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A just verdict for Chauvin reminds me of Obama’s 2008 win. Don’t spike the football. | Will Bunch

Despite rare accountability in the Derek Chauvin trial, U.S. cops still kill three people every day in a rotten system that’s much bigger than one verdict.

A crowd gathers to protest in the neighborhood where a Columbus, Ohio, police officer fatally shot a teenage girl on Tuesday.
A crowd gathers to protest in the neighborhood where a Columbus, Ohio, police officer fatally shot a teenage girl on Tuesday.Read moreJay LaPrete / AP

Let’s be brutally honest: Full justice in the George Floyd case was impossible after May 25, 2020 — after then-Officer Derek Chauvin’s murderous decision to put his knee across Floyd’s neck, a death sentence for the alleged crime of passing a $20 counterfeit bill. Still, Chauvin’s conviction Tuesday on the most serious charge of second-degree murder was a rare, and gratifying, moment of high-profile accountability, in a case many viewed as American policing on trial.

In Minneapolis, several hundred people gathered outside the courtroom cheered the jury’s verdict. The murder victim’s brother, Philonise Floyd, told reporters, “Today, we are able to breathe again.” But the hubbub in the streets of the Twin Cities hadn’t even died down before the reminders of the harsh, messy — and politically divisive — realities of everyday policing in the United States flared from Columbus, Ohio, to Elizabeth City, N.C.

In the North Carolina incident, sheriff’s deputies attempting to serve a warrant fatally gunned down a 40-year-old father of 10 who was attempting to flee in a car, with relatives insisting the Black victim was unarmed. In the Ohio case that has made national headlines, Columbus officials released body-cam video to show that 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant seemed about to stab another girl when an officer fired four shots that killed her — but that didn’t silence critics who questioned whether deadly force was needed against the Black teen.

Arguably, the titanic uproar over a since-deleted tweet from basketball superstar, and Ohio native, LeBron James that targeted an officer in the Bryant case, and the Columbus cop who stunned sidewalk mourners by yelling at them, “Blue Lives Matter!” felt more like the muddled future of American police reform than the clarity of the Chauvin verdict. And the deaths in the Ohio capital and Elizabeth City seemed the exclamation point on the reality that — even with the nation’s eyes focused on the Chauvin trial and on holding cops accountable — officers continued to kill roughly three citizens a day, a rate that’s remained unchanged since the protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

The jury’s speedy and unambiguous message about Chauvin’s lethal liability was shouted into the headwinds of repression, aided by apathy and inertia, that remain as strong as an April cold front crossing the Minnesota prairie. Indeed, there were worrisome signs that some key political players — ever eager to avoid the uncomfortable questions raised by the deaths of Floyd, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and so many others — will take this accountability moment for one officer as an excuse to do little or nothing to fix America’s broken policing.

» READ MORE: Families of murdered Philadelphians know the hollow victory of justice | Helen Ubiñas

“Chauvin verdicts reduce pressure for police reform,” blared the headline from the website Axios — created by and for elite Beltway insiders — just hours after George Floyd’s convicted murderer was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. “Senior Democratic and Republican aides — who would never let their bosses say so on the record — privately told Axios the convictions have lessened pressure for change,” the story said. Without named sources, it’s hard to know how much of this is clickbait — after all, there was some movement this week in D.C., including Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement of a sweeping probe of Minneapolis policing — and how much is real. But the vibe is painfully familiar.

