This much is clear: Derek Chauvin’s trial won’t change policing in America | Minneapolis

The trial of Derek Chauvin over 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 gain some semblance of justice for his killing, if a guilty verdict against Chauvin is what justice looks like for them. It’s also, of course, significant for Chauvin himself, who probably faces more than a decade in prison if convicted. And it’s important to people who see the murder trial as a proxy for the larger history of 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 for its novelty. Police officers in the United States who kill people are rarely charged with a crime; they are more or less never convicted of one.

At the same time, it would be wrong for people to think that the trial has some sort of larger, transformative potential for policing and punishment in this country. If Derek Chauvin goes to prison, this will, for some, be evidence of the system “working”. Chauvin did something bad, and now he’s been punished. Case closed. Justice served. Next.

In this scenario, nothing is on trial besides Derek Chauvin himself. And many people would be fine with that. But it’s 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’s just a scapegoat for the larger institutions that trained him to be violent, paid him to be violent, and legitimated his violence time and time again before he eventually, in the estimation of others within that institution, simply took it too far.

But it would not be too strong to say that a Chauvin conviction would serve a convenient purpose for policing as an institution and for his (former) fellow officers, because a guilty verdict would allow people to leave unexamined the larger issues at hand. For them, if Derek Chauvin is guilty of murder, it means, more or less, that he did his job badly and in violation of his training, in contrast to “good policing” and good use-of-force training. A conviction grants other police and supporters of the police the ability to say that Chauvin’s violence was a bad exception to, rather than a representative example or logical extension of, the everyday forms of violence and violation that constitute policing as a practice.

We’ve already seen this playing out in the trial, when the prosecution called a number of Chauvin’s former colleagues in the Minneapolis police department to testify against him. The fact that so many of them obliged, including his former boss, Chief Medaria Arradondo, was the subject of much fanfare by members of the media, who are (tellingly) accustomed to police refusing to speak against their own. Did this mean, many asked or stated, that the infamous blue wall of silence among police was finally coming down? The answer was, of course, no. After all, Chauvin had been caught on video kneeling on a prone man’s neck for nearly 10 minutes until he was dead, putting his chief and fellow officers in a difficult position should they choose to speak in his defense. It was no great feat to testify that Chauvin’s violence was egregious and beyond the bounds of his training.

But if you pay attention to their testimony, you will also take note of the things they said and, importantly, what they did not. To a person, their testimony against Chauvin revolved around the fact that he had broken departmental policies in some sort of technical way: that he had applied a knee to the wrong part of Floyd’s neck area, that he should have stopped restraining Floyd after he was no longer “resisting”, that he had knelt on Floyd’s neck for too long.

Not once, you will note, did they speculate that perhaps no police officer should kneel on a person’s neck, ever, let alone for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. The fact of police violence – elemental and central to the institution, the first language of police and the structuring logic of policing – was never a point of reflection or comment. The fact that Derek Chauvin deployed that violence in ways that were in technical violation of departmental policies was all that mattered. In other words, if the Minneapolis police’s use-of-force guidelines had said that it was OK to kneel on someone’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, this would not have been an issue.

And that really is the problem with thinking that this trial has the potential to serve as some sort of sea change in American policing. The questions surrounding it are all about Derek Chauvin, when Chauvin was really just doing many of the things police do: respond to reports of a reported “crime” that had essentially no victim; escalate; make an arrest; use violence. Remember that multiple colleagues of Chauvin’s simply stood by and watched while he killed George Floyd. Their inaction is the tell: what Chauvin was doing did not seem so extraordinary to them as to warrant intervention and save Floyd’s life.

Derek Chauvin was doing police work when he killed George Floyd. The same way he’d been doing police work throughout his shift before he killed Floyd. The same way he’d been doing police work for nearly 20 years before that. The same way his former colleagues continue to do police work now. That is not a reality those former colleagues want us to think about.

I believe Derek Chauvin to be guilty of murder, and believe he should be found so guilty. I hope that if George Floyd’s loved ones see in the prospect of a guilty verdict a greater peace within reach for themselves and a sense of justice for Mr Floyd, that they get that peace and receive that sense of justice.

But the plot just simply isn’t bigger than that. If and when Derek Chauvin is found guilty of murder, he will join millions of other Americans who reside 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 undoubtedly played a role in putting some of them there.) Police and their supporters will point to this as a just outcome and affirmation of the fairness of the criminal punishment system.

But the constant, relentless violence of policing – from the low, threatening hum of it embedded in the everyday stop, to the terrible but logical end point of it like what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis, or what Kim Potter did to Daunte Wright a dozen or so miles away this past weekend – will remain.

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