On this, the eve of learning the fate of ex- Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd in 2020 as the jury deliberates, there is a thick heaviness that hovers over Black people, who wonder if his guilt will be dismissed with a nod and a wink.
Many have dismissed even the idea that he could be acquitted, citing the “compelling evidence.” But in the history of violence perpetrated against Black people in general, and by police officers in particular, compelling evidence has rarely really mattered.
There was “compelling evidence,” a video of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers which “shocked” the world, and yet, a jury found that the officers were justified in beating this man nearly to death.
And though everyone knew that those accused of killing Emmett Till were guilty, they, too, it took an all-white jury just one hour and five minutes to acquit Till’s killers. They boasted afterward, saying it would have taken them less time to bring back the verdict if they “hadn’t stopped to drink pop.”
The arrogance that accompanies those who are accused of crimes perpetrated against Black people is always front and center, and always hard to take. This arrogance could actually be “seen” in the face of Chauvin as he looked defiantly at bystanders taking the video that showed the world what he was doing. He displayed a slight smirk, and in his eyes was the message that there was nothing any of them could do that would make him have to answer for his behavior. By virtue of being a police officer, his smirk revealed his belief that no matter how angry some might be at him, he was protected.
It is the smirking and the defiant face of Chauvin, juxtaposed against the agonized face of George Floyd, which sticks in my mind. It is no less offensive than have been the faces of police officers and civilians who, in the past, have been acquitted of the crime of murder committed against Black people.
And it is maddening.
If those images could be erased from the collective minds and memories of Black people, there would be room for glimmers of hope as the jury deliberates the fate of Chauvin, but we cannot erase them, and we know that there are far too many people who believe that Chauvin had the right and the duty to exert excessive force in taking down Floyd for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin’s smirk was indicative of the “nod and wink” attitude of police officers who with impunity disproportionately kill Black people.
Psalm 37 tells us not to fret “because of evildoers neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity, for they shall be cut down like the grass and wither as the green herb,” but the souls of some Black- and white – people do not feel reassurance in those words as we await the Chauvin verdict, because history has shown that this society prefers “nod and wink justice” as opposed to accountability of whites for crimes committed against Black people. “Nod and wink” culture is a subset of Anglo-American culture in general. It has always been with us and promises to linger.
The arrogance which is part of the “nod and wink” culture challenges the words of the late Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who said, “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one should feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” The arrogance of the “nod and wink” mindset reveals that too many feel neither guilt nor responsibility; arrogance keeps those emotions at bay in too many people in power. We live in and wrestle with a society that cannot shake itself from the side effects of a steady administration of the emotional drug called white supremacy.
We will wait. We will work on not hyperventilating as our hope for justice rises and falls within us with each breath we take; we will work on inhaling hope as we exhale anxiety and memories of justice delayed and ultimately denied.
And we will try not to fret.
Amen and amen.