Just a few days have passed since Derek Chauvin’s conviction in the murder of George Floyd. But the images from that moment are seared in our memories forever: the murderer, led away in handcuffs. The Floyd family, Philonise Floyd speaking through tears, at the microphones after the verdict. The crowds outside the courthouse erupting in cheers when the verdict was read.
Our gratitude for this measure of accountability is soul-deep. And now we ask ourselves, will things really be different this time? The answer is that they can be, if we seize this moment.
Washington has sent encouraging signs that it is serious about addressing police violence and systemic racism. Congress should pass the imperfect but important George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The Justice Department is forging ahead with investigations of police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville, and the shooting of Anthony Brown in North Carolina.
We have work to do in our own neighborhoods, too.
Policing is a local function, controlled by city, county and state governments. These governments answer directly to us, the citizens. And there is a lot we can do to insist on change.
One of the most inspiring examples today is in Ithaca, New York, a college town led by a dynamic young Black mayor. There, Mayor Svante Myrick and the city council approved a plan to do away with their traditional police department and replace it with a new Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety, in which some personnel would carry weapons — and, importantly, some would not.
Instead, unarmed social workers would respond to the many calls in which an armed response is unnecessary and even dangerous. The new department will have a civilian supervisor. It will focus on de-escalating situations in which people are at risk, and restoring trust among the city’s communities of color, homeless residents, LGBTQ residents and residents with disabilities.
The plan came together with input from local residents as well as city and county officials. It is the kind of innovative thinking we want in communities across the nation, and the energy around the Chauvin trial helped get it over the finish line.
We all can harness that energy where we live. Our year of speaking out and taking to the streets will serve us well; we can organize, and demonstrate, and show up in the places where local lawmakers meet to do their work. We can contact our local representatives directly; they might live next door or down the street.
And while the task of changing thousands of police departments, one by one, seems huge, think of this: more than half of Black Americans live in 25 metropolitan areas. We can get serious about saving Black lives by starting in those metro areas. And we can build a movement that inspires others to act.
One of the most emotional moments after George Floyd’s murder last year came when his daughter Gianna, then 6, said, “Daddy changed the world.” If we want her to be right in the long run, we can do our part to make her words come true. And each of us can start right here at home.
Ben Jealous, the former president and CEO of the NAACP, is president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation.