Court Battles

The Memo: Nation’s racial reckoning plays out in 2021’s big trials

A woman holds up her phone as she watches Derek Chauvin at trial in the first photo. In the second, people protest Kyle Rittenhouse's acquittal
Associated Press - Julio Cortez/Associated Press - Noah Berger

America’s reckoning with racial justice moved from the streets to the courtroom in 2021, with complicated results.

In April, former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd on a Minneapolis street 11 months before, in what was widely seen as a landmark decision.

Another landmark — of a starkly contrasting kind — came in November, when 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts after fatally shooting two people and wounding a third during race-related unrest in Kenosha, Wis.

The killers of Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty of murder in Georgia in a November trial that proved a majority-white jury was willing to convict white civilians for the murder of a Black man even in disputed circumstances.

In a less serious and more bizarre case, actor Jussie Smollett was found guilty in December of having set up a hoax attack on himself. Smollett, who is Black and gay, had claimed he had been set upon in Chicago in January 2019 by two assailants shouting about “MAGA country.”  In fact, he had paid two brothers to stage the attack.

As usual with the tangled topics of race, policing and the justice system, there is no simple message to be drawn from the cases in total.

Instead, they showed a nation at times edging toward a new consensus on the most egregious examples of racial injustice and at other times retreating into old trenches.

The Chauvin case was arguably the most emotive of all, centered on the killing that had sparked global protests and given new vigor to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

Before the verdict came, there was widespread doubt in the Black community that a jury would convict a former police officer for murder. Comparisons were drawn to the case of Rodney King a generation before. Police officers in Los Angeles were captured on video savagely beating King and were acquitted on all charges.

But the jury did convict in Minneapolis, finding Chauvin guilty of all three counts for which he was tried, the most serious being second-degree murder. The 45-year-old Chauvin was sentenced in June to more than 22 years in prison. 

In the immediate aftermath of the guilty verdict, President Biden called the Floyd family, saying he was “relieved” by the conviction. Publicly, Biden said that Chauvin had committed “murder in full light of day” and that the jury’s decision amounted to “basic accountability.” 

But was the Chauvin verdict a harbinger of a new era in terms of law enforcement facing the full measure of justice for its actions? 

It’s simply unclear. 

Civil rights activists pointed out that the murder of Floyd, though emblematic of the broader ills of police brutality, was unusual in its specifics. 

In Floyd’s case, a cellphone video shot by a bystander captured Chauvin kneeling on his victim for more than nine minutes as Floyd’s distress grew and onlookers urged the officer to stop.

The video was horrific and Chauvin’s conduct blatantly inexcusable. Virtually no one, of any political persuasion, sought to justify what Chauvin had done. Then-President Trump, who regularly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement while defending police, called the circumstances of Floyd’s death “terrible.”  

Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who shot the video, was later honored with a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee.

The broader questions raised by Floyd’s murder seemed to get murkier as the year wore on, however. 

On Capitol Hill, efforts to enact police reform failed. Rising rates of violent crime in many cities spurred debate as to whether criticism of the police had gone too far, disincentivizing officers from properly doing their jobs. Electorally, the slogan “defund the police” was widely held to have become a millstone for Democrats, even though only a small minority of the party backs the goal.

In any event, the brief moment of national consensus around Floyd’s murder had thoroughly broken down by the time Rittenhouse faced a jury in November.

His case became a classic Rorschach test, with critics seeing him as a gun-toting vigilante and defenders viewing him as a young man of basically good intentions who became a victim of circumstance.

At his trial, even some of the prosecution witnesses delivered exculpatory evidence. The one man who survived being shot by him, for example, noted that he was himself armed with a pistol and that it was only after he aimed his gun at Rittenhouse that the teen had fired. 

Those kinds of details, in turn, spurred criticism of earlier media reporting on Rittenhouse’s actions.

The verdict, predictably, was hailed by the right and lamented on the left. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said that “justice has been served.” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) saw instead a “miscarriage of justice.”

In December, controversy stirred again over Rittenhouse when he was accorded a hero’s welcome at a conference staged by a conservative group, Turning Point USA.

The Rittenhouse episode was so potent that it hung over the very different trial relating to Arbery’s death, which concluded later the same month.

In that instance, the conviction of a father and son, Travis and Gregory McMichael, along with a neighbor, William “Roddy” Bryan, was seen as a long-awaited vindication for campaigners.

The Arbery killing had barely elicited national attention until cellphone video shot by Bryan emerged. The resultant outrage, in turn, led the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over the case from local law enforcement. The woman who was the local prosecutor at the time was indicted earlier this year for allegedly showing bias in favor of the McMichaels.

When the guilty verdict came, Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) pointedly stressed the “historic civil rights mobilization” that he said had been “necessary” to achieve justice.

Biden again weighed in, calling the case a “devastating reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for racial justice in this country.”

That fight faces an uncertain immediate future, however. 

With a midterm election year looming, partisan fights over policing, crime and the broader topic of “wokeness” — all in some ways proxies for older fights over race — are sure to ramp up. 

How that process plays out in a nation already riven by tension and polarization is anyone’s guess.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Ahmaud Arbery trial Black Lives Matter Derek Chauvin trial Donald Trump Jacob Rittenhouse trial Jerrold Nadler Jerry Nadler Joe Biden Jon Ossoff Ron Johnson
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