Sunday Commentary: Despite the Conviction, the System Is Broken and Systems of Oppression Must Be Dismantled

By David M. Greenwald

The consensus this week seems to be the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was the right one—about 70 percent of Americans agree that Chauvin was guilty of murder, which, given the facts that came out at trial, was incredibly low.  But as most recognize, George Floyd is still tragically and prematurely dead and, as recent high profile deaths of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and Ma’Khia Bryant show, police are still shooting and killing Black and Brown people at an alarming rate.

I was troubled this week by comments from Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig, who, while agreeing with the verdict in the Chauvin trial, said that the system “does work” and that it is the “best in the world.”

I couldn’t disagree more.  Even in the death of Floyd, the system worked, not to prevent death, but to hold the officer accountable after the fact—and even then, by the skin of its teeth.

As we noted earlier this week, the initial press release portrayed the entire thing as a medical emergency, describing that Floyd “physically resisted officers,” that they “were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.  Officers called for an ambulance.  He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

It was only because bystanders bravely videoed the nine-minute and 26-second incident that we know the truth.  How is that the system working?

Chauvin and his defense team continued the medical emergency narrative.  Despite the heavy evidence presented by numerous medical and use-of-force experts, I still think it was two key facts that sunk him.

The first was that George Floyd told the officers that he could not breathe and, instead of taking this plea seriously, they were dismissive of it.

“That takes a lot of oxygen to complain about it.”

To me that was critical, because, even if you believe that the use of force was necessary, Chauvin’s indifference at this point is inexcusable.

And it gets worse.

The officer continued “beyond the point that he had a pulse.”

”I think he’s paying, passing out,” Officer Lane says.

Schleicher pointed out that “Officer Kueng can’t find a pulse.”

He argued: “Now, the greatest skeptic of this case among you, how can you justify the continued force on this man when he has no pulse?”

The bottom line: the Chauvin conviction happened because of a combination of luck—he did it in broad daylight with an audience who had a clear shot of the incident and who bravely stepped forward, and because the incident was so egregious.  We had a moment of silence on Friday for just five minutes, which lasted a long time—nine minutes and 26 seconds had to be excruciatingly long for George Floyd, and was brazen callousness on the part of the officer.

Convictions of officers are rare.  Convictions on the maximum charges, almost never happen.

Miriam Krinsky said that, while police have killed around 1000 people each year, only “seven officers have been convicted of murder in police shootings since 2005.”

Moreover, as many have noted, it took the actions of Attorney General Keith Ellison to take over the prosecution and prosecute it vigorously for a conviction to occur.  The county DA was fumbling this case around when Ellison stepped in.  Too often, these cases are lost by clumsy and half-hearted prosecutions.  The prosecution in this case was first rate and it showed.

Most of all, Jeff Reisig’s half-hearted comments this week illustrate, once again, his lack of concern for Black and Brown lives in our system.  By arguing that our system works, he once against ignores the fact that, for too many, it does not.

This is reminiscent of his dismissive and then aggressive response to Public Defender Tracie Olson’s citing of the inequities in the Yolo County Jail last year.  He simply does not believe that the system is a problem.

The highlight for me this past week was listening to Associate Pastor Eunbee Ham from Davis Community Church.  She presented a passionate Asian perspective on Black lives and the legacy of systemic racism and white supremacy.

As she put it: “Our gathering tonight refuses to normalize this recurring massacre of Black and Brown lives.  We refuse to stay silent about the continual lynching of our Black and Brown siblings.”

Think about the contrast in this statement to Reisig’s.  His accepts that the death of Black and Brown people are normalized and focuses only on the outcome of the prosecution.  But Ham’s comment attacks the notion that we should accept these deaths in the first place.

She situates the Asian woman in our society.

She continued, “I stand before you racialized as Asian in this country, in the framework of white supremacy.”  She said her role as an Asian woman “is to stay invisible, silent and compliant.  White supremacy wants me to keep my head down and be grateful for the crumbs under the table and normalize the killing of my Black and Brown siblings.”

