Is the Chauvin trial a sign of progress?

I talk with New York Magazine's Zak Cheney-Rice about the meaning of its verdict.

Hello friends,

This edition of the newsletter has a 6 to 7 minute read time:

1) Notes on the Chauvin trial, and a Q&A with New York Magazine’s Zak Cheney-Rice about how he’s thinking about the meaning of its verdict.

2) What I’m reading.

The murder conviction of George Floyd’s killer this week was met with relief and praise from establishment Democrats and many liberal commentators. Joe Biden deemed it a “a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi felt the verdict was such a powerful outcome that Floyd’s name had become “synonymous with justice,” and went so far as to thank Floyd for “sacrificing your life for justice." The owner of the Las Vegas Raiders sent out a tweet declaring “I can breathe” (while perhaps not realizing that the phrase was a pro-cop slogan after the killing of Eric Garner in 2014) and countless corporations celebrated the ruling as an important milestone.

But does a rare instance of an appropriate sentence for a police killing in and of itself bode well for efforts to end excessive violence and racial discrimination in policing? In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, police use of force is in fact elevated compared to previous years and is still being used against Black residents at a highly disproportionate rate. The elevated use of force might not be a surprise given a spike in crime in the city in 2020, but it’s worth noting that big city council plans to radically re-envision policing in the city that were hatched last summer have quickly fallen apart. And in a remarkable illustration of how symbolic victories can take pressure off of the political establishment to pursue meaningful reform, Axios’ reported that “Senior Democratic and Republican aides — who would never let their bosses say so on the record — privately told Axios the convictions have lessened pressure for change.” This would seem to suggest that the absence of mass protests and riots that may have arisen from a different verdict is effectively a win for the status quo.

Zak Cheney-Rice, a brilliant writer at New York Magazine who writes at the intersection of politics and race — and a dear friend of mine — wrote an insightful column after the verdict came out arguing that “the result was less justice than an unusually strident effort toward self-preservation” by the law enforcement establishment. I decided to pick his brain a little further over email about the public conversation about the trial, and also asked him to weigh in on issues like whether he’s optimistic about post-Floyd policy developments, and the use of force against Ma'Khia Bryant.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

ZA: A lot of progressives feel some degree of ambivalence about the Chauvin verdict: Relief that a police officer was actually given a sentence that seems appropriate given his behavior, but also some concern that this could take the wind out of the sails of criminal justice reformers because it provides public catharsis and is being perceived as the criminal justice system correcting itself. How are you thinking about the meaning of the outcome of the trial?

ZCR: I think it’s important to remember that the protest energy of the last 7-odd years has been generated by needless killings of civilians by police, and this verdict will almost certainly do nothing to stop those killings from continuing to happen.

The job of the police is to enforce order through the threat or use of violence. That does not change with the conviction of any individual officer, and on top of that, it’s a good bet that the dynamic you just described — “public catharsis” and the perception that “the criminal justice system is correcting itself” — was an ancillary if not primary goal of the prosecutors and police officials who came together to put Chauvin away. 

One of the clear goals here was to characterize Chauvin as this rogue actor who was operating way outside the bounds of acceptable police behavior. His own former boss and nearly a dozen officers from Minnesota and beyond testified against him, which is rare. Prosecutors were emphatic that this trial was not an indictment of the police as an institution — which they described as “noble” — but of one guy who ignored his training.

That’s both rhetorically savvy and legally necessary, I think. You can’t usually convict a cop just for killing someone — you have to prove they killed someone by doing something that wasn’t in the rulebook, or that was “unreasonable,” which is a high legal bar to clear as it’s currently defined.

But if your goal as a concerned observer is “no more needless killings by police,” then you have to ask yourself why they keep happening whether the officer is a supposed aberration, like Chauvin, or someone who was following standard procedure and acting in a “reasonable” and justified manner, as is considered the case for most other cops who kill people while on duty.

And maybe more importantly, is this a problem that can be fixed by the same institutions and systems that produce it? And is believing that they can be fixed that way better for us or better for them? These are some of the questions I’m asking myself.

I know you watched the trial closely — what did the actual trial proceedings tell you about how thinking is evolving — or isn't — about police use of force? 

I don’t know that it tells us much. This kind of conviction is still so rare that I don’t think we have big enough numbers to identify a clear pattern, though I’m sure there are legal experts who could speak to that with more nuance than I can.

