SUBWAYartin Luther King Jr famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it leans towards justice.” President Obama liked the saying and used it often, but he could use a second part. The arc of the moral universe does not bend by itself. It is tipped in the right direction by protesters, activists, and dissidents. It was his hands that forced him to justice last week, when former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the second-degree murder of George Floyd. We cannot celebrate and console ourselves with the verdict that was rendered without acknowledging the action outside the courtroom that secured it.
But this is what some will do: claim the verdict as a great victory, after denigrating the means by which it was achieved. The protests in the wake of Floyd’s murder have been considered the largest in the history of the United States and the world. They reached more than 50 countries. In the USA, tens of millions of dollars were raised and invested in grassroots communities and promotion in a diffuse and decentralized network that politicians pressured and pushed through voter registration. Everything made a deep impression on the public consciousness. Chauvin simply would not have been tried on these charges, much less convicted, if it weren’t for these tireless efforts.
What will now unfold is a laundering exercise, erasing these rebellious and non-state actors from the history of the Chauvin verdict. Your conviction will be framed as something that occurred as a result of the integrity of the justice system. His crime will be seen as a police malfunction that was detected, unfortunately too late for George Floyd, but in time for the United States to learn and move on. “Thank you George Floyd for sacrificing your life for justice,” Nancy Pelosi said after the verdict was announced. Floyd here is simply a passive martyr whose death gave the system a chance to redeem itself.
But the system does not work. Most importantly, it would not have worked if officials had been trusted. From the moment a teenager’s mobile phone camera began recording, when Floyd was being immobilized, evidence of Chauvin’s crime was collected collectively. The original police report, which called his death a “medical incident”Offers a chilling insight into the different path the case might have taken had there been no images. The media then did their own citizen investigation, unearthing Chauvin’s long track record of petty crime. The moral outrage over the murder did not come from politicians. It was brought to their doorstep by a movement of people who knew that, within the legal system, the dead Floyd would likely have no defenders.
Some of those politicians are now moving to capture a little of Floyd’s halo. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said “justice was served” after “the reality of racism in this nation finally reached a boiling point.” But defended police driving towards the protesters that it had reached that boiling point, saying it was “inappropriate for protesters to surround a police vehicle and threaten police officers.” In the UK, Boris Johnson “welcomed” the verdict, after spending last summer urging people not to support the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which he decided “in all likelihood would end in violence”. Sajid Javid, the former Home Secretary, tweeted: “Justice. Black lives are important“, Seemingly forgetting that last year he said the organization” was not a force for good “and demanded protesters”show damn respect”.
But this is how progress is earned: not showing the damn respect. It is not handed over by the benign powers that rule us, but taken from their hands through protests, riots, and civil disobedience. Chauvin’s conviction was not the only legal consequence of last year’s mobilizations. From forcing Emmanuel Macron to put French police reform on the table to catalyze change in the newsrooms in the United States, the consequences were manifold. This kind of dissent is responsible for many of the rights that we all enjoy today, from universal suffrage in the UK to civil rights for blacks in the United States.
But there is a broader reason why the protests were erased from history the moment they began to have an impact. As these movements gain momentum, their reach becomes impossible to contain. The charge that Black Lives Matter is a radical movement is correct. For it to achieve its objectives, for racial equity to be achieved, a total rethinking of power relations must take place, between boss and employee, border guard and migrant, ruler and ruled. A large redistribution of wealth is essential. A fallen statue is not about a pointless moment of anger, it is a demand to fundamentally and honestly rethink the history and sense of self of a particular country.
The uncomfortable truth is that change occurs in a disruptive and, yes, occasionally unpleasant way. Those events are then sanitized and their significance downplayed, so that we can maintain a naive trust in the story arc and those who rule us. Every legal system is as flawed and institutionally biased as the country in which it exists. In the UK and US, it has inherent biases in favor of the police and those who can afford the best legal representation. Those who cannot afford it, coming from underserved communities, are subject to criminalization, becoming criminals forever in the eyes of the state.
But the justice system is also sensitive to public opinion and the political environment, and its results are often an interplay between external pressures and internal deficiencies. The accountability for George Floyd’s death may have been delivered in a courtroom, but it began on the streets.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism