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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