Derek Chauvin’s Conviction Was a Relief — but Courts Cannot Deliver Racial Justice

The killing of a Black girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, just minutes before Chauvin’s conviction is a reminder of how violent the broader system is.

A crowd gathers to protest in the neighborhood where a Columbus police officer fatally shot a teenage girl on April 20, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.

A crowd gathers to protest in the neighborhood where a Columbus police officer fatally shot a teenage girl on April 20, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.

Photo: Jay LaPrete/AP

Twenty minutes before a Minnesota jury convicted George Floyd’s killer of murder, a 16-year-old Black girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, was shot and killed by police in Columbus, Ohio. The Columbus police released body camera footage with unusual swiftness, as if a gesture toward transparency could take the place of accountability. The police have stressed the fact that Bryant can be seen in the video with a knife.

A child with a knife, sentenced to death by cop. On every such occasion — and such events are not aberrations — it bears repeating that heavily armed racist murderers like Dylann Roof and Kyle Rittenhouse were escorted into police custody unharmed.

Like the police execution last month of 13-year-old Adam Toledo — a child who had his hands up — and the close-range, deadly shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop just 10 miles from Derek Chauvin’s trial, Bryant’s killing is a shuddering reminder of how little relief the former cop’s conviction truly represents.

This is not to deny that the guilty verdict for a killer cop, who took a Black man’s life with seeming dispassionate ease, provided widespread relief. The alternative, that Chauvin be found not guilty, would have been intolerable but unsurprising. As the New York Times noted, “the chances of a killing by the police leading to a murder conviction are about one in 2,000.”

Despite a rightful rejection of the racist carceral system, it is too much to ask of abolitionists to feel no relief that Chauvin will be punished. Yet no number of individual convictions could constitute a corrective to the nonstop decimation of Black and brown lives by police and the criminal legal system at large — a system that was by no means on trial by virtue of Chauvin’s prosecution and conviction.

“[N]othing has changed the underlying conditions allowing for the murder of Floyd in the first place,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African American studies, tweeted prior to the verdict coming down. “The killing of Wright & Toledo within the last month assure that without the annihilation of the criminal punishment system, we will be here again.”

Much of the prosecution’s case against Chauvin made a point that his guilt should not be understood as reflective of a guilty system. “They called members of law enforcement to the stand, including Chief Arradondo” — Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo — “to attest to the aberration of Chauvin’s actions,” the New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant wrote. “In fact, the state’s strategy seemed designed to win over jurors who saw something criminal in what Chauvin did but did not want to pass judgment on all police.”

Floyd died in a circumstance of extraordinary cruelty; that his killing catalyzed the most potent anti-racist uprisings for Black liberation in decades made clear that such death has been reiterated so consistently throughout history that it was easily recognizable for what it was: a brutal, racial regime in action. Chauvin and his colleagues, vile in their colluding passivity, did not inaugurate this white supremacist history. Their trials will not end it. This much is already abundantly clear and well stated.

Philosopher Judith Butler, when discussing the prosecution of individuals for racist hate speech, noted that it is “something like the effort to prosecute a history that, by its very temporality, cannot be called to trial.” The same can be said of the notion that a rare guilty verdict for a cop can hold accountable the unbroken history of racist policing.

Both as a matter of juridical process being necessarily individualized, and due to the complicity of the entire justice system in anti-Black oppression, the courts will not deliver the vast reckoning, reparations and real justice that we need. Keeping in mind the judiciary’s now-entrenched right-wing bent and the ever-growing flood of anti-protest laws nationwide, the courts will remain sites of fraught navigation for those involved in liberation struggles — and places of quotidian oppression for Black people. Chauvin’s conviction changes none of that.

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