In closing arguments in Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd, Steven Schleicher stressed on behalf of the state of Minnesota, “This is not a prosecution of the police.”
Schleicher underlined the point to the jury: “To be very clear, this case is called the ‘State of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin,’ this case is not called the ‘State of Minnesota vs. the police.”
This argumentative approach has, of course, drawn fire from critics for displacing focus from the system of policing in America as whole, which they believe is in dire need of reform, even complete overhaul or abolition, and projecting all of the problems with unchecked state-sponsored racist police violence onto Chauvin, one of the proverbial bad apples. Indeed, Schleicher insisted Chauvin’s murderous actions were “not policing,” while critics see his use of excessive and deadly as precisely definitive of standard policing.
As Rashawn Ray, a fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution and a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted, “The way the political establishment is approaching this trial is to rehabilitate and reinforce the legitimacy of policing and the legal system.”
Strategically, of course, because of the way our legal system operates, one can understand the approach in the prosecution’s closing arguments. No doubt they wanted to appeal to jurors sympathetic to the police who might be reluctant to convict an officer of the law or who might be averse to levying a verdict against the system as a whole. And, of course, our courts are designed to prosecute specific individual actors, not our legal and law enforcement system as a whole, of which the courts are a part.
Ray emphasizes this dynamic in our criminal justice system: “In a court of law, individuals are prosecuted. Because of the over individualization of our court system, institutions are let off the hook.”
And while there is no doubt that political pressure must continue to be applied in seeking transformation of policing and the criminal justice system overall in America, we must also be careful not to let the American institution most fundamentally responsible for the unceasing stream of police murders of African Americans, and people of color more generally, off the hook.
I’m talking, of course, about the cultural institution of white supremacy, which constitutes the root and enabling foundation of policing, which, of course, was born out of the system of slavery.
Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd and all of the other state-sponsored police murders too numerous to list here (and more by the day—look at Brooklyn Center, Columbus, and Elizabeth City) have been enabled and often legitimated by white supremacy.
And while we cannot let a focus on the need for police and criminal justice reform distract us to the point that we let the institution of white supremacy off the hook, we white people can also not let ourselves off the hook by simply assigning blame in a generalizing way to the white supremacist system.
We cannot fall into the pattern of talking about apples, distinguishing between “good” anti-racist American apples and “bad” racist apples. As we know, that’s not a systemic approach; that’s not how systems work.
It may be tempting to watch Chauvin’s indifferent and defiant expression as he kneels on George Floyd’s neck and to dissociate, to say, “That’s not me.”
That’s not how systems work. You can’t live in the system, enjoy privileges of the system, and then deny your membership in that system, regardless of your ideological predilections and even your activist credentials.
The challenge for white Americans is to see ourselves in Derek Chauvin.
And perhaps to see ourselves as a non-white America might. Because I’m white, I don’t want to risk stipulating how a general non-white America sees white Americans. It does seem fair to say, though, in a nation characterized by racial terror for people of color, that people of color in white spaces won’t perceive “good apples” and “bad apples” among the white population generally.
My observation and study suggest we in white America are perceived as a dangerous apple tree, and the nation as no garden of Eden.
The question, though, is really how we see.
In her 2019 Netflix series When They See Us, Ava DuVernay seeks, I believe, to transform the way we as white Americans, on the whole, SEE: the way we see African Americans, the way we see ourselves and our position in the world in relation to African Americans, and the way we see and understand the social dynamics fueled by the way dominant white culture, for lack of a better term, trains us to see.
She documents the infamous story of the five African American teenagers framed for the 1989 rape and beating of a woman in Central Park. Even though understated in its dramatization of the police’s manipulation and framing of the teenagers through coercive, dishonest, and intimidating interrogations, DuVernay’s methodical representation is poignant and painful to watch, driving home the extent to which these young black lives just don’t matter in the eyes of the U.S. criminal justice system — including the individuals working within the system — and in U.S. society at large.
These boys are not seen as human by “them,” white people, generally speaking, and the racist criminal justice system in particular. DuVernay’s title highlights the antagonistic ways of seeing at work in our racially-polarized and racist society, underlining the “us” versus “them” reality of a nation stubbornly devoted to practicing racial oppression and repelling the ideal harmony embodied in our hope of e pluribis unum.
While DuVernay certainly accentuates how a white racist vision erroneously and violently figures these boys as savage beasts, she also turns the tables and asks white Americans to see how they and more importantly their behaviors, systemic and individual, are viewed from the perspective of the racially othered in America. Or, more to point, she asks us to see these behaviors and attitudes objectively. It’s not really just a matter of perspective.
She portrays the violent and terroristic savagery of white America, of white Americans, toward people of color and asks we white Americans to see ourselves, to see how we are seen.
While the prosecution made its closing arguments in the Chauvin murder trial, we the people must not close this case and be satisfied with holding only Derek Chauvin or the police accountable.
We must hold white supremacy accountable and, in doing so, take a hard look in the mirror as white Americans.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.