The pastor lamented, “White supremacy offers an honorary white status with the illusion that I won’t get killed while running, I won’t get killed while sleeping, driving, hanging an air freshener, or buying a snack.”

But she said, “The irony is that Asians are still being killed and victimized.  I refuse to live into that lie.”

Here she addresses this notion that Asians, because of their education and income, have overcome the legacy of white supremacy, that they point the way for other minorities—i.e. the model minority myth—to succeed in American life.  Without mentioning it by name, she points out that she does have advantages, but, in the end, Asians “are still being killed and victimized.”

There were two really powerful portions of her speech.  The first related to her experience as a 20-year-old being degraded and dehumanized by immigration officials.

She told the story of entering the country in the immigration line at the airport with her sister.  At the time, she said, she was barely 20 years old.

“After waiting over an hour in a long degrading sweaty line designated for ‘aliens,’ I breathed a sigh of relief  as I passed through the immigration kiosk.”

As she was waiting for her sister, the immigration officer ordered her to move along.

“I told my sister, I’ll be waiting for you at the end,” she said.  “This one sentence was so threatening to that immigration officer that he called the police to escort me out of there.  I still remember the humiliation, the anger … as that situation escalated instantly.

“Even now, after almost 20 years, my body remembers that incident like a myriad of long, acupuncture needles that were inserted and forgotten in my body,” she said.  “Once in a while I feel them in there.”

Ham said, “I’m sharing this story to demonstrate how racialized violence and its varying dynamics in those that have been rendered different stem from the same source of white supremacy.”

She said, “In my situation I was placed at the mercy of someone who unilaterally determined they already knew me and my intentions without hearing a single word.  This happened when I spoke English fluently – what would have happened if I didn’t speak English?”

She continued, “The officer escalated that situation very quickly for no reason and this was all legal.  He had the force of law behind him to refuse to listen to the needs of the people who he’s paid to protect and serve.

“It becomes very clear whom he is paid to protect and serve.”

The second really powerful narrative was her Black friend’s reaction to the Chauvin trial.  She said, “When he heard the verdict of Derek Chauvin he spent two hours crying, he couldn’t even articulate what it was.  They certainly weren’t tears of joy but he found a little space to breathe.  To live.  The idea that the justice system could find it in their hearts to see a crime against my crime as a crime.  To see through the lies of pathologists.  To see at least in this instance that a clear wrong was done.”

My recitation of her comments does not do justice to the power of her words as she spoke them.

One of the responses to this article was very interesting and the question arose as to whether white supremacy is an attempt to divide.  I get the point.  In a way that is why I prefer the term systemic racism because it gets at the core of the issue—this is a systemic problem that has been effectively baked into the system over time without individual agency impacting the effects.

But I think we also need to be honest—systemic racism is an institution that protects white supremacy.  Someone made the snide remark that at some point white supremacists are victims of white supremacy—that’s not wrong.  The system in part was designed to keep poor whites in their place, focusing them on race and keeping the Black man and the other down and ignoring their own vulnerability and caste placement in the system.

The key point here is that I do not believe the term white supremacy necessarily should create the division that it does—it simply points out that the system itself is problematic and needs to be probably radically re-worked in order to remove harmful vestiges of systems of oppression that hold people down.

And we can’t do that by attacking individual acts of racism or violence, we can only do that by dismantling those systems of oppression.  As we have seen in the last year, the counter is that attempting to do that is “canceling” our culture or worse.

Every time we bring this up, there is strong reflexive pushback from those who feel vulnerable to change.  If we can’t talk about this reality, how are we ever going to fix this?

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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15 Comments

  1. Edgar Wai

    Current thinking to dismantle:
    1. All-or-nothing thinking.
    2. Using outside statistics and events instead of using local trials to argue for big changes.
    3. One-size-fits-all thinking: Ignoring situations when individuals or local subcommunity could choose to be different.

    Solution:
    Step 1: Support local trials/competitions to determine which alternative is better.
    Step 2: Allocate budget according to the locally proven better alternatives.

