Why the verdict in George Floyd's murder is only a bittersweet glimpse of justice
Derek Chauvin verdict detaches the systemic responsibility for police violence and violations
This column is an opinion by Alexa Joy, a researcher, journalist, and graduate student at The New School for Social Research. She also hosts CBC Uncensored, a segment on CBC Radio One in Winnipeg, as a freelancer. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin reached its anticipated verdict on Tuesday, just shy of one year since the day we all saw the death of George Floyd on the public stage on May 25, 2020. The jury found Chauvin guilty on all three charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
While a small part of me felt relieved at the verdict, it still felt hollow.
Yes, Chauvin was convicted in the death of George Floyd, but many are overlooking the systemic injustice. We need to fix a system where, right now, the default reaction is to shelter officers from allegations of misconduct rather than to unrelentingly expose problems.
After watching the trial, it felt like a bittersweet glimpse of justice. While many welcomed the result, feelings of joy and relief mixed with frustration echoed across communities. I took to Instagram and Twitter to gauge the reactions of my peers, colleagues, and friends. "Guilty," one post read, with multiple likes and hearts. "Guilty on all three counts!!!" said another, with expressions conveying crying emojis and virtual hands raised in the air. "Black Lives Matter," was captioned with an animation of Floyd covered in a bed of flowers.
It's clear people were overjoyed with the verdict, though I had to ask myself, is this justice?
The verdict doesn't just bring attention to the injustices of police violence, it should also cause us to challenge the classic trope of one bad apple spoils the bunch.
We've seen police officers walk away from conviction time after time after time, and time again, in both the U.S. and Canada. If we think Chauvin is the only person to blame in the death of George Floyd, we've yet to understand the structure of policing and systemic violence towards Black people.
In a 2020 CBC Docs POV episode titled Police brutality in Calgary: who holds officers accountable?, Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld spoke to this "bad apple" trope, addressing the issue of systemic failures versus individual violations of authority.
Neufield said, "I think for too long organizations have done this, where something goes wrong they hang out an individual to dry and then they say, 'Well, we dealt with it. Bob was bad and we dealt with Bob and now we're good.' Bad apples versus bad barrels are very different things, and we always have to look at the barrel to make sure it's not the barrel that is tainting the apples."
The problem with the Chauvin verdict is that it detaches the systemic responsibility for the never-ending violence and violations. It's disheartening that some people assume Chauvin's sentencing is the answer to ending police violence, when it's not.
True accountability involves not just the individual, but also the system they work in.
In a previous article, I gave examples that exposed the lack of police accountability in the fatal deaths of Black folks in mental health distress involving police across Canada. One case in particular still feels unsettled to me.
In February 2019, Winnipeg police were involved in the shooting of a South Sudanese man named Machur Madut, who was killed in his apartment. Two years later, we've yet to be told the names of the police officers involved, though the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba reported that their actions were "reasonable, necessary, justified and unavoidable." The report feels brief and vague, and seems to assume there were no other outcomes that could have resulted except a fatal shooting.
This month, and even this week, we've seen more media reports from the U.S. of the deaths of Black and Latinx people, stories of yet another life taken in violent police confrontations. When will it end?
WATCH | Is the guilty verdict in George Floyd's murder a turning point?:
Some suggest the solution to police brutality is a move towards body-worn cameras (BWCs). We saw this debate rise in Canada last year following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Toronto's former chief of police, Mark Saunders, called the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, "A textbook case as to why I've been advocating for body-worn cameras ... it's going to be the right kit with the right training, with the right procedures and policies in place ... it will heighten better opportunities for officers to tell their stories."
Striking a similar tone, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada says in its Guidance for the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement authorities, "Generally speaking, the aim of a BWC program is to record law enforcement officers' interactions with the public in the course of their duties. BWCs are generally used for collecting evidence, and protecting officers against unfounded allegations of misconduct."
Notice the wording here: "protecting officers against unfounded allegations of misconduct." This is the framework we've been conditioned to accept, putting protection of police first. Officers also have the right to choose to disclose this information, and can choose to turn off their camera if they see fit.
How is this a solution to police accountability? Body-worn cameras aren't a cure-all for police violence.
WATCH | Can Derek Chauvin's conviction spark police reform?:
What I hope comes out of the one-off conviction of an officer who murdered and performed what some call a public lynching in broad daylight is for people to think beyond this illusion of justice.
In the case of Minnesota, for example, after the Chauvin verdict the Justice Department launched an investigation into the Minneapolis police department to determine if the policies and practices of the department breach the U.S. Constitution or federal civil rights law. This is a step towards accountability.
Remember, our attention needs to be directed towards the barrel, not just the apple. One conviction out of countless cases of police violence is not justice, it's a method to control the public's reaction and offers a faux "solution" to a systemic problem.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.