In the victory whoops outside Chauvin’s courtroom, I heard faint echoes of Nov. 4, 2008 — the night that Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States. If you’re a Boomer like me — born in 1959, when segregation was still legal in the American South, raised in an era when a Black president seemed unthinkable — the sense of racial progress that night was palpable ... and somewhat legit. But too many pundits in search of deeper meaning took it too far, writing odes to a “post-racial America.” In spiking the football 30 yards short of the end zone, too many Obama voters went back to brunch, toasting a “Mission Accomplished” with mimosas, and too many conservatives seized the moment to thwart real change. Most famously, Obama’s presidency gave cover for a right-wing Supreme Court to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

What happened in and after 2008 is what could go wrong with real police reform in the 2020s. For one thing, America’s often misplaced faith in “rugged individualism” has been warped by the electrons of modern media into today’s celebrity-obsessed culture (including a presidency aptly described as “celebrity fascism.”) We love stories about individual exceptionalism — whether it’s Obama’s win or Chauvin’s verdict — but the work of changing the corrupt systems that harm most people is both too hard, and too boring, to pull most of us away from our huevos rancheros. But we also underestimate the power of reactionary backlash. The “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flag of 2009′s Tea Party has been replaced with the “Thin Blue Line” flag flown by Brooklyn Center, Minn., officers after the killing of Daunte Wright.

A leading critic of police militarization, Radley Balko, pointed out last week in a Washington Post op-ed that it took a string of extraordinary circumstances — the courage of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier in recording the entire murder on video, Chauvin’s track record as a bad cop, a highly reform-minded Minneapolis chief willing to testify against his former officer, a skilled progressive prosecutor in Keith Ellison, etc. — to result in one conviction in this one nationally televised case.

Away from the glare of TV cameras, the grueling work of real, systemic change — banning choke holds or tear gas, removing the “qualified immunity” that makes it hard to hold cops legally liable for their actions, responding to traffic offenses or mental health emergencies with trained but unarmed civilians, and staffing departments with public safety guardians instead of over-militarized warriors — has been slow and wildly uneven.

Philadelphia City Council at-large member Isaiah Thomas told me after the Chauvin verdict that he felt many emotions: relief, as a city official amid fears that a not-guilty finding could have sparked civic unrest, yet “as a Black man it was a reminder of the trauma that we’ve experienced, and a reminder that there’s more work we need to do.”

» READ MORE: Police must end bogus, racist traffic stops | Will Bunch Newsletter

For Thomas, the centerpiece of that work is legislation he introduced in October — inspired by his experience as a young Black man coming of age in Philadelphia, where cops frequently pulled him over for things like a broken taillight that wasn’t broken — that aims to eliminate many of the city’s 300,000 annual traffic stops, by banning stops for minor code violations. The bill is backed by hard data showing that Black motorists are the target of 72% of traffic stops in a city where they are 43% of the population.

Despite the evidence, and nine Council cosponsors, or enough for passage, progress has been slow. That’s because Thomas knows from past reform measures that the plan won’t work without buy-in from Police Department brass and the mayor’s office — and he’s still working on that. Indeed, Philadelphia — a big, multiracial city with a progressive government — is a poster child for a one-step-up and one-step-back approach to police reform in the 2020s.

Since George Floyd’s murder, the city has banned choke holds as well as the use of tear gas in many scenarios. But the city budget for policing is flat and arguably higher, last October’s killing of Walter Wallace Jr. exposed the deep flaws in how the city responds to mental health crises, and a recent retracted memo suggests that the Police Department under Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is still wedded to a stop-and-frisk style of law enforcement.

The kind of reforms pushed by Thomas and others would, if enacted, matter for more everyday Black lives than the as-seen-on-TV accountability in Floyd’s case. But the powerful inertia of doing nothing and avoiding controversy — that Axios instinct to find “lessened pressure for change” — will pull on our politicians unless we, the people, demand that they act. Too many of 2020′s hundreds of thousands of marchers for racial justice have already disappeared, Homer Simpson-style, back into their suburban hedges.

Tuesday’s verdict in Minneapolis seemed a reminder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. axiom that the arc of the moral universe can be bent toward justice — but also that the arc is long. That’s why I’m hoping the majority of Americans who truly desire a racial reckoning will remember the fizzled hopes of 2009. A new way of policing — that makes us safer but ends white supremacy — can’t be won from Sunday brunch, but only by marching like a drum major for justice.

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