This commentary is by Brian Ricca, the school superintendent in St. Johnsbury.
On Wednesday, April 20, I got an alert on my phone from The New York Times that there would be a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. For the first time in a long time, we gathered our children around the television. For more than an hour, we all watched the seal of the state of Minnesota and listened to analysis and predictions about what was to come.
We talked about the reality of systemic racism, and we shared with our boys about what we thought would be another utter disappointment. Finally, the camera pulled back as Judge Peter A. Cahill returned to the courtroom.
As Judge Cahill began to read the verdicts, I prepared myself to hear the words “not guilty” three times. Even though the jury returned quickly (deliberating for just over 10 hours, and several of the talking heads in the previous hour of television offered that this meant “guilty” verdicts), I was skeptical at best. A part of me was hopeful, but the pragmatic part of my consciousness was getting louder and louder as I watched the judge begin to speak.
“We, the jury, in the above-entitled matter as to count one, unintentional second-degree murder while committing a felony, find the defendant guilty.” I was stunned. And in my mind, I still expected two “not guilty” verdicts for the next two counts.
“We, the jury, in the above-entitled matter as to count two, third-degree murder perpetrating an eminently dangerous act, find the defendant guilty.” I didn’t believe it. In my head, there was no way they would find him guilty on all three counts.
“We, the jury, in the above-entitled matter as to count three, second-degree manslaughter, culpable negligence creating an unreasonable risk, find the defendant guilty.”
I was shocked. I exhaled. I didn’t expect one guilty verdict, let alone three. I didn’t expect to see Derek Chauvin leave the courtroom in handcuffs. I didn’t expect that what I thought about this trial would prevail in a court of law.
Before the verdicts were read, there was still the probability (not the possibility) in my mind that what I believed to be justice would not be served. Despite the fact that there was bystander footage of the incident, I was not at all convinced. There have been far too many Black, Indigenous and people of color who have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement. In some of these deaths, charges have not even been brought. Further, if charges were filed, the cases did not end with the word “guilty.”
There is much more work to do to dismantle systemic racism in our country. There is much more work to do to dismantle systemic racism in Vermont. There is much more work to do to dismantle systemic racism in Caledonia County. Perhaps this verdict can further commit us to continue this work, demanding equity for our BIPOC brothers and sisters.
It is not lost on me that I was holding my breath voluntarily while waiting to hear the verdict in a case where Mr. Floyd stopped breathing at the hands of Mr. Chauvin.
White allies, we still have so much work to do.