Derek Chauvin’s Trial Signals a Broader Shift for Criminal Justice

April 9, 2021 Ellen Buchman

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

As the murder trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin continues, one can’t help but think about the myriad factors at play with this particular case. Notwithstanding the outcome, this case has already contributed to what could be an inflection point for greater police accountability and redefining safety in our country. It is also a potential bellwether for how systemic issues are contemplated, represented, and referred to in public discourse. After all, the video-taped death of George Floyd not only sparked one of the largest and most diverse social movements against state-sanctioned violence toward Black people, it has also meant that practices have already begun to change or, at the very least, be interrogated to a much greater degree in our society.

We have yet to determine the long-term impact and extent to which the outcry over George Floyd’s tragic death contribute to how we redefine equitable safety in our society, but it is without question a topic that is at a heightened state of scrutiny. In testimony after testimony, we’ve heard accounts of trauma, making it indisputable that Mr. Floyd’s treatment invoked onlookers to document the abuse they were witnessing. Seemingly everyone on that street corner who witnessed that horrific event - everyone except the police - had to stop and turn their phones on to capture the horrors they were witnessing so they could voice their incredulous objection to what they were seeing.

Yet as troubling and as brazen as Mr. Chauvin’s actions were on that day, and as important as it is to hold him to account for those actions, it’s the system of policing – and not the individual actions – that also must be scrutinized and addressed. The death of George Floyd, following that of so many others, stands as another stark reminder that we cannot stand for policing that allows for some peoples’ safety at the hands of the state, while death or trauma for others. Put directly, a society that enables Black and brown people to be kept in constant fear of state-sanctioned violence, or death, cannot be tolerated. And the cavalier way in which police officers like Derek Chauvin continue to behave must also be addressed. All these issues are factors in the current trial, and we must remember to address them for what they are: issues within the broader system of justice that must be changed.

This week’s trial is another stark and painful moment that serves as a reminder that we’ve got to use the power of our communication to effectively call out what’s going on with clarity. Without pause, we must use our voices to go beyond and uplift the following values-based solutions:

  • The safety and sanctity of all people must be honored and upheld by our public systems and institutions, and we must redefine the current practices of keeping some people safe while putting others at risk;
  • The importance of meeting systemic needs to support people must also be uplifted. People in our society should be served and supported by public systems – policing, community service, health and emotional care, all systems that are in place to support communities. In this case, the people within those systems who perpetrate violence against the communities they serve – the police and the system of policing – is what’s on trial. What gets discussed or covered by the media should be about exactly that,  not about distractions such as Mr. Floyd’s physical stature, his challenges with opioids, or anything that is not relevant to the system and the officer that is on trial;
  • The vision for non-violent security of all people is of critical importance. The state’s – and our society’s – history of giving police a pass for their violent and sometimes deadly actions against unarmed Black and brown people contributes to a cultural bias toward white supremacy and a continuation of sanctioning it by the state. This must be stopped in its tracks.

This is a moment in which the promise of justice and change must be able to rise above the current culture of accepted impunity for some. Judging by support for the Black Lives Matter movement in our country and around the globe, it is a promise that is believed in by a large and diverse majority of people, and we must seize this moment to do the hard work toward it together.