Today in The Guardian I try to explain why I don’t find much hope in the Chauvin verdict or the new DOJ probe into the Minneapolis Police Department, but am still not without hope. The close there is the open here:
What I mean to say here is that we should be fiercely protective of our hopes and expectations when it comes to the criminal punishment system’s occasional reaches toward individualized and particularized demonstrations of “justice”. Prosecutors for the state of Minnesota explicitly said in their closing arguments against Derek Chauvin that the police were not on trial here, but rather that a uniquely bad7/ former police officer was. Chauvin’s defense team countered, in part, that their client was not guilty by virtue of the fact that he was simply doing what he had been trained to do. There is truth in both arguments: Derek Chauvin is and was a vicious arbiter of violence, and that ultimately resulted in his murdering of George Floyd. By the same token, Chauvin worked so comfortably inside the confines of his training that his employing department saw fit to allow him to train rookie officers to do the job the same way he did. Derek Chauvin the police officer was not an exception among other police officers, but a standard bearer. He only became exceptional when he was prosecuted and convicted for murder.
In a different way, the same is true of the justice department’s targeting of Minneapolis for the pattern-or-practice investigation. Just as Derek Chauvin was cast as a uniquely bad apple over the course of his murder trial, one who did not reflect a rot within the larger barrel, the Minneapolis police department now comes under scrutiny as somehow uniquely bad, uniquely deserving of and requiring federal intervention. The reality, of course, is that just as Chauvin was doing a version of something that police do all the time during his ultimately fatal engagement with George Floyd, the Minneapolis police department operates in much the same way that police departments all across the country generally operate. The dozens of police killings that have unfolded over the span of the past month were not confined to Minneapolis; they took place everywhere.
When the court sentences Derek Chauvin, if and when the DoJ orders Minneapolis into a consent decree to force police “reform” (as is the usual outcome of these pattern-or-practice investigations) – these will be hailed as markers of “justice”. But we should be careful, for they serve another purpose, whether intentionally or not. These legal decisions, targeting one former police officer who reflects the general nature of his former profession or a city whose police department reflects the general nature of American policing writ large, are also ways by which the criminal punishment system atomizes and particularizes a problem that is entirely generalizable. Prosecutors made clear that policing was not on trial; Derek Chauvin was. Merrick Garland has made it clear that policing is not the subject of the DoJ investigation; one police department among the 18,000 we have in the United States is.
This is why it is important to find hope in the right places. While I don’t find hope in one man’s conviction or one city’s scapegoating for a nationwide problem, I do find it in multitudes elsewhere. I find it in particular inside the justice work that people are doing all the time in community after community everywhere: in the mutual aid organizations, the violence prevention groups, the Movement for Black Lives organizers and the many groups who are in solidarity with them. Their work and commitments are where the hope is, because what they are fighting for is literally a better world for all people. And that – far more than one former cop being punished by a system that gladly employed him in its service for 20 years, and now happily points to his punishment as an example of its own inherent justness – is worthy of our hope.