  2. Alan Miller

    My recitation of her comments does not do justice to the power of her words as she spoke them.

    And reciting those same words two days in a row doesn’t change that.

    One of the responses to this article was very interesting

    I resemble that remark. I am very interesting, thank you.

    and the question arose as to whether white supremacy is an attempt to divide.

    The term ‘white supremacy’, not white supremacy itself — although then you’d have to define it, which is part of the problem.   The use of the term does divide – whether intentional or not depends on the intent and/or awareness of those using the term in the ‘modern’ sense.

    I get the point.  In a way that is why I prefer the term systemic racism because it gets at the core of the issue—this is a systemic problem that has been effectively baked into the system over time without individual agency impacting the effects.

    I’ll agree with you on that one.  I prefer that term as well.  But is use of the ‘wrong terms’ really ‘accidental’ or is it intentional?  In point:  I’ve also criticized the term ‘defunding the police’ as a poor and divisive term – and am usually told that’s not what it means, it doesn’t mean completely defund the police, it means transfer some of the money to social programs and social-worker response to mental health issues.  I’d almost buy that — and I’m sure for many people that is what it means — but for those who that coined that term, I wonder; and for the Davis Vanguard, I wonder — and the reason I wonder is that these articles have a caption/title photo that prominently includes a poster that declares “Abolish Prison / Abolish Police”.   Abolish doesn’t sound like ‘transfer some of the funds to social programs’.  Pretty clear that ‘abolish’ isn’t a poorly chosen word in a slogan.

    But I think we also need to be honest—systemic racism is an institution that protects white supremacy.

    Systemic racism isn’t an institution, rather, it is found in many institutions.  I’ll agree to that.  And again, you use the cheapened, modern definition of ‘white supremacy’, after saying you prefer the term ‘systemic racism’, thus defining your preferred term by using your not-preferred term.

    The key point here is that I do not believe the term white supremacy necessarily should create the division that it does—it simply points out that the system itself is problematic and needs to be probably radically re-worked in order to remove harmful vestiges of systems of oppression that hold people down.

    I’m sure we disagree on how ‘radically’ and how, but not that the system needs reworking.  But the term is problematic just like ‘defund’ is problematic.  Redefining words is very 1984 and does not help in bringing in more allies to one’s cause.  It does help people within a more narrowly-defined movement feel like they are ‘cool’ and ‘correct’ and ‘validated’ by their fellow movementers.

    And we can’t do that by attacking individual acts of racism or violence, we can only do that by dismantling those systems of oppression.

    Attack violence!

    As we have seen in the last year, the counter is that attempting to do that is “canceling” our culture or worse.

    I have no idea what that means.

    Every time we bring this up, there is strong reflexive pushback from those who feel vulnerable to change.

    I want change, just not the same degree of change as you.  Again with the change-shaming rhetorical ploy, just like with housing issues.  People don’t like change because often the result of a chosen change sucks out loud.  People need to talk about this, so that we can fix this, but I don’t believe the ‘demands’ of the most loud people are going to be the chosen solution, except maybe in Berkeley.

    If we can’t talk about this reality, how are we ever going to fix this?

    Like I said.

    1. David Greenwald

      “And reciting those same words two days in a row doesn’t change that.”

      Nope, but today I got to weigh in on what I thought of them. Simply put, I have been covering things here in town since 2006, they were the most eloquent I have heard bar none.

  3. Ron Oertel

    Someone made the snide remark that at some point white supremacists are victims of white supremacy—that’s not wrong. 

    I also added that someone will likely claim that police themselves are a victim of white supremacy.  You’d think that the “social justice” crowd would be advocating for Chauvin’s release, as he’s probably not a threat (if not allowed to be a police officer, again).

    Same with the Golden State Killer.  Doesn’t seem likely that he’s a threat, anymore.

    From what I can see, the argument has “shifted” over the years, but is the same at its core.  In previous decades, the claim was that some engage in crime due to their “upbringing” (e.g., “bad childhood”).

