In the opening arguments of the State of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin, the prosecution said Chauvin betrayed his badge with his actions, when in fact, he probably didn’t, given what we know of law enforcement’s ease with unnecessary violence. The defense, on the other hand, said Chauvin did exactly what he was trained to do. They saw that truth as an adequate defense instead of the condemnation it should have been.
Law enforcement in this country is broken, particularly when it comes to police dealing with black and brown people. We have long passed the point where reform could be a feasible option. The police don’t want to change. They act with impunity and flout both law and decency and are celebrated for it by a lot more people than you might think. As I continue to educate myself about defunding the police and abolition, I understand that the way forward must be radical. Half measures will not solve systemic problems.
In the Chauvin trial, the prosecution built what, in a just world, would have been a very strong case against the officer. The defense had little recourse. There was video. We saw what happened. We saw how long it took for George Floyd to die, while he begged for his life. What we saw was excruciating. What Chauvin did was so indefensible but still, his legal team mounted a case that could convince a certain kind of juror that Chauvin was just doing his job. He was, I suppose, just doing his job. The system actually works the way it was designed to work, in service of white supremacy, far more than it fails.
When the jury began their deliberations, I was not at all certain of the outcome. We do not live in a just world. It is rare for the police to be held accountable when they kill people in the line of duty. The thin blue line is largely unbreakable. I was anxious as I waited and, I think, terrified because no matter the outcome, there would be no real justice. A guilty verdict would not raise George Floyd from the dead. It would not return a father to his daughter. It would not give a community a sense of peace.
Shortly after the guilty verdict was delivered on all three charges, shortly after we had a brief moment to feel a small measure of relief that a police officer was held accountable for his actions, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, murdered sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. She had called the police because there was fighting happening outside of her house. When the police arrived on the scene, she was holding a knife, scuffling with another girl. Instead of taking a moment to understand what was happening or using any number of de-escalation strategies, a police officer shot Ma’Khia four times in the chest. It was yet another disgrace and outrage.
Conservatives politicized this tragedy in the worst way, defending the officer’s actions, and demonizing Ma’Khia. She was holding a knife, they say. She could have killed another girl, they say. But I am not here to litigate what happened. She was a child, in distress, fighting with another child in distress. Both of their lives mattered. And time and again, people want to justify a child’s murder. They are, in fact, deeply invested in doing so. Black girls are never given the benefit of the doubt. They are never allowed to make mistakes. As I have written so many times, the consequence for mistakes is not death without due process.
Dylan Roof was arrested after killing nine people. He was taken to Burger King for a meal before being processed. Kyle Rittenhouse strolled around Kenosha, Wisconsin past curfew, holding an automatic rifle, in front of the police. He killed two people and was arrested alive. He has become something of a folk hero. He has raised money off of his crime. He did nothing wrong, his supporters say. He is just a boy, his supporters say. As it has always been, white people are children until they are thirty or forty and black people are adults at birth.
The people who would defend the actions of a Dylan Roof or a Kyle Rittenhouse are the same people who decry cancel culture. In truth, there is no greater cancel culture than American law enforcement, whose members all too often elect themselves judge, jury, and executioner whether a crime has been committed or not. Black people cannot make mistakes but we are damned whether we behave perfectly or not. We will never be afforded respect, dignity, or humanity. We have always known there are two sets of rules in America, and we live with that knowledge, but we won’t stay silent about it so that white people can live within the comfort of their delusions about how things are.
On April 16th, the city of Chicago released gruesome police video of the murder of Adam Toledo, 13. He was shot in the chest just after he allegedly tossed a handgun. He had his hands raised which is to say that when he was shot, he was unarmed. The shooting officer asks the dying child, “Are you alright? Are you shot?”
Like I said, law enforcement is broken. Police in jurisdictions across this country shoot first and ask questions later. They shoot out of fear or in the thrall of unchecked power. We watch the videos and see so many black and brown bodies broken by the broken system.
The day after Ma’Khia Bryant’s murder, Andrew Brown Jr., was murdered by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City, NC. His family has only been allowed to see twenty seconds of video from one of the four body camera videos available. They are calling what they saw an “execution.” Officials in Elizabeth City are defiant and refusing to release the video for at least 45 days. On the day the family viewed the footage, Elizabeth City declared a state of emergency. That’s how damning the videos they haven’t yet released are.
It has been a couple weeks now and I am still thinking of Ma’Khia Bryant. Like many teenagers, she had a TikTok account. There is, thankfully, more to remember her by than the image of her body, on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. In her videos, she seems like a charming kid, sharing hair tutorials set to hip hop. And she looks so young, so unbearably young. We will never know who she would have become and that will haunt me for some time to come because she is one of so many young people whose futures were stolen by absolutely senseless, avoidable brutality.
None of this matters to some people, though. Instead of mourning Bryant’s loss, instead of recognizing her death as a tragedy, they will do anything to justify her murder. I suppose a lot of that is to be expected in a violently polarized country. But sometimes, the cruelty is breathtaking. On Twitter, comedian Tim Dillon said, “Letting the girl stab the other potentially fatally is not the look for the abolish the police movement. This is not the one lol. Also the girl was fat. Once you are a certain level of fat you are not a child. Truly.” He said the quiet thing most people might think but keep to themselves, out loud. Then, for the next several hours, he double and tripled down on his comment, reveling in the opprobrium and trying to make it seem like he was just being reasonable, while anyone who took offense was “incapable of rational thought.” Jokes, you know? He has since deleted the most inflammatory of the tweets, but he hasn’t changed his opinion that fatness makes children adults. It’s a painful reminder of how they see us, at any age.
The lawyer who represents Breonna Taylor’s family owns a horse he named Breonna. That horse won its race at the Kentucky Derby this year. Taylor’s mother has, apparently, given her blessing as is her right. I respect that while still finding the gesture ridiculous. It feels so dismissive. It feels so shallow, like so many of the gestures people have made in response to so much loss of black and brown life. We know the justice system has no answers but there has to be something between the inadequacy of the justice system and the hollowness of shallow gestures that diminish grave loss while allowing the people who make those gestures to feel like they are doing something noble in the face of injustice. I don’t even have a connective tissue here. I just know that this country is terribly broken and we cannot even agree on what and where the fractures exist. Adam Toledo was murdered on March 29th. Daunté Wright was murdered on April 11th. Ma’Khia Bryant was murdered on April 20th. Andrew Brown Jr. was murdered on April 21st.
Every time I leave my house, I idly wonder if I will be next as I go about the business of living.