All I can say with confidence is that if a police officer kneels on someone’s neck for more than nine minutes, during a period of historic public vigilance around police abuse, and if it’s caught on video, and if that video is made public, and if the trial happens after some of the largest protests in American history — fueled by disaffection around a pandemic, high unemployment, and a widely reviled president — and if almost a dozen fellow police officers testify against the offending cop, then it is possible to convict that cop of a crime.

I also think it probably mattered a lot to the jury that so many police officers testified against Chauvin. I can’t imagine you wouldn’t see a higher conviction rate in these cases if more officers testified.

I've been hearing a lot of talk about how this trial shines a light on the difference between justice and accountability. What's your take on this distinction, and how do you think it applies to Floyd's trial?

From what I’ve seen, I think the distinction being made is between a resolution that’s more compensatory and ideally restorative (“justice”) and one that’s more about assigning responsibility and issuing consequences (“accountability”). I’m probably missing something here, but there seems to be broad agreement among the people making this distinction that the former (“justice”) is impossible because George Floyd is dead, and the latter (“accountability”) is insufficient.

We're almost a year out from Floyd's death, and while it's easy to see a major shift in our culture in how people talk about policing and racism, policy changes are harder to discern. I know there's been a lot more going on at the local and state level than the federal level in terms of legislative reform surrounding policing, but I'd be curious to hear a) what's your overall sense of the pace and tenor of change since last summer's protests — are you feeling more optimistic or pessimistic about the fulfillment of last summer's radical calls for re-envisioning policing and antiracism? and b) what jumps out at you as the most promising or most exciting out of reform efforts going on around the country? 

I’m encouraged that people seem to be thinking more critically about policing in general, and that a smaller subset is actually talking about the police like they aren’t inevitable. For all the debate over how the phrase “defund the police” was a political liability, over a dozen cities have actually started to do it. Some more than others, of course. I haven’t followed each individual effort closely enough to tell you how many of these are mostly symbolic, but my understanding is that Austin and Portland, for example, have made pretty major cuts to police budgets and reallocations to social services. To me, that suggests movement toward a healthier sense of priorities, at the very least. I also have no illusions that this shift is irreversible — the decline in public support for last year’s protests speaks to how conditional all of this stuff can be. But I’m encouraged by the reeducation that’s happening for a lot of people, myself included.

Could you weigh in on the debate surrounding the use of force against Ma'Khia Bryant, the 16-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, fatally shot by police while lunging toward someone with a knife? What's the right way to think about this scenario if someone's devoted to, say, defund and demilitarize the police efforts?

My understanding is that the facts of that case are still being determined, so I don’t want to weigh in on specifics until I have more information. Bryant’s mother claims that Ma’Khia was the one who called the police to stop a fight in the first place, for example — so it’s unclear how involved she was from the outset, what caused her to get involved, whether she was in the process of defending someone else or herself, et cetera. As far as I know, none of this has been made public. 

What I will say is that I want a world where even an armed person behaving violently and erratically doesn’t mean an automatic death sentence. Right now, getting the police involved in a situation like Ma’Khia’s is comparable to involving a hitman. I try to think about the different ways that adults take it upon themselves to mediate violent, even armed confrontations between young people every day, in communities across the U.S., and who don’t end up killing anyone. If we’re not striving for that level of consideration for everyone, even the people who scare us and want to hurt us — and especially the children who scare us and want to hurt us — I think we’ve given up too easily.

You can follow Zak Cheney-Rice on Twitter here.


What I’m reading

GOP stands up to Cancel Culture by criminalizing dissent

The reorientations of Edward Said

The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea

Vanessa Bee in n+1: “I was 12 and accustomed to being at the mercy of adults and their judgment. I had no power over my own person, no autonomy. Custody had outsourced the matter of where to be, what to eat, when to sleep, what to watch, whom to see, and where to settle. If this aspect of childhood felt tolerable, it was because it came with a sunset. Children were supposed to grow up and receive the keys to their lives. But after hauling our suitcases between inns and hostels, being jerked around like the silver balls in a pinball machine, I wasn’t sure I still believed in that handoff. Poverty superseded age and it swallowed up choices. It turned us into people who were happened to.”

Policing and blue-lining [link to academic paper in thread]

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