Accountability and Justice

Accountability and Justice

(photo credit)

Today, a Minnesota jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of all three counts of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.  But Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison called this verdict precisely: “I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step toward justice.”

Even as cheers, tears, high fives and hugs burst forth in expressions of relief and satisfaction around the country, the bitter reality of the Chauvin case is that George Floyd remains deceased, his family bereft of his presence so unjustly.  In the same way, the litany of the dead and their bereaved families is long and anguishing: the most recent victims of police violence  Adam Toledo, Daunte Wright, joining the seemingly endless list of names that includes Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner and dozens of others Black men and women killed by police in circumstances that should never have required deadly force.

Today’s verdict should never have been necessary, because George Floyd should still be alive.  While there is certainly some degree of satisfaction in the realization that Derek Chauvin will receive appropriate and just retribution for his terrible crime, in fact, Attorney General Ellison is correct in saying that this verdict is not “justice” in the best sense of the word.  Accountability in one case, yes, but not justice in the sense of restoring a truly moral balance in the power that police wield with their charge to keep the peace and protect the people.  No single verdict can restore justice for the Black and Brown communities so devastated by official violence and real oppression.

If not justice, then what?  Ellison again is correct in saying that today’s verdict is a “first step” toward justice.  But true justice will not come unless and until this nation makes a genuine and sustained commitment to eradicating racial hatred, to achieving moral balance in law enforcement culture and tactics, to repudiating once and for all the corrupt and corrosive politics of nativism and white supremacy and ethnic discrimination and racial hatred that the recently departed presidential administration practiced with wanton enthusiasm heedless of the wreckage they left behind.  True justice will not come unless and until we are willing to accept the true meaning of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” not as a political slogan but as a moral commitment to work for racial justice and social equity for all people.

Where do we begin?  The fact that this nation survived a violent insurrection and attempt to overthrow the government on January 6 is a step in the right direction — that incident is not unrelated to the violence of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck.  The former administration gave aid and comfort to a violent view of race and power, encouraging police and military with authoritarian rhetoric that encouraged so many macho displays of violence against people of color and those who would be their allies in this struggle.

It’s no secret that the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6 included numerous persons with military and police training who found inspiration in the former president’s nativist rhetoric.  The former president first tried to stay in power with rhetoric that hinted at a fantastic hellscape of racial violence (his repeated appeals to “suburban housewives,” his insinuations of the collapse of civilization if “low income people” moved into certain neighborhoods) if Joe Biden won the election.  Then, when Biden actually won, the former president reverted to the ultimate lie, claiming that the election was a fraud, calling for the mob to go to the Capitol to “take back our country” as if all of the 80 million people who voted for Biden were not part of the country, including millions of Black voters who made the critical difference in Georgia and other states where the margins were razor thin.

The threat of official violence did not end with President Biden’s inauguration on January 20 any more than today’s Chauvin verdict restores racial justice against our disgraceful national history of police brutality.  Around this nation we are witnessing egregious efforts among states to enact new voting restrictions that would constrain the voting rights of persons of color most particularly, thus setting up the real specter of a national return to the nightmare of 2016-2020 in future elections.  The clear racial motivations behind the voter suppression movement cannot be overstated.

At the same time as parts of the political universe continue to engage in despicable racial manipulations, the United States continues in the grip of an epidemic more treacherous than coronavirus — the epidemic of gun violence that haunts and traumatizes communities and families across all social strata.  Citizen-on-citizen gun violence runs parallel to the epidemic of police violence — law enforcement officers are part of the communities, grow up in the families often plagued by violence, and develop their dispositions toward other people long before they join the long blue line.  In too many places, America is, sadly, a violent nation that also harbors deep racial animosities; no one should be surprised that police personnel sometimes reflect the characteristics of their communities.

How do we achieve true justice?  Some people call for a solution with the phrase “Defund the Police,” but this seems socially naive and impractical.  Instead, I believe we need a whole new method for selecting and training police, combined with entirely new ideas about how they can protect and serve their communities without resorting to exactly the kind of violence from which they should be protecting the citizens they serve.  We need police who are deeply steeped in the practices and purposes of anti-racism, who know how to defuse tense situations with non-violent tactics, who do not respond to provocation by reaching for their guns (or confusing their guns and tasers when under pressure) or using their knees to restrain suspects with neck-holds.

It’s not up to the police to do this kind of reform — at least not by themselves.  We need the political willpower to elect public leaders — mayors, councilmembers, governors, members of Congress, presidents — who can manage the police effectively, who make clear their expectations for policing that is honest, just, nonviolent and anti-racist to its core.  We need to call out those politicians who use inflammatory rhetoric too often in praise of bad acts by law enforcement as somehow necessary while failing to condemn those acts as abuses of power.

We need to restore the real definition of “justice” — not “an eye for an eye” but rather, a form of living and decision-making that puts the needs and rights of others first, that works in service to human life and dignity regardless of a person’s color, ethnicity, economic condition or status in the community.  Our secular religion, which is respect for our Democracy, is rooted in the belief that every person has “unalienable” rights that the state must protect, and the first word in the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence is “life” — “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

We must do more to confront and root out the racial injustices that pervade so much of American life.  Here at Trinity, we are proud to be a Predominantly Black/Hispanic Serving Institution, and we have launched an initiative known as Trinity DARE: Driving Actions for Racial Equity.  We believe that the most effective way to create social change is to make sure that our Black and Latina graduates have opportunities to become leaders in a wide range of professions, forging pathways in places where persons of color have been excluded or under-represented for far too long.   Yes, this kind of initiative may seem like a long way from that Minnesota street where George Floyd lost his life, or the street in Ferguson or the apartment in Louisville or a park in Cleveland.  But we believe strongly that the kind of social change that will achieve true justice must come in the transformation of many places through widening pipelines for participation and leadership.

America has been working on this idea about justice for more than 230 years — and we still don’t get it right, but that’s not a reason to abandon the effort, but instead, to raise up our efforts with ever more determination to break through the barriers to get closer to success.

Let’s remember these words of Amanda Gorman in her beautiful January 20 Inauguration Poem “The Hill We Climb”

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.