I am relieved by the verdict and, of course, I’m not alone. We knew that Chauvin was guilty as sin: the racist, apparently remorseless, cold blooded killer of George Floyd. It was clear as day, common sense. But common sense has failed us when it comes to American policing and African Americans. A review of this long list of unarmed Black people killed by police reminds me of how rarely the killers have been punished. Yet, in this case justice prevailed.
I am relieved, but not surprised. It somehow seemed that this time it would be different. I thought that in the current circumstance there was no alternative to a guilty verdict. But of course, I couldn’t be sure, perhaps there would be a hung jury?
I watched with self-conscious amusement a telling Saturday Night Live sketch as a cautionary note on my optimism. Broadcast last Saturday, before the guilty verdict, the sketch starts with the common sense agreement that Chauvin is guilty and the common sense hope that justice would prevail among four reporters. But then the judgments of the two white reporters contrast with the judgments of two African American reporters. The whites, appearing increasingly foolish, are more confident that there will be a guilty verdict, note progress in race relations with more assurance, and condemn violence as a response to white supremacy more absolutely. They live in a different world than their Black colleagues, detached from the harsh realities of the consequences of white supremacy. The lighthearted sketch of these differences of opinion gently underscores the continuing cleavages in American society, but also an emerging common ground.
It was not only Black Americans who knew to be cautious. Many of us have been chastened by political developments in American public life of the recent past. Our common sense told us that Donald Trump couldn’t possibly be elected: that he was a dangerous clown. Our common sense told us that even with all the racism and resentment among Americans, they would distinguish between consequential politics and a reality TV actor, who cannot distinguish between his psychological projections and the world apart from himself. We also thought we knew that sober mainstream Republicans wouldn’t vote for Trump and that Republican politicians wouldn’t enable him. We never anticipated that Republican politicians and their supporters would actively block the peaceful transfer of power following a decisive Presidential election. And common sense has also been telling many of us that blatant racist police would be held into account over the years in the cases of Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, going back to Rodney King. But it wasn’t so.
Clearly our common sense was not in line with the common sense of many of our compatriots. But, perhaps, something new is afoot, indicated by the verdict. After it was announced, there has been a broad consensus that justice was served. Police officials and police unions, reports on Fox News, along with MSNBC and CNN, support the verdict, even as there are important differences of opinion about whether Chauvin was a rotten apple or a typical cop. The evidence of his guilt was overwhelming, starting and ending with the video recording of the event by the seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier. Nothing the defense could say or present ever refuted the cold facts documented by her cell phone.
Such cold facts have been available for all to see since the video recording of the attack on Rodney King. I think it is pretty clear that the abusive attacks on African Americans are nothing new. What’s new is that they have become broadly visible. The experiences of brutality are no longer isolated, and they are visible for all to see. In the tragic case of George Floyd, the power of the Frazier video made it near-impossible to turn away or ignore what actually happened, despite the efforts of Chauvin lawyer Eric Nelson.
But the Frazier video didn’t simply speak for itself. Media never do. The circumstance that sealed the deal in my judgment was the worldwide movement for black lives as it has successfully transformed the common sense about race in America across racial divides in the United States and around the world.
As the trial was reaching its conclusion, I had an illuminating conversation with Deva Woodly about her book Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (to be published later this year). The conversation was recorded, and the Democracy Seminar will be posting it in the coming days. While we discussed a broad range of issues, her key points are relevant here. First, her major thesis, which she is extending from her previous book, The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win Acceptance: social movements are key players in democratic life, especially as they change public discourse and transform common sense. Her argument parallels my understanding of political culture and how it can be “reinvented.” In her new book, she argues for democratic necessity of social movements in general and the specific necessity of the movement for black lives for democracy in America. She shows how embedded in its practices and in the writings of its participants there is a core political philosophy, what she calls “radical, black feminist pragmatism,” and that the key to its success is a distinctive form of political organizing, and “a politics of care and healing justice.”
I think that the effects of the organizing are being revealed in the verdict and in the public response to it. I think also that the power of the politics of care and healing justice are now being revealed, though victory over police brutality and white supremacy is still a distant goal. The movement for black lives matters.
The guilty verdict is a fruit of the social movement. White Americans more broadly now understand that white supremacy has been an enduring element in American political culture. The issue of reparations for slavery is now on the political agenda. There are even bi-partisan explorations of police reform in the Congress. Even as there are daily reminders of continuing brutality and racism, common sense judgments about this seem to be changing. But certainly not enough. The specifics of the Chauvin case made the guilty verdict more likely. But the reasons why the wise were not certain that this would be the outcome are still there.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He is also the Founder and Publisher of Public Seminar.
This post was initially published in the Democracy Seminar’s newsletter of April 22, 2021.