Opinion | The Power of the Muted Reaction to Derek Chauvin’s Sentencing

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A person kneels at the spot where George Floyd was killed, as people gather during the sentencing hearing of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for Floyd's murder, on Friday in Minneapolis. | Julio Cortez/AP Photo

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a journalist in Los Angeles and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

The good news is self-evident: Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced on Friday to 22-and-a-half years for the murder of George Floyd. Given the overwhelming evidence of Chauvin’s guilt, and the evident heartlessness with which he committed the act, the prison time he received for the crime should not be remarkable. But, of course, it is, because Chauvin was a white police officer who, in the course of arresting Floyd, a Black man, killed him.

For most of our history, Black people getting killed or injured during encounters with white police officers was commonplace to the point of being unremarkable. Officers were rarely charged and tried or, when they were, almost never got convicted. Thanks in part to the steady rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the graphic video footage of Floyd’s murder viewed around the world, the long racial lethargy around police killings has broken. One result was Chauvin’s trial, conviction and now sentencing. Chauvin didn’t get the 40 years sought by the prosecution, but neither did he get probation.

The point is that he will suffer consequences for what he did, and this seemingly obvious outcome counts as progress. Justice, at least this time, was not denied. Because of this, there was no protest following the sentencing. And that’s progress, too. It’s worth pausing to mark the muted reaction to this moment — it is, if not exactly a first, striking nonetheless.

The calm that’s greeted the Chauvin sentencing stands in contrast to the explosion in 1992 in the wake of the acquittal of all four Los Angeles officers who brutally beat Black motorist Rodney King, the first and most famous incident of police brutality to be captured on video. That verdict touched off historic days off civil unrest in L.A., not really because it surprised Black people but because it infuriated them. For them, the King verdict was yet another insult added to injury — literally, in King’s case — and the anger about police misconduct that had simmered for years erupted into rage. The spontaneous protests, fires and looting were a catharsis, but also a demand for change.

The country did not rise to that moment. The soul-searching prompted by the ’92 unrest was ultimately overridden by a mounting fear of urban danger — drugs, violence and gangs, all attributed to Black and brown people in big cities. The desire for racial healing proved not nearly as strong as a need for increased law and order, and cops played a key role in that. For many white people, King’s beating and the exoneration of the officers were unfortunate, and even wrong, but they didn’t constitute obvious systemic racism or justify anything so drastic as defunding police departments. Indeed, change ran the other way: tougher sentencing, more prison time for nonviolent offenders, the wholesale embrace of incarceration as punitive but necessary — and seemingly unlimited.

Last year, the country found itself in a very different place. The protests following Floyd’s murder in May 2020 were also angry, born of frustration. But they involved unprecedented numbers of white and other non-Black people all over the country, from large cities to small towns, who finally saw the big picture of American racism and the particular place of Black men in it. Thanks to this awakening, George Floyd immediately achieved a symbolism and a kind of heroism that Rodney King did not. Floyd was not just another Black victim of police misconduct; he was a tragedy that belonged to all of us. He was a Black person and a human being who deserved empathy, which includes justice. This shift in perspective was simple but radical, exactly the kind of change Martin Luther King Jr. stumped for his whole life but understood was elusive: a change of heart.

Even as we can mark this as progress, that change of heart is only a beginning. The new recognition of the true scope of racism has led to an appropriate punishment for Chauvin, and hopefully to some measure of peace for Floyd’s family. But the grief for his murder, and anxiety about similar deaths in the future, lingers. Even as they laud this rare conviction of a cop, everyone from the prosecutors in Minneapolis to police reform advocates worry that police brutality will continue rather than abate, and that convictions like Chauvin’s will remain rare. And, of course, nothing will bring back George Floyd. “Truth be told, I don’t think any sentence would be enough,” Shareeduh Tate, Floyd’s cousin, said after the sentencing. Not enough to compensate for what was done.

What was done to George Floyd — those nearly 10 minutes in which Derek Chauvin could have made a different choice, as a friend of mine likes to say — that will haunt us always. The officers who savagely beat Rodney King could have chosen differently, too. It was harrowing, and maddening, watching how Chauvin made his choice in real time, because he was a cop, and because he could. But at least we will be haunted. To be haunted is to internalize the anger about Black pain that has been so often vented externally in the streets, in the wake of a beating or death or unjust verdict, because the anger had no other recourse and few takers besides Black people themselves. That, it seems, has changed for good — though the cost of the change, from 1992 to now, has been high.

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