TDerek Chauvin’s trial for 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 obtain a semblance of justice for his murder, if a guilty verdict against Chauvin is what justice looks like to them. It is also, of course, significant for Chauvin himself, who likely faces more than a decade in prison if convicted. And it’s important to people who view the murder trial as a representation of the larger story of the 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 because of its novelty. Police officers in the United States who kill people are rarely charged with a crime; more or less they are never condemned by one.
At the same time, it would be wrong for people to think that the trial has some kind of greater transformative potential for surveillance and punishment in this country. If Derek Chauvin goes to jail, for some, this will be proof that the system “works.” Chauvin did something wrong and now he’s been punished. Case closed. Justice served. Next.
In this scenario, there is nothing on trial other than Derek Chauvin himself. And a lot of people would be fine with that. But it is 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 is just a scapegoat for the larger institutions that trained him to be violent, paid him to be violent and legitimized his time of violence and again before finally, in the estimation of others within that institution, it just took it too far.
But it wouldn’t be too strong to say that a Chauvin conviction would serve a convenient purpose for the police as an institution and for his (former) fellow officers, because a guilty verdict would allow people to leave the bigger issues at hand unexamined. For them, if Derek Chauvin is guilty of murder, it means, more or less, that he did his job wrong and violated his training, in contrast to “Good police surveillance” and good training in the use of force. A conviction gives other police officers and police supporters the ability to say that Chauvin’s violence was a bad exception, rather than a representative example or logical extension of the everyday forms of violence and rape that constitute police practice.
We’ve already seen it at trial, when the prosecution called several of Chauvin’s former colleagues at the Minneapolis police department to testify against him. The fact that many of them obeyed, including their former boss, Chief Medaria Arradondo, was the subject of much fanfare from members of the media, who are (tellingly) used to police refusing to speak out against. of yours. Did this mean, many asked or said, that the infamous blue wall of silence among the police was finally falling? The answer was, of course, no. After all, Chauvin had been caught on video kneeling on the neck of a face-down man for nearly 10 minutes until he died, putting his boss and colleagues in a difficult position if they chose to speak in his defense. It was no great feat to testify that Chauvin’s violence was egregious and beyond the limits of his training.
But if you pay attention to their testimony, you will also take note of what they said and, more importantly, what they did not say. For one person, his testimony against Chauvin revolved around the fact that he had violated departmental policies in some technical way – that he had applied a knee to the wrong part of Floyd’s neck area, that he should have stopped holding Floyd afterward. That he was no longer “holding out”, that he had knelt on Floyd’s neck for far too long.
You’ll notice that not once did they speculate that perhaps no police officer should kneel on a person’s neck, let alone for allegedly passing a counterfeit $ 20 bill. The fact of police violence, elemental and central to the institution, the first language of the police and the structuring logic of the police, was never a point of reflection or comment. The fact that Derek Chauvin deployed that violence in ways that technically violated departmental policies was all that mattered. In other words, if the Minneapolis police use of force guidelines had said it was okay to kneel on someone’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, this would not have been a problem.
And that’s really the problem with thinking that this trial has the potential to serve as a kind of sea change in American law enforcement. The questions surrounding him have to do with Derek Chauvin, when Chauvin was actually doing a lot of the things police do: responding to reports of a reported “crime” that had essentially no victims; climb; make an arrest; use violence. Remember that several of Chauvin’s colleagues just stood by and watched as he killed George Floyd. Their inaction is the key: what Chauvin was doing did not seem so extraordinary as to justify intervention and save Floyd’s life.
Derek Chauvin was doing police work when he killed George Floyd. The same way he had been doing police work during his shift before killing Floyd. In the same way he had been doing police work for almost 20 years before that. In the same way that his former colleagues continue to do police work now. That’s not a reality those former colleagues want us to think about.
I think Derek Chauvin is guilty of murder and I think he should be found guilty. I hope that if George Floyd’s loved ones see in the prospect of a guilty verdict a greater peace available to themselves and a sense of justice for Mr. Floyd, that they will obtain that peace and receive that sense of justice.
But the plot just isn’t bigger than that. If and when Derek Chauvin is found guilty of murder, he will join millions of other Americans residing in a prison or jail, the vast majority of whom are there for criminalized actions far less harmful than what Chauvin did to George Floyd. (Derek Chauvin no doubt played a role in putting some of them there.) The police and their supporters will point to this as a fair outcome and an affirmation of the fairness of the criminal punishment system.
But the constant, relentless violence of surveillance, from the low, menacing buzz embedded in the daily stop, to the terrible but logical end point, like what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis, or whatever Kim Potter made Daunte Wright a dozen miles away last weekend – he will remain.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism