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Derek Chauvin’s conviction has left us hollow because the bare minimum is no longer enough

It is impossible to cheer a system that will continue to churn out Chauvins unchecked.

21 Apr

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History doesn’t feel like they said it would. Last night, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was unanimously convicted of murdering George Floyd. The world watched as Chauvin, his eyes flickering nervously around the courtroom, was taken away in handcuffs to await sentencing. He now carries the bloody legacy of being the first white cop to ever be convicted for killing a Black man in the state of Minnesota. But many have expressed that the moment, although technically historic, has left them feeling hollow. Celebrations have been grimly muted, or non-existent. Replacing them is something surprising: a mainstream amplification of abolitionist demands.

Let’s not be mistaken; America is not about to wholeheartedly commit to defunding the police and restructuring its criminal justice system completely. But it’s striking to see the rhetoric that has for so long existed on radical fringes, make its way into the mouths of those instrumental in upholding the legitimacy of rotten structures. 

Take the words of Minnesota Attorney, Keith Ellison, a man whose entire career has required him to deeply commit to practicing the law as is, in order to attain ‘justice’. Speaking after Chauvin’s conviction, Ellison said: “I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step toward justice.” 

“Convicting police officers will not stop them killing in the first place”

This line – that the verdict was ‘accountability’ and not ‘justice’ was echoed across the board, from president Joe Biden to the likes of anti-racism campaigner Reverend Dr Jacqui Lewis. It felt unusual, alien even, to see figures from the liberal centre form a consensus with those calling for the abolition of policing and a complete rethink of what we understand ‘justice’ to be. I have no doubt that Keith Ellison and his ilk are not about to become committed abolitionists, but the reaction revealed a small but decisive shift in the mainstream discussion concerning the concept of ‘justice’. 

Four years ago, perhaps, Chauvin’s conviction would have led to widespread raucous celebration and numerous politicians declaring that ‘justice has been served’ (as it was, those that did were left looking supremely out of touch). But we are battered and wiser. It’s not just the abolitionists with decades in the trenches who now recognise that the criminal justice system and imprisonment are not synonymous with ‘justice’ – not when those same institutions are responsible for trapping the George Floyds of this world in deadly carceral cycles of criminalisation in the first place. 

How can we celebrate one Derek Chauvin being jailed – a feat which took the combination of eight minutes of unequivocal video evidence, 12 months of worldwide protests and the felling of a US president – when we know that prisons remain a punishment that exist to disproportionately lock up people of colour and the poorest of society? It’s impossible to cheer. 

Meanwhile, the cops keep killing. Just minutes after Chauvin had been led away, news filtered in from Ohio: a 16 year-old Black girl, Makiyah Bryant, had been shot dead by Columbus police responding to a house call. Her tragic shooting acted as an immediate, sobering cold shock of water. Convicting police officers will not stop them killing in the first place. 

“We ask ourselves what ‘justice’ looks like and with the conviction of Derek Chauvin, we have our answer: not that”

The murder of George Floyd unleashed a reckoning with racism in the West that’ is still in its infancy. But undeniably, abolitionist sentiment is gaining ground. All the pain, the protests, even the incessant infographics – there’s been an impact. More people than ever seem to understand that racism is structural; that the imprisonment of one ‘white’  individual does nothing to liberate everyone else, nor challenge the institutions that uphold a framework of white supremacy that in turn exists to maintain a voracious capitalism. The thinking is joining up. The ‘bad apple’ narrative – that seeks to separate the actions of individual violent actors from the institutions enabling them – has lost ground.

We ask ourselves what ‘justice’ looks like and with the conviction of Derek Chauvin, we have our answer: not that. The realisation itself is monumental. To comprehend that, somewhere along the line, a message once regarded as unbelievably radical has apparently centred itself in mainstream discourse is startling. Even a recognition of the nuance when it comes to ‘justice’ vs. ‘accountability’, and an acknowledgement that imprisonment is not an answer beyond providing fleeting relief – is this progress? 

The sombre reaction to yesterday’s verdict reveals the truth: the bare minimum has come too little, too late. Derek Chauvin is going to jail. But it’s a sacrifice made too late by the establishment to preserve the system that allowed him – and so many others – to kill with impunity. The goalposts have shifted. Cops may no longer be unaccountable but it’s clear that they’re just one whirring cog of the entire machine of white supremacy. It would be sheer folly to celebrate the master’s tools at work when they’ll never dismantle the master’s house. So, with that in mind, we must continue to whittle our own.