    Now, the claim is that some unexplained “system” is causing them to engage in crime. The advantage of this claim is that everyone can point to it (or in its general direction, since it doesn’t actually seem to be a “thing”), and say that they’re a victim of it.

    I wonder what the “reason” will be in future decades?

     

    1. David Greenwald

      I argued for restorative justice in the Daunte Wright case – https://www.davisvanguard.org/2021/04/commentary-one-pound-of-flesh-is-not-the-answer-to-cure-policing/

      I do view that case as a little different from Chauvin. Chauvin would in my view have to accept responsibility, acknowledge the huge harms he cost, and then agree on a plan to repair those harms. So far, he has shown little to no remorse for his actions – granted he was defending himself in a court of law which is not conducive to contrition. But that would be my ask.

      1. Ron Oertel

        This approach strikes me as naive (almost “religious-based”) regarding hardened criminals.  Of which I would not necessarily consider Chauvin as a hardened criminal.

        Everyone sitting around a big table, saying how sorry they are.  “All is forgiven, and I have seen the error of my ways.  I won’t ever do it again.  I didn’t previously realize that assaulting, injuring and possibly killing you would have a negative impact on you and your family.”  And as far as property crimes are concerned, “I didn’t previously realize that you wanted that stuff. I also believed that I had less than you (possibly due to something your ancestors had done to my ancestors, or at least those who look like you), and was entitled to take it. Possibly injuring or killing you in the process”.

        Kumbaya.

        Sort of like the “coddling-criminals” approach of previous decades.

        But at least you’re somewhat consistent.

         

         

        1. David Greenwald

          Given the tone of your comment, I will simply note that I think you’re naive as to how effective restorative justice approaches have proven even in cases with supposedly hardened criminals. Nor do I believe you have done the research to make the conclusion that you have nor have you characterized the approach accurately.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Could be.  And if it works, then it will prove itself over time.

          But it seems to me that a lot of the social justice warriors want a “head on a pike”, regarding someone like Chauvin.  So, maybe they’re not as enlightened as you.

          I still suspect that there’s some (near-religious) type of fervor going on with this movement. Literally, at times. And, a lack of truth, regarding what occurs with many of the police interactions. To the point where we’re told that our own eyes are deceiving us.

          One group that I suspect we don’t hear from much are those victimized within their own high-crime communities.  Probably for more than one reason.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            “But it seems to me that a lot of the social justice warriors want a “head on a pike”, regarding someone like Chauvin. So, maybe they’re not as enlightened as you.”

            Bear in mind, the history has been that police officers are rarely charged, when they are, they are rarely found guilty, when they are, they usually are found guilty of lesser offenses and get a relatively light sentence. All of that speaks against the view I take here. That history means it is unlikely you will see people calling for anything other than a maximum sentence.

  4. Ron Oertel

    She said her role as an Asian woman “is to stay invisible, silent and compliant.

    I’m sorry, “who” exactly is saying this?  And, might it be a part of some Asian cultures, in the first place? (Pretty sure I can list some examples which demonstrate this.)

    The pastor lamented, “White supremacy offers an honorary white status with the illusion that I won’t get killed while running, I won’t get killed while sleeping, driving, hanging an air freshener, or buying a snack.”

    Uh, huh.  “Honorary white status”.  At what point are you “part of” white supremacy, as the school board member in San Francisco alleges regarding Asian students?

    And by the way, “who” is actually engaging in a lot of the attacks against Asians, on the street?

    “I told my sister, I’ll be waiting for you at the end,” she said.  “This one sentence was so threatening to that immigration officer that he called the police to escort me out of there.  I still remember the humiliation, the anger … as that situation escalated instantly.

    You’ll forgive me if I think there’s more to this story.  Regardless, sorry about your unpleasant experience.  Not sure I’d come to all of the same conclusions as you, though.

     

     

     

     

      1. Edgar Wai

        Ron meant, who told Pastor Ham that her role as an Asian woman “is to stay invisible, silent and compliant.”

        We know that the message is not from a government published advertisement. (In a different regime, you could see that as part of the law, or in textbooks describing social/gender roles.)

         

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