The Trial of Derek Chauvin
The immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s killing is typically associated with the mass, international uprising which began at the intersection where he was killed. What also happened in the aftermath of his death was a massive investigation, the largest in the history of Minnesota, aimed towards gathering as much evidence as possible. A vast architecture was extended over the event, extending it far beyond the hour or so in which it took place on that intersection outside of Cup Foods. The slightest movements, reactions, chemical processes, images, and sounds were recorded into a system geared towards making the event itself legible for the court. The initial witness list included over 400 individuals, ranging from those who watched from the street, to family and friends of the victim and accused, those who participated in the event, and experts who could comment on the autopsy or use of force. What lay under Floyd’s skin was also a key concern, as toxicologists and forensic pathologists vied for validity in reading his muscles, organs, and blood for the truth. What appeared on camera to be a collision between a knee and a neck, morphed into an assemblage of chemicals, physical acts, mental calculations, regulations, conventions, statements, reactions, surveillance footage, opinion, and medical tools.
The immense architecture constructed by the state around that moment is the basis of this trial, not the event itself. As the defense went through great lengths to assert in their opening statements, the trial is about that ‘mountain of evidence’, not the nine and a half minutes of video showing Chauvin coldly pressing his knee on the neck and back of George Floyd, as the latter screamed out for help, wiggled helplessly to gain the space to breathe, and eventually went limp and died on the street in front of a crowd of people on May 25th, 2020. That the defense would try to draw attention away from that video is perhaps not surprising, but it also speaks to the specific charges leveled against Chauvin, and the standard required to establish his guilt. The jury has to decide, after weighing the evidence, whether Chauvin is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. After viewing the video, who could have a doubt as to his guilt? Yet after viewing the architecture of the moment, constructed in its wake by a state intent on seeing all there is to be seen, who could say that anything is beyond doubt?
It is difficult to reconcile the emotional intensity of the summer following Floyd’s murder, during which he was publicly and collectively mourned by millions, with the calculating, witnessing, and discussing taking place in that courtroom in downtown Minneapolis. It is chilling to witness the totality of one’s life be rendered visible with an eye towards determining the guilt or innocence of one’s assassin. The defense’s attempt to paint a picture of a serial criminal and drug addict is obviously difficult to watch, but so too is the effort by the state to represent Floyd as a tragic figure: a father, partner, and friend struggling with addiction, whose quest for a new life ended on the pavement outside Cup Foods. The impulse is clear enough for the defense, which wants to reduce Floyd to those aspects of his life which support the claim that his heart stopped out of exhaustion, beaten down by its owner after years of powering a reckless life. It too makes logical sense that the state would wish to present what could be construed as a fuller picture of Floyd, to stress the tragedy and injustice of the murder. After all, Chauvin did not kill a drug addict, he killed a human being. Yet there is still a perversity in this process, of litigating the life of a man who is chiefly known for being killed in public. It is perverse that a trial concerning the actions of a man who is still alive is excessively aimed towards establishing the character of a man who is dead.
Institutional racism is a phrase that has emerged in popular discourse in reaction to events similar to those playing out in Minneapolis right now. It has been around for some time however and is attached to a whole host of institutions that provide the structure of our social environment. It is most commonly supported through the use of statistics; showing disproportionate use of force in policing, disproportionate convictions in courtrooms, disproportionate deaths in hospitals, disproportionate expulsions, and suspensions in schools, disproportionate exposure to toxic substances in housing. Statistics can, however, obscure more than they illuminate. It is one thing to know the outcome of an institutionalized racism, but it is quite another to understand the mechanism by which that outcome is reproduced. We can see the evidence of a particular outcome but have no sense socially about its causation. This can result in worrying trends and popular argumentation, especially as the term proliferates in mainstream discourse and in corporate media conglomerates, PR firms, and neoliberal NGOs. We start to see particular solutions emerging over specific understandings of the problem, which center around the individual, who stands as a symbol for the institution she works within. We are told that training can change this individual. That if she knew about this outcome, and changed the way she administers life through the institution which has before now been quantitatively proven to be racist, then the outcome can be shifted.
A synecdoche is a figure of speech that takes a part of a thing to stand in for the whole which it forms a part of. A common example would be using ‘pigskin’ to refer to a football, subsuming the other components of the football into a part that comes to stand in for the whole. In the case of institutions, using the individual as a synecdoche leads to dangerous ground. Yes, institutions are made up of individuals, and those individuals do, in a sense, make the institution go. Yet their power of action is restrained by the other component parts of the institution; insofar as it does exist, this power is filtered through and bound by law, internal regulations, convention, physical space, and history. A common retort to structural or institutional analysis is the twofold complaint that 1) institutions are not some inhuman entity, they are composed of individual human beings and 2) focusing on structure negates the agency of these individuals and thus justifies bad behavior by reference to some structure which stands above them. There is no doubt that individuals in even the most oppressive institutional or structural frameworks are capable of rebellion. We can consider for a moment the teacher in an underfunded, carceral school, who takes time outside of class to tutor a student who the system of quantified results instructs her to ignore by depicting as disposable. We can think of the social worker who ignores punitive regulations and refuses to rescind access to services to a drug user or sex worker. We can think of the doctor who takes the time to learn what skin cancer looks like on black skin, even if she was not taught this in medical school.
Yet this agency can only go so far in challenging the continual reproduction of inequality. A generalized awareness is no match for an institutional framework that does not operate on this basis of self-awareness. Yes, such frameworks were created by individuals themselves, but they represent a past set of actions guided by assumptions, themselves bound by the law and property form at particular moments in history. Such actions are, in their formalization, granted a kind of immortality. They live beyond their moment in history as they are embedded into the structures which govern and administer daily life. They are moments from the past, an undead set of assumptions about the way human beings are and the way they should be. Institutional frameworks are zombified ideas from the past, reproducing their intended goals, nearly independent of action by agents within those structures.
This became clear to me in two instances over the past year. First was in the debates between “abolishing the police” and “defunding the police” over the summer. The second was this past week while watching the criminal case against Derek Chauvin unfold on youtube. I’ll start with the first, and admit that my inclination has always been towards the former point of view, though I have sympathies for the latter. Defunding police departments on a municipal level accomplishes two things. On the one hand, it is arguably a form of ‘non-reformist reform’. By this, I mean that it reveals something previously thought to be beyond contestation as a site of democracy. The repressive apparatus of the state, in the form of both the military and the police, have escaped the logic of austerity which has enveloped nearly every other component of the state since the 1970s in the United States. While the budgets for nearly everything else have been slashed, and some institutions eliminated or ‘reformed out of existence’ in their entirety, the repressive apparatus has seen a nearly incomprehensible expansion, due in part to its role as the enforcer of austerity. Austerity has been a political program imposed from above producing enormous social dislocation, both at home and around the world, and this dislocation is precisely the object of policing and military action. To question the immunity of the enforcers of austerity from its monstrous logic is to open the question of austerity more broadly. On the other hand, defunding the police has the potential to radically transform the ways in which policing has developed over the past two decades or so. By this I am referring to the militarization of American policing, something enabled by the war economy and made possible through enormous municipal budgets. These budgets make it possible for individual police departments to purchase leftover material from the US military, explaining why police departments in American cities have tanks, bombs, military helicopters, and so on. It explains why many police departments, especially in New York and Chicago, appear in public spaces as a kind of occupation or counter insurgent force. Their equipment is literally designed to facilitate occupation.
Yet abolition does all of this and more. For attacking the material apparatus of policing leaves its rotten core intact. Even as the visible face of policing changes, the undead assumptions which guided its establishment and development as an institution remain untouched, beyond the realm of democratic contestation. These assumptions organize the material and human components of policing into their counterinsurgent formation. That they will be allowed to organize a smaller set of weaponry and individuals is, then, not so reassuring of a prospect. Abolition attacks this framework and annihilates this undead history, driving a stake through its heart and building upon a new set of assumptions rooted in our present set of understandings and goals, constructing a new framework on this basis and allowing that to organize people, physical spaces, and things into a new formation geared towards a different purpose.
