I watched the George Floyd video standing in my kitchen, trembling. It took me back to the slavery museum in Selma, Alabama, where, the morning after Barack Obama was voted the first Black president of the United States, I was left totally broken, watching the exhibit on lynching—the embodiment of the sheer agony of America even in the ecstasy of O B A M A.
My involuntary tremors from contemplating a cop’s knee on a Black man’s neck erupted into a volcano the next day when my son Darnell called: he was having difficulty digesting the video. When will it end? he asked. Will his son, my grandson Luke, have to deal with this, too? And two grown men sucked up hot tears flowing across three generations of Black men connected to four centuries of racial horror.
A year later, a Minneapolis jury found former cop Derek Chauvin guilty of murder. And I’m probing my sons, Sheldon, 40, and Darnell, 35, searching for hope beneath the knee of anti-Black racism.
Royson James: One day later, what are your thoughts on the verdict heard around the world—the angst, fear and, I guess, what could have been a nuclear event for race relations?
Sheldon James: I was cautiously optimistic going in. But in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “Okay, but what if?” And the “what if” to me looked like anarchy and pretty much a burning down of society. I had that fear at first, and then relief as those verdicts came in. I just remember feeling numb, not super happy and not super sad; just almost this relief, and then release.
Darnell James: If you look at all the other cases that have come before, there was never any real semblance of accountability. That’s why I was uneasy leading up to the verdict. And when the verdict came down, I was still in a little bit of disbelief. Even when I heard guilty, guilty, guilty. I was waiting for the “catch”—like guilty on this, but, you know, because of some weird loophole, he doesn’t go to jail . . . like I was just waiting for the “gotcha.”
RJ: So you figure that if the verdict had been “not guilty,” and people “burned down the place,” then that would have been anarchy? Would it have been justified?
SJ: Well, is there such thing as justified anarchy? We saw glimpses of it after the Rodney King verdicts came down in 1992, and the L.A. riots. And so I’m thinking L.A. riots times 50, because people were protesting worldwide. There would have been a price to pay from the people . . . You’re thinking like, man, if people don’t get this obvious verdict in this obvious textbook situation, then people are going to lose all hope. And I think the unrest comes when people lose that sense of justice, and then just all hope.
DJ: A non-guilty verdict would have been just another indication that, “Yep, you don’t matter, you’re not important,” even when things are pretty much straightforward, and on video. I think it would have broken people. To what degree? I don’t know, but I was definitely concerned. It comes to a breaking point, right? Like, there’s only so much people can take.
RJ: Do you remember first seeing the video?
DJ: I think for anybody who’s ever seen it, it can’t be unseen. It’s a permanent stain in your brain—watching a man being publicly lynched for that long. Yeah, it was painful, painful.
SJ: It has been seared to my memory. In other videos of shootings, the media blur out the moment a person gets shot. There was no blurring out in this one. It was a slow burn. And burn it did.
RJ: What have we learned from George Floyd? Do we feel better today about race relations than we did in May 2020? Black people are being killed at pretty much the same rate. Have things changed?
DJ: I think we’ll see. We’ll see if this was just an anomaly due to almost perfect conditions: a preponderance of evidence, and an attorney general who stepped in and appointed special prosecutors. Things that just don’t happen in normal scenarios . . . They have provided a blueprint. So, if you’re able to deliver all of these things in the future, you might have a conviction.
RJ: Have we cracked through some barrier, reached some turning point where cops out there are thinking, “Whoo, if I behave badly, I may end up in jail”?
DJ: I would say we’ll see. It would take the next one, when it happens, to have a similar result. And then the next one that happens to have a similar result. To the point where they know that if this happens, this is going to be the result. Right now it’s an anomaly.
RJ: Sheldon, you think we have crossed the Rubicon, that there’s no turning back?
SJ: Really, conviction comes only from the jury. At the end of the day, society has to be ready to make that step. The verdict that comes down is society’s. So I think the verdict sort of shows two things. One, many things happened along the way to prepare the way for this verdict. And two, it sort of means to me that society is sort of in on it. Like, it’s time.
RJ: And so this is not a fluke? We have created the blueprint—a template that will be followed and should be expected to deliver similar results in the future?
SJ: I think so. I think blueprint is the perfect word for it. You know, just package this and do it every single last time you’re involved in these types of situations. And all of these things, built upon each other, get you closer and closer and closer to justice.
RJ: But the blueprint requires everything falling into place: cops stop lying and protecting their own; videos of the encounter; police chiefs testifying against their officers. Is it reasonable to expect that?
