As America waited Tuesday afternoon for the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, I scrolled through my Twitter feed watching for the first tweet announcing the outcome.
A tweet from a 30-year old caught my eye: “Is this what the OJ trial felt like? Rodney King’s?”
Well, yes and no.
I’ll refresh your memory of the Rodney King incident. King, a Black motorist, was pulled over by Los Angeles police for drunk driving and refusal to pull over. He was subsequently beaten with batons by four White police officers, sustaining a broken ankle and broken bones in his face, cuts to his face, bruises, and a burn on his chest. Police then restrained King and dragged him to a squad car.
A bystander videotaped the incident, and the LA District Attorney charged all four officers with using excessive force. A mostly-white jury acquitted three of the four and failed to reach a verdict on the fourth, despite the video evidence. Black Americans were—rightfully—outraged, and rioting in Los Angeles ensued. For many Americans, myself included, it was difficult to fathom how the cops were acquitted despite video evidence of a brutal beating.
I was 30 years old myself when former NFL football star Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
When the verdict came down, the organization I worked for rolled a big TV used for special meetings into the large conference room in our suburban DC office and for once, recognizing everyone’s interest in the outcome, gave us all permission to take a break from work to watch.
While not an even split, our employee base was pretty close to 50-50 Black to white. I was shocked at the not guilty verdict and surprised by how excited my Black colleagues were until I understood that their feelings about the police officers’ acquittal in King’s beating had spilled over to Simpson’s. A Black friend said their excitement didn’t mean they all believed in the innocence of Simpson; it was just a rare moment where a Black man beat the odds.
As it turned out, the racial disparity in my workplace was echoed throughout the nation. A contemporaneous poll by the Los Angeles Times showed 65% of white residents in Los Angeles County disagreed with the Simpson verdict. Of Black Angelenos polled, 77% agreed with the not guilty verdict.
Similarly, 63% of white respondents told pollsters they believed the mostly minority jury was biased in Simpson’s favor because of race, while 71% — almost three-quarters — of Black respondents felt race had no bearing on the jury’s decision.
And here we are today. Just after 4 p.m. CDT Tuesday, Chauvin, who is white, was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter of Floyd, a Black man. The response to his conviction, regardless of race, has largely been that justice prevailed.
It’s right that Chauvin was held accountable for there is no justification that would make it OK for a police officer charged with ‘serving and protecting’ to kneel on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes, as Floyd cried for help, his nose began to bleed and he lost control of his bladder.
Still, there are plenty who had to see video footage to believe Chauvin killed Floyd and likely would not have taken the word of witnesses without video evidence. A March poll from Ipsos for USA Today shows there remain enormous gaps in perception of the case by race. While 64% of Black Americans agree Floyd was murdered, only 28% of white Americans polled think so—a 36% gap.
I’d like to think that more white people have awakened to racial injustice in the last 30 years, since Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police.
To the Twitterer who asked if this case is like the Simpson or King case, I’d say the major difference is Chauvin’s appropriate conviction and even that doesn’t bring George Floyd back.
Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” King was right and it’s headed a little more in that direction after Tuesday — but for Black people, it’s not bending fast enough.