It’s Now in Your Hands
By DAN R. STIVER
In the aftermath of the landmark conviction of Derek Chauvin over the murder of George Floyd, a case that riveted the nation and the world, I had swirling feelings and thoughts. I was then struck by the words of lead prosecutor and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who for me hit so many notes so well. The statement is too long to duplicate in this article, but I would like to “re-sound” a few of his notes.
First, he says, “I would not call today’s verdict justice because justice implies restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step to justice.” The outcome of this case should not even have been in question—but it was a question because of the history of the cover up of abuse. And we are reminded that if we just had the initial police report, apart from the video, no accountability likely would have happened. For that report did not even mention the kneeling on the neck, only Floyd’s medical distress as the cause of death. The police chief did not see a problem until he saw the video.
Apart from such videos, it reminds us of how often such abuse likely occurred where there was no recourse. As one person put it, This is the floor, not the ceiling. It is not the high water mark of justice but a first step. As the prosecutor also cautions, it is not even full justice in that there was no restoration, but there was appropriate accountability. Our church’s Justice Committee said in a public statement, “George Floyd is still dead. He needed justice on the front end, as did thousands and thousands of other Americans who suffered unjust violence because of the color of their skin.” It reminds me of a friend who commented after Obama was elected in 2008 that racism was over, which turned out to be shockingly false. Likewise in this case, it feels like a monumental step in the right direction, but it is only a step.
Second, Ellison says, “We need to use this verdict as an inflection point. We don’t want any more community members dying at the hands of law enforcement. We don’t want any more law enforcement members having to face criminal charges. We don’t want any more communities torn apart.” This can hardly happen without this kind of accountability, which has been rare. I have never quite understood why people see accountability as disrespect for police. Why do we think supporting police no matter what is a good thing, that accountability in this area doesn’t matter? Why is it here when people have lethal force and the authority to use it that we would go soft on accountability? One would think that this instead would be an area of the highest accountability. Avoiding accountability is not being a friend to the police profession. A powerful movement in conservative circles in the church over the past few decades has been to have accountability partners, yet in this area, we think lack of accountability somehow helps. We would not say this in most other areas. We would not say it of doctors, of lawyers, of bankers.
Like I learned in the church, church treasurers need accountability, in part for their own protection. In my teaching profession, I have lived through decades of increasing assessment. In the ministry, where there has been little accountability, we have seen the disastrous results, with scandal after scandal bringing disrepute to respect for the ministry and to Christianity itself. What we see in these cases is that where there is no accountability, perpetrators persist. Another person commented that good cops, to put it perhaps too simply, are, or should be, the ones who most want accountability for bad cops, and for themselves, because it helps everyone and protects the integrity and respect for the profession. I understand this. I would say this of teaching. I do not want authorities to cover up for a teacher who abuses students; this just harms the profession of teaching for everyone. In my area, to be in favor of improvement and overcoming problems is not to denigrate the teaching profession; rather, it is the opposite. This case is the first conviction of a policeman in Minnesota history. One doesn’t even have to look at the cases to surmise that there were others that were passed over.
I cannot help but wonder if there had been accountability all the way along, such as in the 2012 Garner case, how it might have been different? That George Floyd might still be alive. That Derek Chauvin would not be heading for years in prison. It was clear that Chauvin thought that he would not be held accountable, flaunting his lethal power in front of witnesses and even urging to get off his neck from one of his fellow officers, knowing he was being videoed, knowing he was violating his training. He seemed sure that there would be no repercussions. What if he had conversely known that he would be held accountable? As the prosecutor indicated, We don’t want more George Floyds. We don’t want more police going to prison. There will likely always be some deference given to police because of the danger of the job, just as we might with firemen, but that is different than no accountability that actually promotes rather than inhibits bad behavior. There is always a place for justice tempered with mercy–but not for no justice at all.
Third, Ellison notes, “One conviction can’t by itself transform decades of mistrust and abuse and centuries of trauma.” We should realize that it’s not just police. It’s everywhere, as the legacy of four centuries of horrendous racism. History teaches us that such stains are not erased overnight. It’s in education, banking, medicine, the law, and even in sports, where minorities can constitute a majority of players but the coaching and management can be strangely lacking. It’s a societal problem, and it’s pervasive.
Fourth, Ellison sounds a note of hope, “Generations of people said slavery could never end. Generations said Jim Crow could never end. Generations said women could never be equal to men. Generations said if you were different in any way, you could never be a full and equal part of the American landscape.” The prophets in the Hebrew Bible did not call for justice because they didn’t like Israel! They were faithful Israelites, perhaps the most faithful. They called Israel, especially the powerful in society, to “let justice roll down like waters,” (Amos 5:24). They saw that covering up injustice diminished hope rather than furthered it. And over and over their mantra was that God measured justice in their society by how they treated the most vulnerable and marginalized, at that time encapsulated in the mantra of the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien. There were many court prophets who defended the powerful in society. We do not know of them—but we do know of Amos. There is hope, but it consists of seeking justice, not avoiding it. This case was a monumental step, but there is no joy in someone being dead and someone going to prison. It is thus not a time to stop but a time to go forward, fulfilling the pledge of “liberty and justice for all” that America has never quite managed. That’s simple. That’s it.
To close with more of his words, “Now, the work of our generation is to put unaccountable law enforcement behind us.” “It’s time.” “It’s now in your hands.”
Dan Stiver is a part-time professor of theology at Logsdon Seminary