On Tuesday, former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin was convicted on all charges in the brutal public lynching of George Floyd. For the Floyd family, the conviction offered some solace that the courts did not allow Floyd’s life to be taken with impunity. For many of us, however, it was a hollow “victory,” not only because prisons don’t solve our problems, but because we know police don’t either.
While the trial convicted Chauvin, as an individual, it sought to exonerate the larger system of policing, which is violent to the core. “This is not an anti-police prosecution,” the state’s attorney insisted, “it’s a pro-police prosecution.”
Chauvin was portrayed as a rogue cop out of sync with his fellow police officers. His violent behavior was portrayed as the exception, not the rule, and the system proved it was “just” by convicting him swiftly. This was the skewed narrative offered in pundit-land, while victims of racist police violence kept dying.
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Police in the U.S. have killed at least 64 civilians since the trial began, with the killings of Daunte Wright, 20, and Adam Toledo, 13, and Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, being the most recent high–profile examples. George Floyd’s murder was not an isolated incident but rather a part of a larger intentional pattern of racist state violence targeting poor and working–class Black and Brown communities.
Past precedent shows there would have been no reckoning, even a limited and flawed reckoning, had there not been the massive protests that swept this country in the wake of Floyd’s murder.
Now, at the same time that the criminal legal system is congratulating itself for sending Chauvin to prison, the very protests that brought the case to national attention are being criminalized.
This week, after making the racist assertion that Minneapolis officials allowed protesters to “run wild” in the streets, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an ominous bill that seeks to essentially criminalize protest in the state of Florida, clearly targeting protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter. It is a dangerous harbinger of what may be in store for other parts of the country. Indeed, the New York Times reports that “G.O.P. lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills during the 2021 legislative session — more than twice as many proposals as in any other year.”
The bottom line is that, while all eyes are on Minnesota, Florida House Bill 1, dubbed the “anti-riot” bill, and the other looming bills like it, have the potential to have a far greater impact on movements to combat racialized state violence than the Chauvin conviction.
Let me first speak to the limits and contradictions of the verdict in Minneapolis. Chauvin murdered Floyd in broad daylight in front of witnesses and it was recorded. This was an egregious case of wanton violence, and fortunately the jury agreed. But what is the takeaway? That the criminal legal system has overcome 400 years of systemic, deep–seated racism by holding a single police officer accountable for the kind of racist violence that has become all too routine? That is the wrong conclusion. It is not only ahistorical and shortsighted, but it gives a distorted sense of progress.
To let one cop, albeit a racist and violent one, be the scapegoat for a systemic set of problems is to deny the systemic nature of those very problems. Daunte Wright’s mother was prescient and eloquent when she said, “Justice would bring our son home to us,“ and “there’s never going to be justice for us.” She went on to say that there can and should be accountability for her son’s murder at the hands of yet another Minnesota police officer. However, she understood that the demand for justice requires something much more.
All of that said, two things are important to remember. Cops should certainly not get special exemptions for heinous acts of violence. Secondly, however, locking up one cop won’t bring back our murdered children, neighbors, friends and loved ones, nor will it prevent future violence.
What is necessary is fundamental systemic change. We have to listen to those calling for moving away from policing as we know it and calling for making prisons obsolete. That should be our goal, as congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has courageously argued. We should be moving resources away from policing and toward community services, mental health services, jobs and projects that prevent violence, de-escalate violent situations and save lives.
The new Florida anti-protest law puts a formidable obstacle in the path to this kind of systemic change by subverting the movements that have been the principal catalysts for change. The law criminalizes protests that obstruct traffic and makes defacing monuments a felony. It also punishes local governments that decline to be heavy–handed in suppressing protests, mandating that local officials will be charged for damages done in such protests. It calls for six–month mandatory sentencing for any protester who commits assault upon a police officer. Of course, there are many cases where protesters are being beaten and their deflection of blows gets conveniently labeled as “assault.”
The law also uses the language of “mob intimidation,” which is defined vaguely as three or more people acting with intent to force another to take their viewpoints. It is unimaginable how such a law could be fairly enforced. Conceivably, a political argument on a street corner could be cause for arrest. If this is not censorship, I don’t know what is.
Another particularly disturbing feature of the bill is that it prevents people from being bailed out of jail until their first court appearance, which essentially mandates detention of protesters prior to a conviction for any crime. This is reminiscent of the detention without charge policies that characterize dictatorships around the world and regimes like the former apartheid system in South Africa. As others have pointed out, many of the behaviors stipulated in the law are already in criminal statutes, and is therefore redundant, but designed to intimidate and deter activists.
It is important that we make these linkages between the Florida law and the skewed framing of the Derek Chauvin trial. The only reason there is a trial in Hennepin County, Minnesota, for the heinous murder of George Floyd in broad daylight is because there were loud and persistent protests in the streets of this country. Had there not been protests, there would have likely been an “accidental death” report. No investigation and no trial.
In fact, the initial press release from the police, before videos surfaced, was a complete cover–up. So, the Florida law prevents an important mechanism for achieving a modicum of justice, which is the right of citizens and residents to protest.
The challenge to social movements, then, is to be ever courageous and creative in speaking truth to power, no matter what censoring measures those in power attempt to impose in Florida and beyond. As Minneapolis Black Visions Collective leader Kandace Montgomery insists, “The fight for justice is far from over.”