This Much is Clear: Derek Chauvin’s Trial Won’t Change Policing in AmericaRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, Police, Minneapolis, George Floyd
Simon Balto is assistant professor of African American history at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power.
The trial of Derek Chauvin over the murder of George Floyd is of enormous importance in very specific ways. It is, most importantly, an opportunity for Floyd’s family and friends to gain some semblance of justice for his killing, if a guilty verdict against Chauvin is what justice looks like for them. It’s also, of course, significant for Chauvin himself, who probably faces more than a decade in prison if convicted. And it’s important to people who see the murder trial as a proxy for the larger history of police in the United States brutalizing and killing Black people in egregiously disproportionate ways – often with total impunity. On the last point, a guilty verdict against Chauvin would be significant simply for its novelty. Police officers in the United States who kill people are rarely charged with a crime; they are more or less never convicted of one.
At the same time, it would be wrong for people to think that the trial has some sort of larger, transformative potential for policing and punishment in this country. If Derek Chauvin goes to prison, this will, for some, be evidence of the system “working”. Chauvin did something bad, and now he’s been punished. Case closed. Justice served. Next.
In this scenario, nothing is on trial besides Derek Chauvin himself. And many people would be fine with that. But it’s simply not enough. Chauvin is, of course, responsible for his violence; and it would be too strong, too kind to him, to say (in the case of a conviction) that he’s just a scapegoat for the larger institutions that trained him to be violent, paid him to be violent, and legitimated his violence time and time again before he eventually, in the estimation of others within that institution, simply took it too far.
But it would not be too strong to say that a Chauvin conviction would serve a convenient purpose for policing as an institution and for his (former) fellow officers, because a guilty verdict would allow people to leave unexamined the larger issues at hand. For them, if Derek Chauvin is guilty of murder, it means, more or less, that he did his job badly and in violation of his training, in contrast to “good policing” and good use-of-force training. A conviction grants other police and supporters of the police the ability to say that Chauvin’s violence was a bad exception to, rather than a representative example or logical extension of, the everyday forms of violence and violation that constitute policing as a practice.
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