Adjunct Professor Zamir Ben Dan, and his colleagues who from the Black Attorneys of the Legal Aid Caucus in New York, published this editorial, “Racial Progress Needs Systemic Change, Not a Rare Conviction” in The New York Law Journal’s digital Law.com:
Last Tuesday, former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd. The conviction was necessary and certainly welcome. However, some were quick to applaud the verdict as a testament to the effectiveness of the judicial system, or as proof of true racial progress. These ideas overinflate the importance of this event.
Chauvin’s conviction was not the product of a judicial system working well; it was the result of the millions of Americans who took to the streets in righteous protest and justifiable rage. Initially, the Minneapolis Police Department stood by Chauvin and his criminal accomplices. Then, as more video footage became public and the officers’ narrative began unraveling, the prosecutors in Minneapolis still declined to charge Chauvin with second-degree murder. It was only because of people filling the streets, demanding accountability and defying the violent gangs in uniform that sought to brutally repress the movement, did the Minnesota attorney general finally charge Chauvin with second degree murder. It was also after much protest that the other three officers were criminally charged as well. As much as some politicians try to discount the power of protest (e.g., the mayor of Atlanta), there can be no denial that protest is what led to Chauvin’s arrest and ultimate conviction.
Those in office realize how powerful it is for civilians to take to the streets, which is why they’ve been seeking to stifle it since last year. The federal government has been prosecuting protesters with much more fervor and rigor than they’ve ever deployed against killer cops. Georgia passed a law that made it a separate crime to either cause injury to a police officer or cause damage in excess of $500 to police property, with any resulting sentence to be served consecutively with any other sentence. It also gave police officers a private right of action against anyone who “falsely” accused the police of misconduct.
In Tennessee, a law was passed that made it illegal to camp out overnight on state property (which police brutality protesters were doing), making it punishable by up to six years in prison and depriving those convicted of their voting rights. Recently, the state proposed a law making it a felony to obstruct highways and immunizing drivers from legal action for “unintentionally” hitting protesters with their vehicles. During closing arguments in the Chauvin trial, Florida passed the most oppressive anti-protester law in the country. Even “liberal” politicians thought similarly: New York governor Andrew Cuomo encouraged prosecutors to overcharge protesters with second-degree burglary, with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance asking that the bail laws be suspended to lock up protesters. As long as governments and politicians prioritize protecting police above Black lives, there will never be true racial progress in America.
Moreover, police brutality remains endemic throughout America, and accountability for that brutality elusive. Even as we awaited the verdict in the Chauvin trial, a 16-year-old Black teenage girl was killed by police in Ohio. A young man was killed by police in Minneapolis during the Chauvin trial, and the officer has yet to be arrested or charged. Marvin Scott III was killed in Texas last month, and the officers involved have yet to be charged. Casey Goodson was killed in Ohio in December, and despite an autopsy that ruled his death a homicide and concluded that he was mostly shot in the back, the deputy in that case has yet to be charged. No modicum of justice has come for Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Daniel Prude and others; and the cop who killed Atatiana Jefferson in her home has yet to be tried. Until it no longer takes weeks or months (or heavy protests) for cops to be arrested and convicted for killing Black people, there will never be true racial progress in America.
Convicting Derek Chauvin was a good thing. It was necessary, and it was the right thing to do. But progress is not realized by a rare conviction; it is realized through systemic change. It is realized through self-reflection, recognizing that both the conditioning we’ve gotten from living in a racist society and the primitive attitudes that many Americans have play a crucial role in the police brutality epidemic that claimed the life of George Floyd. Anyone who thinks we can eradicate police brutality without grappling with the racism that exists in society at large is dreaming.
The fight continues…
Zamir Ben-Dan, Julia Jenkins and Izel Fortunato are representatives of the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid caucus.