Now I’ll discuss my second moment of clarity, gained through hours spent watching the trial of Derek Chauvin. One thing that struck me in the opening arguments of the defense, as I’ve already said, is the mountain of evidence gathered by the state and the FBI’s civil rights division (itself a funny combination of words). This was coupled with a feeling of radical uncertainty which progressively increased as the trial went on. The more witnesses which took the stand, the more videos, documents, and objects entered into evidence, the less sure I became of the trial’s outcome. This was not for a lack of trying on the part of the state, which deployed more resources in this investigation than in any other in the history of the state of Minnesota. Its argument was presented and teased out with painstaking care and breathtaking skill. What was the result of this effort in the courtroom? A trial aimed at determining the guilt of Derek Chauvin which was nonetheless disproportionately concerned with litigating the character of the man who suffocated under his knee. The fate of the killer cop rests largely on whether or not his victim was an unreformed drug user and serial criminal or a loving father and partner, caring friend, jovial community presence, and earnestly struggling human being. There is a reason why news media, in a move frequently condemned by activists, devote coverage to the lives of those snuffed out by police. Whether decrying the loss of innocent and pure life or condemning the complicity of the criminal victim in her own murder, such coverage is ultimately formed around what matters in the eyes of the law when examining such cases. Because these arguments don’t matter in courtrooms because the individuals involved are racist, they matter because of the law itself, the historical precedent which shapes it, the evidence it demands, and the particular histories of the institutions through which it is interpreted and enforced. That is institutional racism. Here, it is the vast legal architecture that absorbs a moment and strips it apart, ignoring some things and highlighting others, to meet a specific standard of evidence required to prove or disprove one’s guilt in a specific crime. It is the resulting reduction of human experience by an institutional apparatus that contains within it the core assumptions guiding its initial conception and construction, assumptions which are themselves racist.
If Derek Chauvin is acquitted of murder, such an outcome is probably not owed to the personal racism or bias of any of those involved in the trial. Even if he is convicted, such a result does not absolve the state from the charge of institutional racism, but merely recognizes the strength of the state’s case that Floyd was a good person deserving of life rather than just an addict and criminal (a judgment apparently punishable by extrajudicial execution). Just outside the courtroom in downtown Minneapolis, protests rage over the trial itself, and in response to yet another police killing which took place only minutes away. 20-year-old Daunte Wright was ‘accidentally’ shot by a veteran police officer and former union president who mistook her gun for a taser. One could ponder why she went so quickly to the gun, just as the cops who first approached George Floyd’s car did on that fateful day in May 2020. But what is more unnerving about the shooting isn’t the fact that it happened, but rather the wheels being set into motion in its wake.
Four days ago, an article was published in The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, titled “The Real Reason for Daunte Wright’s Death”. The headline read, “How do you prevent deaths like Daunte Wright’s shooting? You prevent lives being lived like Daunte Wright’s.” The article argues that the way in which Wright lived his life is to blame for his death. His “expired plates” led to his being pulled over, his “outstanding warrant” and his having previously “resisted arrest” led to him being seen as a dangerous flight risk at that moment. It’s easy enough to condemn articles such as these, which see the statement by Wright’s grieving parents that he was a “great kid” and counter that with statements like “Daunte Wright had perpetuated the cycle of out-of-wedlock childbirth, academic failure, the inability to learn and deploy a marketable skill, and escalating criminal behavior” and arguments that victims of police killings are “all fundamentally the same — career criminal on the fringe of society, a failure in life, involved in drugs (if not high at the time; we’ll know later what the toxicology report shows), likely faced with prolonged jail time upon arrest and resisting arrest.” It is also easy to write off the author’s petulant claim that all of this “isn't something you’ll hear much about” when nearly every other publicized incident of racist police killings are accompanied by articles like this written by people like him.
What is more difficult is how to consider this in relation to articles highlighting Wright’s humanity. Those articles which discuss him as a loving father and partner, struggling for a better life for himself and his family bear an eerie resemblance to the arguments of the state in the trial of Chauvin, just as the article in the Spectator resembles those of the defense. I can’t help but imagine both sets of articles as preliminary arguments in a future court case. One can only too easily envision a trial for Kim Potter which hinges less on her own self and actions than whether Daunte Wright was a career criminal or a great kid.