[Note: The following is a reprint of the weekend edition of the Braver Angels Newsletter, originally published April 25, 2021. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.]
I was relieved after the verdict was delivered in the trial of Derek Chauvin.
Like all of us, I remember the summer of unrest that the killing of George Floyd unleashed in America. Massive protests that in some cases devolved into riots. The anger and outrage of our fellow citizens spilling out across our cities; curfews being set in place here in Los Angeles as activists took control of the streets. Confrontations between police and protestors leaving more people injured and property destroyed. We have avoided all of this.
Instead, what we have is celebration. The tragedy of Floyd’s death remains and in a perfectly just society, many will point out, it would not have happened at all. But with regards to the verdict, throughout the United States and indeed around the world people have taken to the streets not in outrage but in joy.
“We need to see some justice to feel like we’re going somewhere,” said a young woman of color protesting outside of the Minneapolis courthouse before the verdict. Afterwards, seized with palpable emotion and relief, she told reporters “there’s poetry in the fact that he [George Floyd] couldn’t breathe and it feels like we just got a breath of fresh air.”
I was relieved at the verdict; relieved that in South Los Angeles and indeed across America our families would be able to sleep peacefully following a verdict that met the approval of most of the American people.
I was relieved for the sake of peace. Was I not also relieved for the sake of justice?
I am a Black man in America. My story is in many respects unusual, and you may know some things about it.
But I can recount my own tense experiences with law enforcement. I have experienced profiling. I can remember myself and my friends being grabbed, groped and publicly embarrassed by police officers as teenagers just waiting at a bus stop in a White neighborhood because, presumably, they were looking for a Puerto Rican man who had been sighted with a weapon.
Perhaps. Or perhaps we just looked out of place and somebody called to say so. We will never know.
Today I live in the inner-city. I know there are police officers who have low opinions of the community they police. I know the long, tortured history of unequal justice that has falsely convicted Black people of crimes they did not commit or handed them sentences they did not deserve while letting abusive officers or White members of the community get away with murder – both literally and metaphorically.
And I saw George Floyd. I saw him die under the knee of Derek Chauvin. And I could feel, following so many recent and high profile incidents of police killings of unarmed African-Americans, the mounting fury at generations of injustice boiling in the blood of Black and non-Black people alike. It was an incident that on its face, to many anyway, seemed to scream racial terrorism and the callous abuse of the power of the state.
I, like so many, cannot help but feel that accountability in this case was necessary as a simple matter of justice in this particular case, and that it was also necessary to maintain, or begin to restore, the confidence of the American people in our system of justice. In a time of declining institutional trust what would it have meant for the American people to believe that justice was not done in so blatant a crime as this seemed to be?
And yet, precisely because I do care about our confidence in our institutions, I cannot help but recognize the fact that the circumstances surrounding this trial have served to undermine the confidence that many of my fellow Americans hold in this very justice system that many others see as just having taken a step to redeem itself.
There are millions of Americans today who agree that Derek Chauvin ought to have been held accountable who nevertheless fear that public pressure was an influencing factor for a jury that may not have been wholly insulated from the pressure campaign that was swelling in mainstream media outlets calling for conviction.
There are millions of Americans who see President Biden’s weighing in on the case publicly in support of conviction as an unprecedented attempt at influencing the trial (though the jury was sequestered at the time of the statement).
There are millions of Americans who interpret Congresswoman Maxine Waters call for protests to become more “confrontational” in the event of an acquittal as an invitation to violence and an attempt at influencing the thinking of a jury that is meant to take nothing into consideration beyond the merits of the case in front of them.
Did they? Or did the mood of the country influence the outcome of a case that thoughtful people might reasonably have thought might have produced a lesser conviction to have instead produced the maximum declaration of guilt possible given the charges that were levied?
It is my belief that at Braver Angels it is incumbent upon us to recognize the range of feelings that our fellow members and indeed our fellow Americans will be feeling in the aftermath of this case. It is our duty to understand the fears and suspicions, as well as the triumphs and joys, that are unfolding in hearts of those who have watched this drama play out from very different starting points in politics and experience.
Yet even in the midst of these differences between us it is also worth being mindful of those things we have in common. The American people from right to left hope for society of equal and impartial justice. The American people, from right to left, want to see a society in which law enforcement is trusted, and has earned the trust, of the American people.
And the American people, from left to right, have regarded the death of George Floyd as a tragedy. One that we should not be content to see repeated in the United States of America.
We’ve had some amazing events, podcasts and writings from the past week or two that you might want to look at. Also see below to register for this weeks Book Club discussion:
America’s Public Forum: “The trial, the verdict and the GOP” with Gov. Tim Pawlenty(Video)
“When you think about it we’re just two or three lifetimes removed from slavery. And we have to think about how do we continue to address the need to catch up those who didn’t begin the sprint of life…at the same starting point as the rest of us. There’s a lot of work to be done in that regard.” -Governor Tim Pawlenty
The Painful Path to Unity (Essay)
“We do need unity in America. We need peace and order for us to flourish. We also need justice and the correcting of genuine social inequities. There is a path to this kind of unity. It is a painful path, and narrow is the gate that leads to it.” -John Wood, Jr.
Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, ft. Amanda Ripley, Ciaran O’Connor, and April Lawson (Podcast)
“One of the defining characteristics of the feeling of ‘high conflict’ is bafflement; being totally mystified by the other sides behavior…there’s other kinds of conflict where you totally disagree. But you’re not as baffled.” -Amanda Ripley
April 21st America’s Public Forum: Can Art, Philosophy, and Beauty Heal Our Divides? ft. Lexi Hudson, Philippa Hughes, and April Lawson (Video)
“One way we can feel connected to others is when we feel a sense of awe about the world…when we feel a sense of awe we feel more curious.” -Philippa Hughes
Please send us your feedback on any of our offerings or anything you’ve read in this letter. I can’t always respond, but I do my best to read everything that comes in. (And for informational or technical assistance please write to us at [email protected].)
The conversation over race, politics and justice continues in America. Let us do our part to hold the ground for understanding within that conversation.
Let us make it possible to achieve a society where trust in each other secures equal justice for all. And let us see to it that the verdict of history on our efforts here is a good one.
-John Wood, Jr.
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