I was in New York City on the day the jury on the Derek Chauvin case served up the most important moment of justice this heartbroken country has seen in a long time.
The day before, I had been eavesdropping on a conversation between two shop clerks at Nordstrom Rack on 14th Street across from Union Square.
Their anxiety was palpable. They were talking back and forth over the racks of dresses they were straightening out. Hearing only a moment of the conversation, I knew what was on their minds and lips: the verdict as yet to come. The trial was over. We were all holding our breath.
These two women were scared and discouraged and truly on edge about what the jury would decide.
I entered the conversation, admittedly uninvited, with, “America is on trial.” They looked at me, surprised by my unexpected intrusion. However, it took only a moment for them to graciously accept me in the conversation.
At a certain point one of them, who like many of us, could not fathom that Chauvin was not guilty, said, “He shouldn’t have even been allowed to have a trial.”
Her remark chilled me to the bone. As quietly and respectfully as I could, I said trials and therefore juries were what separated the United States from countries where those with the guns and power are judge and jury, where people are in danger of losing their lives for being the wrong religion, wrong color, wrong tribe or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time – much as George Floyd experienced. Guilty, with no chance to be proven innocent.
It doesn’t matter that the world saw Chauvin callously and without conscience take Floyd’s life while two other law enforcement officers watched, doing nothing to stop it, Chauvin as an American citizen was guaranteed by the Constitution a trial by a jury of his peers. He was presumed innocent, no matter what, until proven guilty.
So, despite having to wait a full year for justice, despite the many, many, many other cases of Black Americans being killed by police officers who were never prosecuted, despite despair, hopelessness and cynicism, on Tuesday, April 20, the rule of law prevailed and the scales, as former Vice President Al Gore said that day, tipped ever so slightly toward justice.
It was a jury of Chauvin’s peers who put their hands on that scale and tipped it. In the end. 12 people who understood their civil obligations. Ordinary citizens who didn’t shirk their responsibility with excuses for why they could not take time out of their busy lives to support the Fifth Amendment which states, that “no person shall be … deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
No person, not even Derek Chauvin shall be deprived – no matter what.
The nightmare of the last four years lifted ever so slightly on Tuesday. People danced in the streets. We took a collective breath and felt the relief, maybe just for a moment, that the system worked. That maybe, just maybe Martin Luther King Jr. was right, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But we must also remember, this was just day one. King also said, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”