Justice for George Floyd Has Only Just Begun
Finding Derek Chauvin guilty of murder provides Americans with accountability—not justice. Now lawmakers need to make sure the system actually changes.
On Tuesday afternoon, a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Across America, in offices, living rooms, and in the streets, millions of people breathed a sigh of relief—something Floyd was denied for 9 minutes and 29 seconds with a knee to his neck and a knee to his back.
While Tuesday’s verdict brought accountability, it didn’t bring justice. George Floyd was murdered. By police. In broad daylight. Slowly. Cruelly. In view of the public, pleading for his breath, for his life. Some bystanders even called the police on the police, hoping to save his life. But Floyd died, and his family will never get him back. Policing in Minneapolis, throughout Minnesota, and across the United States is fundamentally broken. It is fundamentally unjust.
A little over a week ago, on April 11, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot at close range by police officer Kimberly Potter at a traffic stop. This happened 10 miles away from the courthouse where Chauvin was standing trial—also for killing an unarmed Black man. Wright joined Floyd and nearly 200 other people who were killed in encounters with police in Minnesota since 2000 and more than 9,000 people nationwide since 2013, many of them Black.
The system that led to Floyd’s death was not changed to prevent Wright’s death and the deaths of so many others. So while accountability in this case, for Floyd’s death, has been delivered, it’s not justice.
Banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants would be justice. Demilitarizing the police and mandating body cameras would be justice. Collecting and disseminating data on police misconduct would be justice. Community-based policing that prioritizes safety, rather than security, would be justice. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act becoming law—that, also, would be justice.
Floyd’s daughter Gianna Floyd said last year that her “daddy changed the world.” Lawmakers, law enforcement personnel, and ordinary citizens can and should all agitate toward that ideal.
A few days before the trial ended, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters called on protesters to “get more confrontational” if the jury did not deliver a guilty verdict for Chauvin. Congressional Republicans moved to censure her, and Chauvin’s attorney moved for a mistrial. Neither attempt was successful, but each indicates a deep mistrust in racial justice protests and demonstrations. Yet protests and demonstrations usher in change. That’s America’s history. That’s the world’s history.
I am a human rights scholar, and much of my research investigates transitional justice in global and comparative perspectives. As I have written previously in Foreign Policy, transitional justice involves “judicial and nonjudicial accountability measures—for example, truth commissions, reparations, memorials, and institutional reforms … to remedy past (and safeguard against future) human rights abuses.” From Argentina and Guatemala to Morocco and Tunisia and, yes, the United States, ordinary people have demanded and won transitional justice.
New data from my research lab shows that since Floyd’s killing and the national and international protests that followed, eight truth commissions have been proposed by U.S. city, state, and federal policymakers, and three others have begun operating. All of them are intended to investigate racial violence and injustice, and make policy recommendations.
Truth commissions, and transitional justice more broadly, are long overdue in the United States. And they can be part of George Floyd’s legacy. They can help the country begin to confront structural racism, in domestic and foreign affairs. It’s time.
Kelebogile Zvobgo is provost’s fellow in the social sciences at the University of Southern California and the founder and director of the International Justice Lab at William & Mary. Twitter: @kelly_zvobgo