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Why the Chauvin verdict didn’t feel like justice

The current criminal justice system is not equipped to provide real justice after police killings.

Black people in masks stand beneath a gas station sign; the area that would normally have the gas prices reads: “Justice for George Floyd;” underneath that is the message: “Justice served?”
Supporters of the Floyd family gather in Minneapolis at the site of George Floyd’s death as Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict is read.
Christian Monterrosa/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

Broadly, the reaction to the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder was one of relief.

“There’s a saying among Black folks,” Veela Ammons, a business consultant and coach based outside Chicago, told me. “It says, ‘It’s not justice, it’s just us.’ And so we thought it was going to be that kind of situation again where even though it was so plain to see, we thought, from anybody’s perspective that this man committed murder, we didn’t think that we would actually get that verdict.”

But for many, such surprise and relief also gave way to another feeling. A desire for something more, followed by an idea that became a mantra: that this verdict wasn’t justice.

“Accountability was served in that courtroom today, not so much justice,” Mikeale Davis , an accounting major at Georgia State University, told me.

“True justice would be served only if George was still here with his family, loved ones, and community,” Miski Noor, co-executive director of the Black Visions Collective, a Minnesota-based advocacy group, said in a statement.

Nothing will bring Floyd back to life, making the justice Noor spoke of impossible. But as President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Noor, and many others noted in the wake of the trial’s verdict, ensuring police killings stop is well within the limits of human ability.

As D.A. Bullock, a member of the Minneapolis-based civil rights organization Reclaim the Block, told me, “True justice really looks like this never happening again.”

Why the guilty verdict in the Chauvin trial doesn’t feel like justice

In its most basic form, justice can be thought of as protection from wrongdoing. The justice system should protect people from being killed, cheated, or discriminated against. But all too often, it fails to be protective and instead tries to be corrective.

Sometimes this corrective action comes through reform — for instance, following Floyd’s murder, 46 percent of police departments instituted chokehold bans, joining the 27 percent that did so before June 2020, according to the advocacy organization 8 Can’t Wait. Body camera use is another reform that has spread rapidly in response to police killings; 32 percent of departments used them in 2013, and more than half are now believed to employ them.

But reform can’t always provide the level of protection — the level of justice — citizens desire. Critics of policing reforms like stricter use of force policies or expanded access to body cameras note that even in places where these reforms have been in place for years, they’ve had little effect on the number of police killings.

“Minneapolis was already the poster child for police reform efforts — body cameras, implicit bias training, all of that has been in place in Minneapolis and has not changed how people experience police violence here,” Sheila Nezhad, a policy organizer with Reclaim the Block and Minneapolis mayoral candidate, told me.

When these reforms fail to protect — as they failed to protect Floyd — the criminal justice system steps in, meeting wrongdoing with a punishment that causes the person who committed it to suffer.

In theory, through this suffering, the person is able to reflect on their actions and come to some revelation about the harm they have caused. Or perhaps their punishment serves more as a deterrent to others, warning them not to behave in the same way.

But the problem, Fordham Law professor and criminologist John Pfaff told my colleague Jerusalem Demsas, is that this places too much of the burden of justice on the individual.

“There’s this sort of individualistic approach saying when someone does something wrong, we’ll punish them,” Pfaff said. “While punishing Chauvin is critical and essential accountability for the harm that he did, it doesn’t address the bigger systemic failings that got us here.”

Chauvin, in a grey suit, white shirt, and blue tie, puts his arms behind his back as a sheriff’s department officer in a brown uniform prepares to handcuff him.
Derek Chauvin is taken into custody following his conviction.
Court TV/AP
A Black man in a white fur coat raises both his arms in the air, while shouting, seemingly in joy.
Floyd supporters celebrate outside of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, following Chauvin’s conviction.
Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Overall, Pfaff told Demsas, he is worried “that we’re going to look at this trial and say that our current system works, or we say this one bad apple does this really bad thing [and] the courts can come in and fix it. But the expression is ‘One bad apple ruins the bunch.’”

Chauvin being incarcerated does not mean other officers currently facing charges, like those who killed Rayshard Brooks or Daunte Wright, will be convicted, nor does it magically remove the threat of further police violence and misconduct.

It’s this reality that has led even some of those who have held up the trial as proof the system can be trusted — like the president — to say some reforms must be made. And for others to call for an extensive overhaul of policing. Or for others still to argue for taking police out of the picture altogether.

For all these people, it is this specter of violence and pain to come that makes it difficult for the Chauvin verdict to feel like complete justice. For them, true justice will involve making serious changes — to policing, and perhaps to the criminal justice system more broadly.

There are many alternatives to the current justice structure — and many forms of justice

Shannon Perez-Darby, a writer and anti-violence consultant, told me part of the problem is that the justice system disincentivizes acknowledging “harm that you’ve done, especially if that harm is a crime.”

Admitting to a crime could mean jail and bail and court fees and prison; denial represents at least a chance of freedom. But only through admission can there be true accountability — what Perez-Darby defines as “being responsible for your choices and the consequences of those choices.”