SJ: Yes, I believe it’s reasonable. Not because a cop knelt on someone’s neck for 9½ minutes—that bar is way too high.
DJ: Yeah, we’ll see. It would need to happen again and again . . .
RJ: . . . and again for me to believe, for me to say “yes, we’re actually there.”
SJ: But you’re talking about a verdict now. I’m talking about things that have changed in a tangible, provable way since George Floyd a year ago. One is the firing of officers and removing people from the force—not the paid leave thing they used to do.
RJ: True. I have noticed that.
SJ: Another one? The body cams. We never used to see these body cam videos before—not at all. Now they’re releasing these things. The next day.
DJ: It’s convenient when they release body cam footage. If they think it actually makes them look better, they try to release it right away.
RJ: What elements are now baked into the system so we know they can be carried over to the future? Police declining to cover up the abuses of their discreditable colleagues? Is the police blue wall collapsing?
SJ: That’s not built into the system, although I do see progress.
RJ: More than once, we need to see police chiefs throwing their bad cops under the bus. The biggest factor in deciding the Floyd case was the video—the incontrovertible evidence. That’s why I am hesitant to say we’ve turned any corner, and that the Chauvin verdict signals a change.
SJ: A year ago you were skeptical as to whether the mass marches even meant anything in terms of justice. You thought it would fizzle out.
RJ: Well, didn’t it fizzle out? What’s the impact? You think those marches in May and June were sustained in September, October . . . ?
SJ: Not sustained. I’m talking impact. The verdict is here. You’ve got an attorney general, a competent prosecution with resources that outweighed the defence.
RJ: You think that was a direct result of the mass protests globally?
SJ: I do think so.
RJ: And so will it take another mass protest globally to deliver the same action next time?
SJ: If that’s the blueprint. I sure hope we don’t have to have mass riots and protests to get the same result.
RJ: Well, you won’t have mass riots, you won’t have mass protests, unless you have as arresting an image as the George Floyd video. That’s my concern. The marches and protests in the most controversial cases since Floyd—the kid in Chicago, Daunte Wright with the Taser mix-up, and others—are miniscule and tiny compared to the Floyd reaction.
DJ: I haven’t watched all of them, and just snippets. But yeah, they all should be protested.
RJ: The 13-year-old Chicago kid [Adam Toledo] has a gun and is confronted by police and you don’t think he is engaging in such risky behaviour that he’s likely to be shot? That won’t spark global protests.
DJ: I see other things that have been captured where white men—who are posing harm and threat, or have actually done harm and threat in situations—come out alive and have not been shot. So yes, I would protest that. It’s not what the victims did; it’s how and what they were met with. We’re the only ones who have to have the perfect case, where even with George Floyd, the counterfeit $20 bill might have been too much for some people to convict the cop. Did these Black men need to be met with such force? It comes back to a bigger issue. Why are we seen as threats?
RJ: Yes. There are white people who are shot dead by police every day. But to your point, Black people are shot and killed at twice the rate. You’re charging that law enforcers have an unjustifiable fear of Black people.
SJ: How do you address that?
RJ: Through protests and education and continuing to agitate day in, day out, and talking about it and reminding people about it. It’s a fight we have to engage with for the rest of our lives. Racism is centuries old. And to get it out of our system is gonna take that long as well. Every one of us has to have that as a goal and a mission in life. Which is why we have this huge burden. It’s a burden that I had for you two as Black boys, to teach you certain realities in life. Like, there’s certain things that white people can do that you can’t. So I gave you “the talk” about how to act when a cop pulls over your car because I wanted to keep you guys alive. Now, Darnell’s gonna have to figure that out because he’s got a son. Darnell, are you thinking about how you’re going to approach this? Because I’m not sure if you particularly like the way I approached it.
DJ: Well, I don’t like that we have to approach it in a certain way at all. We live in two different worlds, man. We and they. Us and them.
RJ: Is the police an institution that should be smashed because it can’t be reformed?
SJ: Well, I believe it is rotten to the core.
DJ: Your budget says a lot about you. And the city budget is skewed toward police. But the policing normally only happens, like you said, to protect certain people and to police other people. So defund? Oh, absolutely, it should be defunded.
RJ: And your “defund” means: demilitarize, smash, take away their money, do away with the entire department? Or divert some funds to social services and mental health?
DJ: Well, that’s the only thing that defunding the police means. The police should not be a 1-800 number to be called for every sort of situation that happens in the city. Because we know interactions with police and people who look like me are dangerous for us.
SJ: But it doesn’t mean when you call 911, no one answers the phone.
