The Futility of Seeking Justice After Police Murder

I can’t find solace in Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict when police continue to kill Black people

Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

Rattled by the emotional dichotomy of the Derek Chauvin moment, I found myself questioning the nature of justice: how fluid and elusive it is when its recipients are Black, how it can’t seem to find us most days even when we call out for it by its Christian name. I considered how when justice does manifest, Black folks so often question its credentials. It appears so frequently on our doorsteps selling snake oil that we dare not trust it entirely when it offers us the real thing.

The whole world seemed pregnant with angst waiting for the Chauvin verdict, as if everyone who’s been fighting the good fight since last spring were clenching teeth in unison. People were buried in their phones more than usual yesterday, scanning for updates. I noted some Black folks front-loaded their workload for the day to make room for the inevitable crush of disappointment to come.

As for myself, I could feel my fingers charging up with words of furious resignation, preparing to decimate a system so clearly incapable of doing the right thing. The expectation that Chauvin would be found guilty on any count always seemed specious at best, but on a day that felt like a bursting dam, people got superstitious real quick. Such doubts are not the kind of thing you say too loudly or in mixed company for fear of jinxing the outcome.

When the guilty verdict came, I could still feel in my digits all of the words I would’ve written if Chauvin had gotten off. I had to empty my hands of their cursing and dig through a completely different mineshaft of feelings. Relief seemed appropriate, as did begrudging respect. There will be books written about how close this case came to not achieving this outcome at all, from the random ingredients it took to capture and present the initial crime to backroom pleas that fell through to the community pressure that had to be maintained to impress upon the system its will. This was not a case of having justice in the bag. All that said, how good does it feel to finally be able to call the murder of George Floyd exactly what it was without qualifying it with words like “allegedly” and “presumed innocent”?

I can never bring myself to find solace in a moment like this because I do not trust justice. I tell you from many days of struggling with my shaking hands after a verdict that’s gone the other way — so many more than don’t — that it’s a wearying religion to subscribe to.

Proximity matters here. Justice becomes more crystallized the closer you are to the source, more gratifying. To George Floyd’s family and friends, the guilty verdict is an oasis in a year of grief. To the activists of Minneapolis, the justice is a clean testimony to their ceaseless dedication for change. The back patting of the winning legal team was understandably festive. But as justice spreads further out, its impression thins and other, larger contexts seep into its grain. By the time justice gets to me all the way in Ohio, it has been pounded onion thin by history, statistics, and more long road. Making matters even more complicated, neither interpretation is incorrect, and so care must be exercised all around. There’s no degree of joy that must be taken in this moment, but is it possible to take too much? Or can we let the living live for a while?

I was never going to be a celebrant of a guilty verdict, even for a hat trick like the one Chauvin earned. For better or worse, I can never stop looking at the big picture of policing, and the math never adds up in Black people’s favor. Not on the front line with police officers, not in courts, not with lawyers, not in sentencing — not with the concept of law as it is practiced at all.

I can never bring myself to find solace in a moment like this because I do not trust justice. I tell you from many days of struggling with my shaking hands after a verdict that’s gone the other way — so many more than don’t — that it’s a wearying religion to subscribe to. That level of wretched pessimism can be a leech on your soul, but I also never want people to get too comfortable. As I said, the math doesn’t add up, and the step forward you can see always belies the country mile backwards you sometimes forget in the heat of a pure justice moment. No one should have to see hope in justice as not only futile, but dangerous.

As if the cognitive dissonance of the Chauvin verdict was not confounding enough, less than an hour after the announcement, a friend informed me that the police in my city had shot and killed a young Black girl.

Like our namesake, Columbus endeavors to be known for all the wrong reasons. Learning about 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant moments after the Chauvin verdict is akin to learning the name of a New Year’s baby, the first child born after a ball drop — except the child stays a child forever.

There are things about her case that remain unrevealed, but what is known has already sparked protests and calls for that ever-elusive Black justice. Bryant was reportedly defending herself, armed with a knife, in a fight against at least one other person. When officers arrived on the scene, one of them shot her multiple times within seconds of stepping out of the cop car, killing her.

It feels relevant to point out that four days ago, on Ohio State University’s campus, more than 1,000 predominantly White students were partying on Chittenden Avenue following a spring football game. Several cars were flipped over; the neighborhood was completely trashed. Police response was practically nonexistent for several hours. No one was arrested or maced or tased or handcuffed or thrown into the back of a cruiser to cool off.

It feels relevant to point out that police take mass shooters into custody with seeming regularity, even after they remain armed and have killed several people. Sometimes, on the way to the precinct, they even buy them burgers.

It feels relevant to point out that the typical American police officer carries 20 pounds worth of non-lethal equipment on their person at all times, including pepper spray, handcuffs and a taser. The officer who killed Ma’Khia Bryant shot her as if he did not have a utility belt of options, as if at least two other officers were not present, as if she was facing and attacking him directly, as if warning shots are illegal. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the scenario, the bottom line is that a child who did not have to die is dead. That’s the number one goal on the wishlist of all people who desire change in policing: Stop killing people.

Death is always a possibility when the police are called for just about any reason. What this makes of their potential for justice is hard to say, since they aren’t trained to be agents of justice. It is not their place or job description to mete out justice. Their job — on paper — is to line up the elements for justice to occur when something has gone wrong. Killing a child — not subduing, not warning, not macing or using a host of other non-lethal measures — is not what they are hired to do.

I know: I ask too much. I sound like a rube now, pining for a job description that for all intents and purposes does not exist. If ideas wore uniforms instead of people, perhaps I’d sound less naive. My traditional position on policing is that it is more or less indefensible as a construct, but I beg your forgiveness here, in this tender and gut-wrenching moment. My proximity to Ma’Khia Bryant has made justice fleeting and soft where I am, where the lines have already had to be redrawn and the wagons circled for another round with my city’s killing machine. It’s only been a few hours, and the day has suddenly become excruciatingly long. I was already struggling with what to do with my hands.

As I write this, snow is falling outside, a rare April blast as winter sneaks out the back door. Any other time, I’d stay up to watch the first flakes come down with something like peace in mind. The world slows down when it snows, its white blanket of glistening silence covering everything in democratic fashion: parked cars, fresh cut lawns, crime scene tape. If you stand quiet and still in a proper snowfall, you can hear the soft sizzle of millions of snowflakes touching ground. Whatever the predicted accumulation is tonight will not conceal Columbus’ shame in the morning. The press is never quite bad enough, the union contracts too ironclad, and the lives lost are too far removed from the engines of power to actually affect meaningful change. That deadly lack of change is an albatross everyone here must carry, because our city does not yet care enough about lives like mine or Ma’Khia Bryant’s to change policing.

Writer and poet holding down Columbus, Ohio

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