Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series. You can read the first article here

On April 21, 2021, a jury deemed that former police officer Derek Chauvin is a murderer. Despite police officers having the legal right to kill under certain circumstances, regarding the death of George Floyd, lethal force was determined to be unreasonable and unjustified. So, though Chauvin was charged to protect and serve, the jury concluded that his actions caused George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020.

While many breathed a sigh of relief and rejoiced at the reading of the verdict, others braced themselves for the trial of the three officers charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin, now scheduled for March 2022. (The state charges are being delayed to allow a federal case to proceed first.) Many asked the question, “Now what?”

The April verdict addresses Chauvin’s culpability in the death of George Floyd. The verdict does nothing to address the multitude of harms committed through the US criminal justice system.  This was epitomized by the police killing of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop just days before Chauvin’s verdict.

As described by Buddhist teacher Larry Ward, America’s history establishes a racialized karma, particularly in the criminal justice system, that may seem impossible to overcome. Given the world’s response to the death of George Floyd and Chauvin’s guilty verdict, we have a powerful opportunity to move towards a societal and systemic rebirth.

We are in the midst of a karmic bardo of becoming, a liminal period of possibilities between death and rebirth. We have the tools to aid us in a higher-level rebirth if we choose to use them for that purpose.

Karma of the Criminal Justice System

Collectively, Americans have crafted and allowed for a criminal justice system that operates under the guise of public safety without the proportional public good. Our actions and fears have led to seemingly intractable harm.

While we spend nearly $300 billion annually to police, prosecute, and imprison, police agencies have no legal duty to protect persons not in their custody. Police primarily exist, contrary to the common motto “to protect and to serve,” to protect business property first, then residential property.

While we train police to be “warrior cops,” we call on them to act as social workers, conflict mediators, traffic directors, mental health counselors, neighborhood patrollers, and enforcers of low-level, petty crimes. Only a small fraction of policing hours are spent responding to violent crime.

While we espouse a motto of “justice for all,” the majority of all criminal cases are against indigent persons. Most people in the criminal justice system—roughly 90 percent—are represented by court-appointed attorneys who are often stretched thin by the sheer amount of clients they represent in an underfunded system. Additionally, the people prosecuted by the criminal justice system are disproportionately people of color.

While we presume “color blindness” in our systems, data related to police stops and searches show a persistent racial bias for police engagement with individuals without finding contraband or proof of crimes to support the rates of stops and searches.

We are all stakeholders in the American criminal justice system that in its current form leads to premature death. In 2020, there were 1,100 fatal police shootings, 27 percent of those were Black people. Black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police officers than white males. Laws allowing the use of “justifiable” deadly force have been applied in a manner that is rooted in the belief, through actions and words, that most Black males are criminals. A literal example of the ultimate cause of death being life itself—a slow death caused by living while Black in America.

The death of George Floyd has always been entangled with two questions: the singular question about justice for Floyd and the more universal question about the US justice system’s perpetually punitive impact on poor, Black and brown persons. His death has brought us into a state like the bardo of becoming, ripe with the potential for transformation. What should be done to allow the death of George Floyd, an individual, to act as a catalyst for a collective rebirth?

After Death—the Bardo

The karmic bardo of becoming, in Tibetan Buddhism, is a state of existence between two lives, a period of time after death, until the moment of rebirth. According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, bardos are periods when life is uncertain. They occur continuously throughout both life and death because the whole of life and death are together a series of constantly changing transitional realities. All bardos are moments when the possibilities of liberation and transformation are heightened because they are charged with potential; whatever you do during these times has crucial and far-reaching effects. In the bardo of becoming, one who is spiritually capable may reduce the impact of the karma of past lives on the level of rebirth to come, or they may even attain liberation.

The key is for each of us to recognize the opportunities for liberation and make the fullest possible use of them.

In understanding karma as the natural law of cause and effect, we begin to understand how all of our actions, no matter how small, have consequences. Even when our actions seem inconsequential, the interdependence of all things bear out a different reality. These truths might seem overwhelming at first, but upon deeper investigation and reflection, we can come to learn the extreme power that karma allows us to create change. We can choose how we act and we can choose to accept the impermanence, fluidity, and interdependence of all things.

We can overcome our long history of racialized karma by choosing our actions, no matter how small, with the appropriate intent. We could choose to continue endorsing false narratives or quietly allowing our tax dollars to support harmful systems. Or, we could choose more compassionate, intentional actions, and be more aware of our interdependence. To develop the appropriate intent, we must first take responsibility for past actions or inactions. Acceptance of responsibility indicates that we understand the full implications or our actions, words and thoughts. What amazing change is possible if the 23.2 million people who were concerned enough to watch the verdict took just that one action! 

The authors would like to thank Jake Nagasawa, PhD Candidate in Religious Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, for his insights and guidance.