalization of premature, abnormal death? Enough would be a world that, like the Siege Perilous, lets us give one another the lives we are all entitled to. Until then, we can only breathe a cautious sigh of relief. That’s real. That’s something to hold. But as long as we’re still striving to make the simple, enduringly radical argument that Black lives matter, we mustn’t let the world confuse our relief with progress. Relief is many things, but it does nothing to restore the dead. Relief can give us a momentary hope and a chance to recollect our energy, our breath and our resolve. Relief can make sleep a bit easier to embrace tonight.

But remember: Relief is neither joy nor justice.

Twitter: @Tre_John_son

Read more from Outlook:

The Chauvin trial addressed extreme violence. But most police abuse is routine.

I’m a cop. The Chauvin verdict is a message for me, and for my colleagues.

The history of racist colonial violence can help us understand police violence

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