“He mattered because he was a human being.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison delivered these solemn, simple, sermonic words at a press conference following the guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the disgraced former police officer who murdered George Floyd. In 2007, Ellison made history as the first Muslim to be elected to Congress and the first African American from Minnesota. He resigned that seat in 2019 to mount a successful bid to become the top legal officer in his state.
At the request of Gov. Tim Walz, Ellison personally took control of the Chauvin case. He charged Chauvin with second-degree murder, which carries a tougher penalty than the third-degree murder charge that the local prosecutor had levied. Ellison also built a team of superlative attorneys who expertly and methodically prosecuted the case. We’ll never know for sure, but justice might have not been served had Ellison decided to stay in Congress.
If I might take a point of personal privilege, once the jury started deliberating, I dared not expect even one guilty verdict — much less three. Expecting a guilty verdict, even of the lowest charge, was a luxury that I could not afford; the emotional price of even potentially being wrong was too high for me. Thus, I waited in what felt like suspended animation. Of course, this purgatory was not unique to me; African Americans as a group endured the pricks of proverbial pins and the jabs of psychological needles as we waited. Finally, Judge Peter Cahill spoke. The guilty verdicts floated in the air as melodically as a symphony.
Our wait was over.
I am cautiously optimistic that the following six words (and 10 syllables) will change history: Derek Chauvin is going to prison. In the absence of severe mental health challenges, that is where violent criminals should be. (As someone who is pro-life, I am against the death penalty.) We don’t know how long he’ll be in a cell; that is to be determined later. But we can take some solace in the fact that Chauvin’s freedom has been taken away legally, which is far more than what we can say about the manner in which he stole George Floyd’s freedom. As I write, I can hear the plaintive, siren song of the late Sam Cooke: “It’s been a loooong time comin’, but I know a change is gonna come.”
George Floyd was a human being. He was saint and sinner, hero and villain, man and monster. That’s what it means to be human. That basic biological and moral reality should have afforded George Floyd the right to life. One should not have to be a deity to demand dignity.
In waiting for Chauvin to be held accountable, the phrase “don’t hold your breath” repeatedly came to mind. We nearly ceased breathing as we waited for Judge Cahill to announce the verdicts.
Now, for at least once in our lives, for at least a moment, we can exhale.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.