RJ: I do get calls from readers who say, “Hey, if a cop says, ‘Get out of the car, put your hands in the air,’ that’s what you’re supposed to do. ‘You’re not supposed to be backtalking . . .’ ”
DJ: So are you saying that Black people are more confrontational with police? And that’s why they’re getting shot?
RJ: I get that all the time . . .
DJ: Well, then those people are idiots. George Floyd wasn’t confrontational. He was in his car and he got tapped on the window with a gun.
RJ: So the reason white people aren’t being shot as often is that even when they’re lippy with the police, the police are taking their lip?
DJ: Yes. Well, one, they’re not being pulled over. Two, when they’re pulled over, they’re not getting treated the way we are. And three, even if they are lippy, they don’t end up . . . dead.
RJ: So, are you guys hopeful for the future? Do you think your son, my grandson, will be having these conversations?
DJ: I don’t know. Hopefully not, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I wouldn’t bet on it.
SJ: Yeah, I’m hopeful that in my lifetime, and certainly within Luke’s lifetime, that Luke won’t have to have “the talk” with his son.
RJ: You guys can’t be serious. Really?
DJ: Who’s “you guys”? I don’t agree with that statement.
SJ: Realistically, yes. Thirty-five years from now, Luke’s not having the talk.
DJ: Who’s the guy who got choked out in New York for selling loose ciggies? Eric Garner?
SJ: That was six, seven years ago.
DJ: You’re saying so much has happened from 2014 to now that if Eric Garner happened today, you think the cops who choked the original “I can’t breathe” Black victim would get convicted?
SJ: I’m not 100 per cent sure. But I think we have moved in the last six years. Starting with Garner, the beginning of Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick to now, we’ve made a quantum leap. And they do build upon each other. I asked Dad this question earlier today. If Emmett Till was today and George Floyd was back then . . . Well, there’s no doubt that George Floyd would not get any justice but I believe 14-year-old Emmett Till [murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman] would get justice today. My thought—I have no way of proving it.
DJ: I mean, I’m not even convinced that George Floyd gets justice 10 times out of 10 today.
SJ: See, now you are being ridiculous. We had the Chauvin trial. We got the conviction. That is history. The only hypothetical I’m creating, knowing what we know now, is switching the time it happened.
DJ: I’m not convinced.
RJ: I don’t know, either. You’re flipping the 1950s Emmett Till case to today. Why do you think we’d get a conviction—in Mississippi?
SJ: Because, like I said, when you are presenting evidence to a jury, you’re presenting it to society. Back then, society was such that a Black man couldn’t catcall a white woman, in their minds . . .
RJ: But the only thing that would change in the case would be society, the jury. So society has advanced so much that if you were to bring the Emmett Till case to a jury now, the jury would find the killers guilty?
SJ: Yes. Yes. I really do believe there’s been a quantum leap in the last five years. With Rodney King we’re not even talking about murder charges. Those cops would get caught for assault today. All those guys would be fired. No pension for them. Assault charges for sure. You think that today, in 2021, they wouldn’t get charged with assault, Dad? Then you have no hope. Six officers kicking him in the face, butting him in the face with the baton, slapping him around. Maybe not five years ago, when they’re telling Kaepernick that he should leave the country because he hates cops so much. Maybe not six years ago, when they were saying that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group, and “all lives matter.” But now when we can go back a year, when they see the man’s knee on the guy’s neck, the average white person can look at that and say, “Oh, this is what Black Lives Matter was talking about.”
RJ: You see, the reason why I am not bullish on all this is that I know that there are countervailing forces, the “blacklash” that inevitably follows, and that for every U.S. state that has brought in legislation to reform the police, there’s another state that’s actually removing protections against police brutality or trying to go in the opposite direction of the progressive anti-Black-racism trend. More than 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. That’s how I know the need for the talk doesn’t end any time soon. My grandson will have to give his son the talk.
SJ: I am not saying that by the time Luke has a son, evil will be gone and racism will be eradicated. I’m saying the feeling that you need to tell your son, give him the talk . . . I’m hopeful that he will not have to do that for his son. Darnell will have to do it for Luke. But Luke will not have to do it for his son. I’m hopeful. I got 35 years, man, 35 years, I can do that.
RJ: So Luke’s gotta give the talk, right, DJ?
DJ: You have to give the talk until Jesus comes.
Royson James began reporting for the Toronto Starin 1981, and was the municipal affairs columnist at the paper for 19 years. He lives in Toronto with his wife, where they raised four children. Sheldon James works as a lawyer; Darnell James works as a sports agent.
This interview appears in print in the June 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.