Derek Chauvin’s conviction will not save black or white lives

Even if we could remove racial bias from police, this would not solve the problems of inequality and exploitation

People gather for a vigil in Columbus, Ohio on April 21, 2021 in memory of MaKhia Bryant, 16, who was shot and killed by a Columbus Police Department officer. - Police in the US state of Ohio fatally shot a Black teenager who appeared to be lunging at another person with a knife, less than an hour before former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. (Photo by Jeff Dean / AFP)

People gather for a vigil in Columbus, Ohio on April 21, 2021 in memory of MaKhia Bryant, 16, who was shot and killed by a Columbus Police Department officer. - Police in the US state of Ohio fatally shot a Black teenager who appeared to be lunging at another person with a knife, less than an hour before former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. (Photo by Jeff Dean / AFP)

 

A jury has found Derek Chauvin guilty of all charges against him for killing George Floyd, including unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. A judge remanded Chauvin in custody after the verdict and a cop quickly cuffed the dazed defendant to carry him out of the courtroom. Chauvin will remain in jail until his sentencing hearing in two months.

Presidents did what presidents do after the criminal justice system seems to work for the people who it exploits, but this time with a twist. Neither Obama nor Biden considered the verdict justice, but rather accountability and “a step in the right direction”. Obama emphasized eliminating racial bias in policing and implementing concrete reforms for change; Biden explained that the verdict was a giant step forward towards justice in America.

There are two fatal flaws with these statements. The first is that reforms cannot fix racial bias in policing because police was formed as a system of racial and economic control, and remains so. As I’ve written before: if Derek Chauvin were the kindest cop in Minnesota and did not have a biased bone in his body, he still would have been able to arrest George Floyd for any number of alleged illegal acts. Because of capitalism, racism and ableism, the darkest and poorest peoples in the United States are relegated to live precarious lives where they do what they can to survive, sometimes including breaking the law. Rather than eliminating the unjust conditions, cities and the federal government send in police to manage the inequality.

Additionally, even if we could remove racial bias from police, this would not solve the underlying problems of inequality and exploitation. If it did, then there wouldn’t be so many poor, white people in prison. Last week, I watched a video of three cops arresting and slamming a 73-year-old white woman with dementia who was picking flowers on her way home. She’d forgotten to pay for her groceries at Walmart. Police dislocated her shoulder, and tied her hands and feet like a hog. She repeatedly cried that she wanted to go home and they chuckled at her. If removing racial bias in police is supposed to ensure that that Black people will be treated like white people under the law, then equal protection is completely insufficient for anyone’s freedom and safety.

Additionally, we cannot expect cop convictions to save anyone’s lives because prior cop convictions did not even save George Floyd’s life. Thousands of cops have killed more than 10,000 people of all races between 2005 and 2017; only 82 cops have been charged with murder or manslaughter. According to criminologist Phil Stinson, only 19 cops were convicted and mostly on lesser charges in that time period. A judge sentenced former South Carolina cop Michael Slaeger to 20 years in prison in 2017 for shooting Walter Scott several times in the back. A judge sentenced former Chicago PD officer Jason Van Dyke in 2019 to a little over six years in prison for fatally shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times. Despite the increasing convictions, the police nationwide still kill about three people a day. Just a few years ago, Minnesota convicted a cop for a murder while on duty for the first time. Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was sentenced to about 12 years. Why didn’t all of these convictions save the thousands of people who were killed after them? Why didn’t Chauvin get the message?

The celebration of the conviction as “accountability” or “justice” that will send chills down the spines of police simply doesn’t comport with the law, which protects the police’s right not to think before they act. The US supreme court opined in Graham v Connor that cops “are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation”. This means that police currently have the constitutional authority to quickly decide when to use force. Every now and then, a conviction will slip through the cracks and people will celebrate, similar to how slave patrols were punished and sometimes sent to prison for their mistreatment of slaves. But, the underlying power to be violent will remain virtually unchanged and many more people will die because of it.

Even if we could remove racial bias from police, this would not solve the problems of inequality and exploitation

Tragically, we witnessed this on Tuesday. As the nation awaited the jury verdict’s reading against Chauvin, a white cop in Columbus, Ohio killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 15-year-old Black girl. According to Bryant’s family, the teen reportedly called the police for help because older kids were trying to assault her. Police arrived during the altercation and shot Bryant four times.

There will be calls for justice for Ma’Khia, just as there were calls for justice in the recent police killings of Daunte Wright in Minnesota and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago. Clearly cops did not get the message about justice because all of these victims were killed in the course of the Chauvin trial. But we will never know what accountability or justice means for George, Daunte, Adam or Ma’Khia because justice requires the participation of the people impacted by it. The dead cannot participate. Convictions only provide relief for the living, and they surely do not save lives. The question is: do we want convictions or do we want to live?

If we want to live, then we must continue to join, support and create social movements and protests to end policing. Police abolition is not mere police absence. It is a political commitment and practice to recreate the society that thinks it needs police in the first place. People must avoid repeating the same tired reforms in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which does not undermine police power, and look to more transformational demands, such as those in the Breathe Act. We need abolition. Organizations like Critical Resistance, the Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders and various “defund the police” campaigns across the country are articulating ways to make change. We have to decide whether we have the will and imagination to join them.

Derecka Purnell is a Guardian US columnist. She is the author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom

Guardian

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