The verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd should not have been in doubt, but it was.
The relief in my home Tuesday was so palpable it felt like a fog lifting. A fog that had made it hard to concentrate, hard to work, hard to sleep for over three weeks. If I’m clear-eyed about it, the fog has been following our household for close to a year. Absurdly, the fog got worse as the evidence mounted, thickening with each new piece of evidence making overwhelming and undeniable Chauvin’s guilt. By the time the trial started, it had all but blotted out the sun.
This fog wants to obscure not just justice, but truth itself. The fog also tells us that, even if the truth is crystal clear, it won’t ultimately matter.
When cops kill a man standing in his grandmother’s back yard, charges aren’t even filed. When police recklessly fire into an apartment building, killing a young black woman, an officer may be charged for endangering her neighbors, but not for killing her.
Law, policy and culture act in concert to reinforce the fog, not disperse it.
So let’s get super clear: the fog is an active force. It is a force of the state. It is a force that acts on our entire society.
It is the cratering trust in our criminal legal system, thickened by decades of death, system failures, and obstructions to reform. It is the set of laws and policies that calcify around law enforcement to ensure their behavior is governed by a different set of rules than the rest of us. It is the the obscurant that actively twists the narrative and not only prevents justice — but even prevents accountability in all but the rarest cases.
And despite being an active force the fog is often described with passive language, creating the perception that it is inevitable. The fog wants you to think it isn’t a force of the state, but a force of nature. It is not.
It is the creation of power.
This press release is the fog:
The feeling of dread you get reading it is the fog, too.
And if it’s this thick around me — a white guy who has never realistically felt in any danger from our system — I can only imagine what life is like for my wife, my brother, my friends and other family who live with the real fear that the fog might one day swallow them completely, blotting them from existence.
When people say the Chauvin verdict is not justice, but merely accountability, I believe the above is a hint at what they mean.
Justice would be a journey to dismantle and rebuild systems. It would probably take decades. This verdict, sadly, isn’t even a step.
It’s just a reprieve.
The reprieve was needed.
The second the verdict came down, our friend chat exploded. Not with the news — we were all watching the news. It exploded with plans to celebrate.
It felt like a well-earned moment of repose after 11-months that began last May, with scenes like this:
We all took the rest of the day off, cancelled meetings. We huddled around good beers, good food. Eventually, we grabbed good ice cream and took a walk together as the sun set.
We talked about what we had just experienced, of course, but we also just caught up on life in a way we hadn’t in probably over a year. It felt like seeing loved ones clearly again.
For the first time in so long, an evening was mostly just fun.
Because this is Spokane, the group was mostly white folks, but it also included my wife, whose father can trace his lineage no further than the plantations of Louisiana; and our friend the lawyer, whose father’s family fled the Caribbean; and our friend the photojournalist, whose father hails from South Asia.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have moments last night, sitting with these dear friends — this chosen family — and think: The fog didn’t start with Rodney King. It didn’t start in Watts or on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. It didn’t start with fugitive slave patrols.
It didn’t start in 1791, when America actively opposed the revolutionary freedom of the formerly enslaved people of Haiti. It didn’t start in 1757 when a corporation subjugated an entire subcontinent with the blessing of the British. It didn’t even start in 1619, when the first slave ship docked in Virginia.
My mind slid back and forth along that deep history — 1493, 1096, back to what some people consider the foundations of western civilization. Has it always been with us? The supremacy that originally justified conquest and terror being turned inward, first to colonial subjects and ultimately our own fellow citizens? Our brothers and sisters?
Sure feels like it.
But for a moment last night, I could almost imagine its end, and we celebrated in a way I can’t immediately remember celebrating. It was clear-eyed, jubilant, restful, and freeing.
When we got home, this was the headline that greeted us:
And as quickly as it lifted, I felt the fog descending again.
The Chauvin verdict is one moment — barely a heart beat.
One beat of accountability in a lifetime of arrhythmia.
Ma’Khia is evidence of that. Adam Toledo is evidence of that. Breonna Taylor is evidence of that.
So is Shonto Pete.
Because as much as our local leaders want to express solidarity with our communities of color and take pains to set the Spokane region apart from what happens in places like Minneapolis, Chicago, and Columbus, we are no different.
In some ways, despite our size, we’re among the worst.
In the last 7 years, our police force has been the third-deadliest in the nation per capita.
Spokane Police kill people at over twice the rate of cops in Seattle.
In 2015, lacking any official national data on fatal police interactions, the Washington Post began its own count, finding that nationwide, year after year, roughly 1,000 people die at the hands of police every year. This number does not correlate to a specific level of violence in our society.
If officer-involved killings were proportional to violent crime, we would expect violent crime to be stable as well, but it isn’t. On the contrary, violent crime has been on a precipitous decline for the last 28 years.
Policing is demonstrably less dangerous than it was in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, and yet police are more militarized than ever and violent deaths of civilians remain stable.
Because this is Spokane, most victims of police violence here are white, but proportionally, Black folks are 3.3 times more likely than white people to be killed by police in Spokane, per data from mappingpoliceviolence.org.
That organization doesn’t track disproportionality for Native Americans, but if I’ve done my math right, Indigenous folks are close to 7 times more likely than white people to be killed.
Regardless of race, all of these deaths demand a rigorous public scrutiny they have never gotten in our city, because the police are allowed to police themselves. This power of self-governance — a power to act with near impunity — has remained intact despite loud, clear calls from the citizens of Spokane themselves to establish civilian oversight with actual teeth. We voted oversight into the founding document of our city nearly a decade ago, but obstructionism has kept it from being implemented.
And no: having the Sheriff investigate his colleagues at SPD and vice versa is not close to enough. It creates the definition of a quid-pro-quo conflict of interest.
Now, our county leaders want to gut the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council. Under the guise of structural streamlining, the proposal would strip seats from the few community members of color. It would also completely dissolve the Racial Equity Committee.
And that’s perhaps the final way the fog blots out the path to justice. It covers all of us so completely that, when the latest homicide happens in Columbus or Chicago, we seem to lose sight of the injustice that is currently growing in Spokane.
Even as we stand transfixed by a murder and bear witness to a verdict that momentarily lifts the veil on Minneapolis, the fog seeks to obscure the path we must walk at home.
We cannot lose sight of that path.