That level of accountability facilitates transformative justice, a system with roots in many communities of color and LGBTQ communities that works outside the bounds of the criminal justice system, taking a non-punitive, inclusive, and preventive approach to correcting a wrong.

There are a variety of ways in which transformative justice is practiced, but it generally works by creating a space of support, healing, and renewal for the harmed, as well as a structure for accountability, understanding, and growth for the person who inflicted the harm. It also addresses systemic or community issues that facilitated the harm (for instance, implicit bias or toxic masculinity); creates a framework to promote healing while preventing that harm from occurring again; and avoids the meting out of punishments, isolation, loss of legal rights, or any kind of traditional vengeance.

With respect to a police killing, broadly, transformative justice practitioners might work with the family and friends of the person killed to help them navigate their thoughts and feelings while helping them access tools and resources for healing, and working with the officer or officers who killed to take responsibility for that killing and to interrogate and dismantle the thinking and acculturation that led up to it. The process might also include the department as a whole — working with officials and individual officers not directly involved in the shooting to institute changes that might stop future killings.

Overall, Perez-Darby said, transformative justice “is about supporting everyone to have the skills they need and creating the conditions to support loving equitable relationships and communities.”

The widespread adoption of such a system would, hypothetically, create conditions in which prisons become unnecessary and police violence is eliminated because police officers become redundant.

Transformative justice is not a quick or easy fix to the problem of policing. It requires a local shift in thinking and priorities, one that would be difficult to impose via federal legislation. But Perez-Darby said it would facilitate a more just reality: “We know that justice is when everyone has their needs met and when the people who are most impacted are heard and put at the center.”

This approach — which seeks to include everyone in justice — is the opposite of the individual focus of the current criminal justice system that Pfaff highlighted as problematic. It attempts to do what he said the current system has struggled with: “address the bigger systemic failings that got us here.”

A similar focus on creating change is also an important part of healing justice, which holistic health and community healing practitioner Rebeka Ndosi describes as the “inclusion of healing in social justice work” in a diffusive manner that “holds the space of there being a world beyond the struggle” — of a just world.

“Our own individual hurt and healing affects, and is not separate from, the collective hurt and healing that exists,” Ndosi said. “Working with individuals on healing their own wounds and pain of trauma will spread to their circles, and their spaces and communities, because they show up differently when they’re actually able to focus on themselves and find the wisdom from the wounds.”

The adoption of healing justice — much less transformative justice — would require a completely different way of viewing crime and justice. Ndosi said it would mean that “when there’s harm that is done, instead of it being something that means you are punished, it is something that says, let’s draw you in closer and see why this happened and how the balance got thrown off.” For many, if not for most, this sort of change would be very uncomfortable.

“I doubt there’s anybody who wants to draw Derek Chauvin in closer right now,” Ndosi said. “A lot of this can sound very, ‘Woooo, it’s out there,’ but if we don’t hold a space of a different way of being together, then we’ll just continue the patterns. ... We have to hold what it is that we’re working toward up in front of us every single day. Otherwise, we don’t know where we’re going.”

That these ideas seem revolutionary is the point. The problems with policing (and the criminal justice system more broadly) are deep and old, going back more than a century. They are intertwined with the worst parts of American history. Modern police departments have roots in slave patrols; the nationwide campaign of lynchings and general racial terror that followed slavery went largely unchecked — and was sometimes participated in — by police officers. Later, many departments had intimate ties to 20th-century corruption and white supremacy. And now, due to viral videos like those of Floyd’s killing, the issues with policing are visible as never before.

It is also by design that while these ideas could be used to address the problems with police departments, they exist in a space wholly separate from policing. They posit, as many activists have done, that the path to justice does not necessarily run through the police as it does now — and that, perhaps, police aren’t needed at all.

“I believe abolition — abolishing prisons, abolishing policing as we know and understand it — is the only way to create conditions free from violence and harm,” Perez-Darby said.

A mass of protesters in coats gather behind a large white banner that says, “Kill the system that killed Daunte Wright.”
Protesters call for an end to policing in Denver, Colorado, following the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, shortly before the Chauvin trial ended.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Abolition is exactly what it sounds like.

It would bring about that policeless state, creating a system in which police are replaced by professionals with the expertise needed to handle departments’ current duties: That could mean mental health and medical professionals for crises, or trained negotiators for noise complaints, or detectives to retrieve stolen property and to solve murders. And maybe healing and transformative justice practitioners to assist in all sorts of cases.

Without police on patrol, there would still be someone to call for help — just not someone armed and allowed to kill, assault, and harm people with near impunity.

“We have to move toward abolition,” Jorden Giger, the co-leader of Black Lives Matter in South Bend, Indiana, told me. “That’s our duty as a people.”

As activist Bree Newsome recently wrote, the United States is no stranger to adopting the unfamiliar when the moment calls for doing so and has divorced itself from long-held practices before: “If we can end things like monarchal rule and the slave trade, we can end policing.”

Neither the monarchy nor slavery was thrown off easily. Ending policing — either as we know it now or altogether — won’t be easy, either. But there can be no true justice with it as it is now.

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