By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
We have many reformers, few transformers.
– Jean Toomer
For the first time in many years, our collective attention was riveted on a courtroom. We nervously watched for the verdict in the prosecution of the nine-minute and 29-second murder of George Floyd.
Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!
I share in the sentiment expressed by most people that the three guilty verdicts were correct. Former policeman Derek Chauvin was appropriately held accountable for his loathsome actions.
However, there was another current of thought, though, that I found enlightening. Many people expressed it, but perhaps the most notable person to give voice to this idea was the United States president.
President Joe Biden said he was “relieved” at the verdict.
That fact alone—standing on the side of the road while the celebratory parade goes by—is proof that we have exponentially more to do.
Think about it. That case. That evidence. That crime. And we were merely relieved to see Chauvin convicted?
The question—which history will answer—is whether this verdict represents a singular exception or a turning point on the road to the radical systemic transformation of our police system and our society.
One White former police officer is found guilty of killing a Black person, and then six more police killings of unarmed Black people take place in the next 24 hours. The State-sponsored slayings included a Black girl in Columbus who was shot simultaneously as the nation sat raptly waiting for the verdict in the Minneapolis Courthouse.
Anyone who is “alive to the moment in which we are now living” knows that merely being “relieved” won’t cut it. The continuing unjustifiable slaughter of unarmed Black men, women, and children by law enforcement has us living in a perpetual state of emergency.
The total systemic transformation of the police is long overdue. I am hopeful that this event will signal a pivot in how we are policed. Individual officers must be consistently held accountable for the crimes they commit while wearing their badges.
The sun has risen and set more than 55,000 times since the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, and we are still demanding to see its promise kept:
No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
There’s a more significant idea that I believe is being neglected in the pursuit of equal protection. That idea is equality.
America was founded on many things, one of which was the dehumanization of people of African descent. From the “3/5” clause of the Constitution through slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, Jim Crow, separate but equal, and all the way to that courtroom in Minneapolis, the idea continues to exist that black lives are worth less than white lives.
Until we confront that uncomfortable truth, we cannot hope to dismantle the system that it created.
Therefore, we must speak the truth, persistently and courageously. We need a collective voice that includes everyone willing to confront ugly truths and demand that we abandon older inequitable simplicities for a new day.
The last year has opened eyes and changed minds. Thankfully, a new generation has taken the baton and is increasingly pressuring corporate America to take a stand on racism and bigotry.
Simultaneously, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is being torn down in statehouses across the United States.
Still, I am not without hope. But I don’t view hope as a passive pursuit. Progress will only be made with action and not by a docile going “quietly into the night.”
As a community and as a nation, we should demand that Congress passes The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (H.R. 1280), which:
- Bans chokeholds on a federal level and some no-knock warrants, especially in drug cases.
- Lowers the criminal intent standard – from willful to knowing or reckless – to convict police for misconduct
- Limits qualified immunity used by police as a defense in private civil action, enabling families to sue more ably and quickly for unconstitutional actions against them
- Provides the Department of Justice with administrative subpoena power in investigating police misconduct
- Ends racial and religious profiling
- Improves transparency by collecting data on police misconduct and use-of-force
It is uncertain if our deeply divided Congress can make The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (H.R. 1280) a reality. History shows us only incremental progress written in the books of law and not in our hearts. The powers that be have promised people “someday” for so long that it has begun to sound hollow.
For once – in a lifetime – the courts convicted a white policeman in the murder of a black man. Feeling “relieved” is not enough.
Instead, the final benchmark is this: Did the conviction make a difference? Did it change the course of America? Did it transform the system? Did it lead to justice and equality?
When that happens, then we all can breathe a sigh of relief.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at firstname.lastname@example.org