Riots followed the King verdict. For five days, violence and arson tore apart South Central Los Angeles. In the end, there were 50 deaths, over 6,000 arrests, and approximately $1 billion in property damage.
The Rodney King verdict and the riots that followed heightened the racialized stakes of the Simpson trial. It became a proxy war for those in the struggle against biased policing. That struggle permeated the courtroom.
The outcome recalibrated how many thought of the justice system, who it victimized and what was possible. It provided a counterexample to the prevailing narrative of Black victimization at the hands of the justice system. For many, it inspired an emotion akin to hope. Unfortunately, that feeling was fleeting.
The Chauvin trial is a chance to tell a different story.
The Chauvin trial bears all the key elements of the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson trials combined. Like in Simpson’s trial, the eyes of a nation will be trained upon Minnesota in the coming month. Thanks to streaming, each argument will be accessible to millions and viewed live.
Like in the King trial, Americans have witnessed firsthand the brutality of the accused — brutality so vicious that calls for punishment are more widespread than we’re accustomed to seeing in trials of police violence.
Instead, the Chauvin trial will test the depths of our inequality. The trial will demonstrate whether or not the American justice system is capable of executing its most basic function — punishing the depraved.
Should Chauvin be convicted of the crimes we watched him commit, few will be able to rejoice at the salvation of our justice system. But we will release a silent sigh of relief that the system is not totally illegitimate — a small victory.
But should Chauvin be acquitted, the result will speak a message of unsalvageable injustice to a generation of Americans already familiar with too many other examples. I expect to see riots like the ones that followed Rodney King’s verdict.
And years on, well after the initial outrage has quieted, we will remember Derek Chauvin before estimating the meaning of justice in our nation.