For Once, a Cop Did Not Get Away With Murder. Activists Want to Ensure It Is No Longer a Rarity

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Terrell Jermaine Starr
·7 min read
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Porsche Queen Miller (center) and others march through the streets after the verdict was announced for Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021 in Atlanta.
Porsche Queen Miller (center) and others march through the streets after the verdict was announced for Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021 in Atlanta.

Tuesday, Black people celebrated the conviction of Derek Chauvin as jubilantly as they’d rejoice in their favorite sports team winning a championship. They know they are the underdogs. The rules are rigged against them, the opponent has outsized resources and always seems to be playing on home court, but yesterday felt like a buzzer-beater. Up until the very moment the verdict was read, we knew anything could happen.

Then the jury had their say: Guilty, guilty, guilty.

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Of course, the convictions of officers who kill Black people aren’t sporting events. Black people, after all, are human beings. But policing in America can certainly make us feel hunted like game.

Still, there was happiness because it is so rare that a cop is punished for killing us. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said during a press conference yesterday that he would not call the verdict justice, but it is accountability. Activists who have been on the frontlines fighting for a defunded police system echoed similar words of guarded optimism.

“Justice would mean that we don’t have a policing and incarceration system that took somebody’s life extra-judicially,” Tia Oso, a community organizer and defund activist, said. “George Floyd didn’t deserve to die. He didn’t sacrifice his life for justice. He was a grown man minding his business when Derek Chauvin murdered him in cold blood and expected to get off. If you look at the reaction on his face, he totally did not expect to be found guilty. Even the charge of manslaughter, to me, is an insult. It wasn’t an accident. The verdict is showing us how corrupt and insidious the system is in that we all watched this man be murdered in front of our eyes. And it was still a question of whether or not Derek Chauvin would be found guilty.”

Chauvin had reason to be shocked. Cops are rarely convicted of misconduct and are incarcerated at only half the rate of civilians, if they are held accountable. This is due to the robust laws, brokered by well-financed police unions that curiously avoid the ire of union-busting Republicans, that shield cops from charges of misconduct. One study found that of 140 officers who were arrested for murder or manslaughter, just 5 percent of them were convicted. Qualified immunity, a federal doctrine that protects civil servants from lawsuits, also provides cover for officers. The George Floyd Act, which is stalled in an ideologically divided Congress, would eliminate the doctrine.

Still, some criminal lawyers believe we may be at a turning point with the Chauvin verdict. Adrienne Lawrence, who commentates on criminal law and policing, said the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck sank any hopes of arguing plausible deniability. So the defense resorted to the only tactic they had: gaslighting the dead victim.

“The defense was doing its best to convey to the jury that what they saw isn’t what they saw,” she said. “They were reaching for implausible conclusions as to what caused George Floyd’s death. We heard testimony about possible carbon monoxide from the exhaust fumes of the police vehicle. That there could have been drugs in his system. They were reaching. It was evident in the testimony of the experts they put in front of that jury. It just wasn’t a winning argument.”

Lawrence also feels the jury saw this as a watershed moment for their own legacies in that they did not want their names to be attached to a not guilty verdict. She added that the ruling should worry ex-officer Kim Potter, who killed Daunte Wright roughly 10 miles down the road in Brooklyn Center last week.

“This jury verdict signals that it is willing to hold police officers accountable for behavior that it does not believe to be reasonable,” Lawrence said. “Kim Potter should be very concerned because she claims that she grabbed her gun instead of her taser. Yet, it’s so difficult for anyone to fathom how you can confuse the two. Her behavior would be considered unreasonable by any average person’s standards. So I see her now realizing that a jury of her peers in the Minneapolis area may not give her a pass.”

While Ferguson is recognized as the start of the Black Lives Matter Movement, it was Floyd’s murder that captured national consciousness. Perhaps it was seeing him on the ground begging for his life and screaming for his mother for over nine minutes and the indifference of the other officers who stood by and did not intervene. Whatever it was, his death buoyed the “defund the police” movement, forcing Democrats to rethink public safety in ways they’d rather avoid.

Candidates running for office locally and nationally are proposing their own versions of police divestment, even though they avoid using “defund” language. Democrats in Washington are trying to pass an act in Floyd’s name that addresses the issue, even though respected activists argue the legislation would not have saved his life and is essentially all hat and no cattle. More progressive Democrats in the party, like Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and others ran on and won their races vowing to defund police departments; most of the Democratic establishment is staunchly against the platform. But most 2020 Democrats either avoided the conversation or flat-out rejected any divestment from policing. Joe Biden, even as he praised yesterday’s verdict, has proposed that law enforcement agencies need more not less money.

There is a positive to Biden’s White House victory. After four years of a Donald Trump Department of Justice that rarely investigated abusive policing, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday that the DOJ will conduct a civil investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis. Elections matter. A moderate Democrat is better than any Republican who would barely address the issue of policing in any meaningful way.

There is also much work to be done to educate victims of policing. Most Black people share the view of other races that there should not be a reduction in police presence. Part of why that is, Oso says, is because Black people have not been given a chance to decide their own self-determination. Politicians have always introduced safety to us as more law enforcement without any discussion of mental health services, parks and shelter.

“If you ask people what makes them feel safe, it’s not the police,” she said. “A lot of times, the reasons why we’re talking about feeling safe or being protected is because of the circumstances that capitalism creates in our communities. Poverty and trauma leads to circumstances and incidents where people are being harmed. There is no aspect of policing that prevents harm from occurring.”

Here in New York City, which has America’s largest police force, candidates are wrestling with how to best reign in the Big Apple’s notoriously abusive policing. One of the candidates, Diana Morales, told The Root that she wants to “unburden” the police, resisting the “defund” language because most residents assume you want to take away policing altogether. Though she does explain to them what defund is and many folks eventually support the platform. Morales’ senior advisor, Ify Ike, said that seeking liberation for Black people isn’t popular and will require any elected official who is devoted to ending police-sanctioned murders to risk their political futures.

Depending on moderates to voice progressive causes like defund the police isn’t a good use of time.

“It is way more important to focus on the leaders that understand policing is designed to target Black lives and to protect White property and White lives over anything else,” said Ike, who is also a lawyer and activist. “A defund the police strategy must come with real dollars. It must also have people that are willing to risk both their reputations and political connections to fight for the people that are the furthest from privilege, power and access. Those are the individuals that we elect when we go to the booths for our local, state and national races. I do hope that people don’t rest. This isn’t the last time we’re going to visit this issue, unfortunately.”

Ike was right.

Just moments after Chauvin was found guilty, news broke that a cop killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio. The struggle didn’t resume because it never stopped.

There wasn’t ever a chance to rest.