George Floyd’s death came in the midst of a pandemic when months of lockdown left tensions high and nerves frayed. Just weeks before, the world learned of the killing of unarmed Ahmaud Arbery by three White men in Georgia. The video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck while a crowd watched the life drain out of him set off a national cry of anger and despair. The verdict yesterday, coming as we start to emerge from the pandemic, feels like a beginning, even if change will come slowly.

As if to warn us to temper our expectations, the news of the Chauvin guilty verdict was followed by news of another police shooting of a Black teenager, this time a girl in Columbus, OH. This killing comes on the heels of the deaths of Adam Toledo, an unarmed 13-year-old boy in Chicago, and Daunte Wright, an unarmed man in Minnesota. Still, the jury’s decision yesterday gives hope that justice might be served in these killings, too. 

The last trial that garnered as much national attention ended differently. George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin even though Martin was unarmed and Zimmerman clearly initiated the altercation. Zimmerman then tried to profit from the notoriety that he gained and was even hailed as a hero by some conservative activists. He’s since been charged with multiple violations, including domestic violence. 

A lot has changed since that trial almost eight years ago. The proliferation of videos, from cell phones, from security cameras, from police body cams, has laid bare the discrepancy between the way White people are perceived by too many police officers and the way they see people of color. Americans of all colors are more skeptical of police narratives in the wake of the shootings and deaths. We have seen with our own eyes injustice and excessive force. 

While the deaths garner the most attention, videos like the one of an army officer getting pepper sprayed during a traffic stop despite having his hands up show inappropriate behavior directed predominately at African Americans. We don’t see a constant stream of videos of police abusing White suspects. On the contrary, we see videos of a White killer carrying a gun in Wisconsin walk past a line of police officers who clearly don’t register him as a threat.

America knows now, as some have known for decades, that African Americans have lived under a different system of policing and justice than White people. We’ve seen it for ourselves, despite denials from White nationalists at Fox News and Newsmax. Now, a jury has taken the first step toward accountability. It’s been a long time coming and we still have a long way to go, but maybe, just maybe, yesterday’s verdict was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of American justice.   

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