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Derek Chauvin Convicted: Graduate Center Scholars Respond

Former police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. We invited Graduate Center scholars in philosophy, psychology, and criminal justice to comment on this rare verdict and what it means for their work and for our country.
 
headshot of Graduate Center Professor Charles MillsCharles W. Mills
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
The Graduate Center
 
I'm delighted by the guilty verdicts, as I hope most people are. But it is important not to draw the wrong conclusion from them. The conclusion should not be “The system works,” insofar as that implies that the routine functioning of the system will deal with such violations of justice. Rather, the conclusion should be “The system can sometimes be made to work, especially under extraordinary circumstances and massive public pressure.”

Here those circumstances included a lengthy video of Floyd's death, a horrifically dragged-out affair rather than a quick shooting; numerous witnesses; intense national and international scrutiny; extensive resources given to the prosecutorial team by Minnesota officials committed to seeing justice done; and a police decision, for once, to open a crack in the traditional “blue wall of silence,” and make an example of Chauvin. Recall that the original police report spoke simply of a “medical incident,” completely whitewashing the actual horror of what had happened. That would have been the normal functioning of the system, which on this occasion was disrupted by the special circumstances and pressure of popular mobilizations.

So we are still faced with the challenge of understanding what makes such systemic malfunctioning possible. In my coming fall grad course, Race, Racism, and Racial Justice, I hope to explore some of these issues in a way that brings philosophy into useful dialogue with critical social theory. 
 
headshot photo of Michelle FineMichelle Fine
Distinguished Professor of Psychology/Critical Psychology and Urban Education
Deputy Executive Officer of Ph.D. Program in Psychology
The Graduate Center
 
Justice has been served in one situation where evidence was simply overwhelming — a videoed state-sponsored murder.
 
I can’t stop thinking about Darnella Frazier. At 17, a junior in high school escorting a 9-year old to buy some Starbursts, she knew she had an obligation to bear witness.
 
In court, she cried: “Nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and physically interacting.”

She stood steady, filmed the murder. She lit a match and the world was on fire. She lifted a veil so even white people could no longer deny. Charles Mills at The Graduate Center might say she shattered our epistemologies of ignorance.
 
Like Darnella, young people of color across New York City witness and endure state violence regularly in their communities, homes, and schools. And like Darnella, they metabolize vicious encounters with state violence into activism, organizing, resistance, art, and critical research for/with their communities.
 
At the Public Science Project at The Graduate Center, participatory research collaboratives of Graduate Center faculty and students work in solidarity with young people in movements for racial justice, to document structural violence, gather testimonies, and imagine radical possibilities. Our research feeds lawsuits, movements, theory building, community education, and campaigns to defund police, remove NYPD from their schools, to invest in youth justice. 
 
We at The Graduate Center — a public university committed to racial justice, educational access, public facing scholarship — have an obligation to bear witness with young people who dare.
 
(Read her full quote.)
 
headshot photo of Candace McCoyCandace McCoy
Professor of Criminal Justice
The Graduate Center and John Jay College
 
Comments excerpted from CBSN interview:
 
In the past, it was not the case that an officer would be criminally indicted. And, really important, in this trial, the chief of police of Minneapolis testified against this officer. The training director, the oldest serving member of the Minneapolis police, and the Los Angeles police department and their use of force expert all testified against this officer. This never would have happened before. And the reason that it could happen is that over the last 50 years people have been working hard to improve police policies.
 
This is about changing the entire department, not about getting at a particular officer. In a way you could look at it and say it's not about getting the bad apple, but about transforming the barrel.
 
Headshot photo of D.R. Gina SissokoD. R. Gina Sissoko
Ph.D. Student in Clinical Psychology
The Graduate Center and John Jay College of Criminal Justice
 
The Derek Chauvin conviction is truly historic. Officers who kill civilians are usually not held accountable. At the very least, this verdict shields communities from the typical re-traumatization of being mocked by the blue shield. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the trial and conviction happened against the backdrop of daily police killings, including those of 20-year-old Daunte Wright and, just yesterday, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. It is important that we do not mistake Chauvin’s conviction as a testament to a fair and just criminal legal system. In fact, the system in its current form continues to actively work against Black and brown communities.
 
The verdict impacts my work only in the sense that I will double-down on shining light on the inherent racism and colorism within the criminal legal system and encourage all who will listen to not be swayed by promises of incremental change and ill-fated calls for reform. 
 
headshot photo of Brett StoudtBrett Stoudt
Associate Professor of Psychology and Head of Critical Social/Personality and Environmental Psychology Training Area
The Graduate Center
 
The police are almost never held accountable and so yesterday was a form of accountability within the context of a system that defines accountability in punitive terms. My thoughts on Tuesday were with George Floyd’s loved ones, but it’s hard to see the trial’s verdict as true progress. Daunte Wright last Sunday. Ma'Khia Bryant yesterday. Statistically speaking, the police will murder more Black children next week.
 
Define Derek Chauvin as part of a rotten orchard, not as a “bad apple.” Acknowledge the structural racism built into the foundation of this system rather than allowing the Minneapolis Police Department to leave itself intact by sacrificing one of its own. But do not stop the analysis there. Go a step further and understand the institution of policing as a central arm of racial capitalism that serves privileged interests. It functions to sustain racial hierarchies and produce conditions conducive to capital accumulation by managing poverty and inequality through control, force, and punishment. Police violence is a structural feature, not a rare or unintended consequence of “bad apples.”
 
The institution of policing is fulfilling its purpose as it was intended and therefore, cannot be tweaked towards improvement. It is fundamentally and irreparably harmful. Our country needs to radically reimagine community safety without policing, prisons, and other carceral institutions. BIPOC communities across the United States, led by brilliant young people, are teaching us what that future looks like and we have a responsibility to follow.

Kevin NadalKevin Nadal 
Professor of Psychology
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The Graduate Center

He shared a poem, which he also posted in a tweet

A collective sigh of relief.
A temporaneous time to breathe.

An inhale for the ancestors.
An exhale for the children.

It’s not celebration.
It’s not calm.
It’s not solace.
It’s not peace.
It’s not even justice.
It’s just a moment to pause.

A moment to cry.
A moment to grieve.

Submitted on: APR 21, 2021

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