Apples, despite coming in different colors, are incapable of racism.
Yet whenever something undeniably racist happens, people blame the “bad apple” and search for cures by addressing individual behavior instead of systemic rot. It’s a convenient way for the rest of us to let ourselves off the hook.
Derek Chauvin is the latest bad apple to meet with our opprobrium. His conviction this past week by a Minneapolis jury for the murder of George Floyd produced a strange brew of emotions — elation, relief, tears and ambivalence.
That Chauvin will be punished for a videotaped public lynching hardly vindicates the criminal justice system. Our collective sigh of relief is an indictment of it. Justice — if this even can be described as such — should not come as a shock.
“It’s not a broad victory for accountability for police,” Lawrence West, founder of BLM RVA, told Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Ali Rockett at the area informally renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle minutes after the verdict was announced this past Tuesday.
“But it’s a step toward holding one man accountable,” he said. “One verdict doesn’t dictate [change] because how many verdicts have gone the other way?”
The rare conviction of a police officer on a murder charge is the criminal justice system offering us an apple. As of Tuesday, police had killed 334 people in 2021; there only have been three days so far this year when police didn’t kill someone, according to the Mapping Police Violence website. One of those shootings was of Black motorist Daunte Wright, killed during a traffic stop by a veteran officer who reportedly mistook her Glock handgun for her Taser. The officer, Kim Potter, resigned and has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
This happened in Brooklyn Center, Minn., minutes from where the Chauvin trial was taking place. It takes a particularly stubborn hard-wiring for a system to behave with such efficient recklessness, or ruthlessness, when the entire world is watching.
Can one verdict possibly change that?
Make no mistake: Without that viral cellphone video by brave teenager Darnella Frazier, Chauvin likely would have gotten away with murder. And the police department that so eagerly dispatched of him might well have defended him.
After all, the news release by the Minneapolis Police Department after Floyd’s murder — headline: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction” — could not have been more anodyne. It managed to erase the 9-minute, 29-second “interaction” between Chauvin’s knee and Floyd’s neck.
Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers 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.
The system, functioning as intended, sought to protect the officers until that option no longer was tenable — around the time protesters took to the streets.
Local law enforcement officials were divided on the impact of the Chauvin verdict in Rockett’s story in Sunday’s newspaper.
Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith, who took over the department during protests this past summer following Floyd’s death, called the outcome “a turning point in our justice system, in policing, in our everyday lives.” He added: “This verdict rights an egregious wrong and confirms that the path of change is moving in the right direction.”
We beg to differ, said the police chiefs of Chesterfield and Henrico counties, who asserted that the verdict will have no impact on law enforcement.
“The lawful and righteous exercise of authority should never be conflated with an abuse of authority,” said Col. Jeffrey Katz of Chesterfield. “The Chauvin verdict has nothing to do with the lawful use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer; rather, it was a conviction of a man who was found to have committed a crime under the color of law.”
Said Henrico Police Chief Eric English: “The verdict from the Chauvin trial should not impact law enforcement and the way officers treat our citizens if we are doing the right thing.”
The responses all reflect a level of denial.
The verdict is incapable of righting that wrong because no verdict can bring Floyd back. And the problem with policing is that officers too often conflate their authority with the power to abuse. Derek Chauvin is not an outlier; he’s a symptom.
There will be more of the same until America realizes that the problem lies not with the apples, but the orchard.