Seeing the video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds being replayed every day since the trial began last month has been agonizing for Black people. We dab our eyes and hold our stomachs as we view with pain — again and again — every angle of a handcuffed Floyd losing his life under the weight of Chauvin’s body. But we watch nervously because we feel — we hope — that this case can break the unjust mold.
We knew in advance that the trial could be unbearable — even disturbing. But we looked forward to its arrival anyway, wanting to believe there can be justice in this world after all.
The video, which went viral and sparked international outrage and weeks of demonstrations against police brutality last year, clearly shows Chauvin applying the weight of his 140-pound body — and an estimated additional 40 pounds of body armor — through his knee to the neck of hand-cuffed Floyd until he was mute and apparently lifeless. A white police officer and a dead, unarmed Black man: it’s the classic human components of so many cases of deadly injustice throughout U.S. history. What seldom follows, however, is any level of legal accountability for these killings. Indeed, in most of these cases, criminal charges are never even filed; in many cases the offending police officer does not lose his or her job.
But this year, the hopes of the Black community and beyond are that this time might be different. Our hope is based on the video documentation of the killing — what appears to be one of the strongest evidentiary cases in the historically distressing pattern of police encounters with Black men — and the fact that the entire world is now watching.
On this story many Black journalists like myself are finding the idea of objectivity is elusive. How do you treat with balance a brutal injustice that hits home? We want to say to others, “Now do you understand what we’ve been trying to tell you for decades?” How can any Black man avoid the thought, “There but for the grace of God go I?” The central event in this trial is why Black parents have “the Talk” with their sons. It is why there is widespread mistrust of law enforcement in Black communities. It is why some Black motorists try to flee police at traffic stops. It is why in any encounter with police Black men record with their cellphones, live post, or connect quickly with family or friends requesting that they record everything they hear.
For white journalists, it is important to remember to take the long view. Floyd is not the first — and will not be the last — Black man to die in the U.S. at the hands of white policing. The Black Lives Matter movement was born seven years earlier with the killing, and eventual acquittal, of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. And historians have traced the roots of racist policing back to Jim Crow and slavery.
As the trial proceeds, even as we are forced to watch Floyd die repeatedly, from more angles than we knew time and space could accommodate, we must steel our nerves. Yes, it is hurting us. It is impossible to bear, yet we will not turn away. And now, we Black people, along with our enlightened allies, can only hope for the next few weeks of the trial, that in the end the legal system which has failed us so many times in the past, will restore our hope and faith — and show us that a police badge is not just a license to kill Black people.
We are holding our breath, waiting to exhale in peace and justice.
That means we are praying to God that this jury will come down on the right side of history — because the alternative and its potential fallout is this time unthinkable.