That single word is an entire sentence. Descriptors are unnecessary here in Charleston, there in Minneapolis, back home in D.C. In fact, the entire world was hovering outside those court steps on April 20th and all were there when Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd on all counts.
I smiled. I clapped. I texted huggy face emojis ad nauseum. But I have not relaxed. As I sit here still holding tension in my shoulders and refusing to fully exhale, I am beginning to wonder if I am just being ungrateful. Then, I realize that I see this same lack of release of tension in many connected to me.
So, let’s lean into this a bit.
We live in a world where it is reasonable to be surprised by this conviction. That is what is keeping me “still.” We did not marshal the National Guard in cities across the country because we were worried about celebrations getting out of hand. Reporters were not signing off with colleagues saying “Stay safe!” because they were concerned about their fellow journalists slipping on spilt beer in bar room watch parties. CEOs of corporations, non-profits, service organizations, and yes, museums, have not been stressing over our public statements because we were convinced there would be tremendously good news to share this week.
In one way or another, we all understood that our beloved country and the systems that power and sustain it have a nasty habit of misplacing accountability in conversations about race in America. So, we were prepared for George Floyd to be put on trial for his own murder and lose. This moment of justice is so unbelievable that it is difficult to trust.
And if I stop my lean-in there, I can simply spiral into deliberate pessimism and frankly, I will be no better or worse off than I was the day before the verdict. I am black and female in America, and the ambiguity of my justice system is not new to me.
So yes, I could just sit here. But I won’t. I have always chosen aggressive hope, and I fully intend to claim victory one day. So, let’s lean into this space of un-relaxation just a little more.
In the spirit of this leaning, I allow the words of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to break through: “I would not call today justice. Because justice is about full restoration. This is not justice – but it is a first step.”
Well said. All right, Mr. Attorney General! I’ll see your first step and raise you the broader view.
Because I sit at the helm of the International African American Museum created to tell untold stories of our history, I am charged with holding the complexity of America’s tremendous progress and continual back-sliding on racial equity. On the day of this momentous verdict, I woke up to the story of a young black girl whose hair was forcibly cut off by her white teacher without invitation or permission. The day after, I woke up to the story of a young black girl shot on her porch by the policeman she had called for help. Well-established wounds in my heart tore just a bit each time, and I still don’t know how I keep making it through my morning meetings day after day with these stories in my head.
Still yes, let’s raise a glass and toast the Chauvin verdict as a first-step victory. It took an army of litigators and radical coalitions across unusual aisles to get this guilty verdict. Not to mention 160 years for Minnesota to get to its first statewide election of an African American, e.g. Ellison, in necessary preparation to achieve this moment. So yes, I’m proud of us.
And yes, I will skip over the issue of the other police officers present at the George Floyd murder. I will even pass on a resonant, relevant rant about the killing of Daunte Wright. Rather, I will simply, quickly state the obvious: Minneapolis is not the exception in this conversation, but rather another example of a disappointing rule. #FirstStep.
I release all of this so that I can move from my “stillness” and lean into the bigger picture.
This is not a conversation about police accountability. This is a conversation about the institutionalization of racist and dehumanizing philosophies that put daily pressure on all of our systems and institutions. A daily pressure to preserve the status quo and adopt a paralyzing fear of change.
Law enforcement is a major part of this conversation – and requires considerable focus. But, if we limit ourselves to a conversation on accountability in law enforcement today, then we are doomed to repeat the conversation in every other system and institution on another day, and then every other business and household on another day, and so on and so on. Yes, we have the capacity for that, but we should no longer have the patience for it. Now is the time to embrace a bigger picture that will allow us to take on all of these conversations at once.
This moment, this verdict is not the turning point or, frankly, even minor pivot in generationally embedded philosophies and inequitable systems. Rather, this is a moment that powerfully puts us all on notice about what is possible. This moment is for those of us who claim aggressive hope and will continue to take steps – some large heavy, boot-strapped steps, some baby steps – toward our more universally humanized union.
This is going to be a lot of work. Clearly, this is not solely the work of the Minnesota Attorney General and his team.
Some of it is my work. And now I understand why I am not relaxed.
Some of this is your work. So now I understand how you made it to the end of this letter.
And you know what? I think I just exhaled.
Dr. Tonya M. Matthews is President and CEO of the International African American Museum.