On the afternoon of April 20, I watched as the verdict in the Derek Chauvin case was read live. For the first time in my lifetime a white officer in a high-profile murder case was found guilty of murder while on the job. I wondered how this moment felt to Diamond Reynolds and her daughter, both survivors of Philando Castille, who was murdered in 2016 by Minneapolis police.
In the intervening hours a teenager named Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by an officer in Columbus, Ohio.
In those same hours I and several other members of Act Now JH received celebratory texts, voicemails and Instagram messages from our well-meaning white friends celebrating the verdict. None of us were feeling particularly celebratory. Derek Chauvin has been held accountable for his actions, and the fact that this victory is one of the first of its kind should tell us just how far we still must go. We still have work to do.
Before his retirement, former Police Chief Todd Smith referenced Chauvin’s actions as “the actions of one a--h--- [unwinding] the great work of many who proudly wear a badge and honor what it stands for each time they come to work.”
Chauvin is a product of, rather than the sole problem with, a society that responds to its problems by increasing policing.
How else could we respond to those same issues, without increasing policing? What could we gain by removing focus from the “few bad apples” and instead applying focus to creating alternative systems?
Derek Chauvin had 17 complaints against him, six of them involving use of force, but he was still permitted to suit up for work, approach George Floyd and murder him while he was in the throes of a panic attack. Officers continuing to work, despite complaints of violence or misconduct, is the rule, not the exception within the system that we task with maintaining and enforcing public safety. Many police departments have vocally updated their policies around “chokeholds” since the world watched George Floyd’s murder, but the system that allowed his life to be violently taken remains mostly unchanged.
As I’ve involved myself in the local discussions happening around law enforcement, I’ve often heard the phrase “It doesn’t happen here.” But as strangers reached out, told their stories in county budget hearings and added their experiences to my own experiences with local law enforcement, it became apparent that abuse of police power does happen here. It will continue to happen here for as long as our community is unwilling to seek out, and listen to, experiences that contradict their own.
After Lt. Roger Schultz’s resignation last summer, we were assured that the Jackson Police Department was taking sensitivity related to sexual assault seriously and that his flippancy was an anomaly. A week later a lawsuit came to light in which a former JPD officer alleged a pattern of hostility and sexual harassment at the hands of her superiors. Remember, this happened in the very department where this kind of behavior is supposed to be an outlier.
It’s been over eight months since these revelations occurred and we have yet to see any concrete action from the Jackson Police Department or the other individuals we are expected to trust with public safety on these issues.
In 2021, police killed 321 people in our country alone.
How can we be both the land of the free and the land where passing off a counterfeit bill, selling cigarettes without a license, or stealing candy merits a death sentence? How many more instances of police officers acting as executioners do we intend to tolerate?
Over the past year I’ve been assured by strangers on the internet, some of my friends and established members of our community that to believe in and fight for the abolition of the police and our prison industrial complex is deeply naive.
Is it not equally naive, not to mention contrary to the principles our country was founded on, to blindly support any heavily armed body without scrutinizing its expenditures, behavior and task performance?
As a community, we gain nothing by viewing Chauvin’s conviction as the end of the road. We gain nothing by calling his actions a “big city problem” and going comfortably back to sleep. We have everything to gain by asking how the problems of the wider world are intertwined in our community and what we intend to do about it.
It is not enough to gather, carry signs to Town Square and kneel in the grass. We must have the imagination, and the courage, to question the systems we task with public safety — here, within our community. Creating a system that truly provides “justice for all” cannot wait.