Two weeks ago, when Derek Chauvin was convicted on three counts of murdering George Floyd, I was both surprised and grateful: Maybe we’d finally start holding police accountable for violence against Black people. But my momentary hope was tempered by my memories of similar hopes for tackling gun violence after Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Pulse, and Las Vegas. Almost two decades past Sandy Hook, there’s been little progress despite tremendous efforts by many people and organizations.
The Chauvin conviction was bracketed by the police shooting Adam Toledo in Chicago not a week earlier, by the police shooting Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, on the day of Chauvin’s conviction, and by the police shooting of Andrew Brown, Jr., right here in North Carolina. This is nothing new: Police violence against Blacks has been ongoing for centuries. Indeed, as the historian Jill Lepore explains in her article “The Invention of the Police” (The New Yorker, July 20, 2020 issue), police violence has been a constant of American life starting with enforcement of slavery, evolving to union busting, enforcement of Jim Crow, and controlling immigration. The history is long and sordid.
What makes Derek Chauvin’s case almost unique is that the overwhelming video evidence showing him murdering George Floyd came to light at the same time that the Black Lives Matters movement has made stark the depths of our national racism. Without the vivid video evidence, the heated political environment, and police chief Medaria Arradondo’s testimony against Chauvin, Floyd’s murder would likely have been swept under the rug like so many before it.
But in the Brown case in Elizabeth City, the only video evidence comes from police body and dash cams. So far, that evidence has been suppressed using the 2016 law signed by then-governor (and now Senate candidate Pat McCrory) that prohibits release of such video without a judge’s consent, which Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster has delayed for 30-45 days.
Sweeping police violence against Black people under the rug is the norm. Besides suppressing evidence, we’ve seen authorities and police union leaders around the nation sidestep accountability by blaming the victim and by blatantly lying. The Supreme Court’s doctrine of qualified immunity makes convictions, even with evidence, nearly impossible. Vivid, disturbing, in-your-face video footage seems to be the only game changer, much like television broadcasts of the 1965 Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge made the Voting Rights Act possible.
While video evidence of unjustified police violence against Black people will help in the fight to reform policing policy and accountability, I fear that this, too, like the fight to control guns, will be a decades-long fight.
There’s no easy answer. The BLM movement is an essential part of the fight and we, as Progressives, support it wholeheartedly. We must also fight to change the national context. This fight is not just about police violence but about all of the forces in our society that keep people “in their places”, suppressing human dignity and economic opportunity with underfunded public education, sub-subsistence minimum wages, lack of affordable housing, healthcare and child care, and unjustified levels of incarceration.
Fighting these battles is what Progressives are all about. Please join us in the work.