Sunday, April 4, 2021

Dismantling Supremacy, Claiming Liberation

 “What He Had Been Trained to Do”

           This week, we witnessed the opening days of the trial of Derek Chauvin, and I’ve been asking myself: what does it mean to work for justice in the shadow of the United States’ history of police violence, White supremacy, and systemic injustice? We have felt anew our grief and outrage for the murder of George Floyd, even while we are reminded again that we live in a society where many people refuse to concede that a person in authority can abuse power. They refuse to agree that all people, including law enforcement officers, should be responsible for their actions. In their minds, all police violence is justified, especially if the officer felt fear for their life – and especially, to put it plainly, if the victim of police violence is not White, and especially if the victim of police violence is Black or Indigenous.

          On one hand, I hear arguments that Derek Chauvin was just a bad apple, making all good cops look bad. On the other hand, the defense is building its case that, in attorney Eric Nelson’s words, “you will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career. The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.” ( ) If we are honest, we’ll notice that the two arguments don’t contradict each other. We know that Derek Chauvin has a violent history, and that at least 18 complaints were filed against him from 2001 to 2020. And we know that Chauvin and five other officers shot and killed a man in 2006, and that, in 2008, he shot another man twice; that man survived. We know that, in the words of Erin Corbett, “Other reports documented his involvement in multiple violent, and deadly cases of police abuse.”  ( ) This is more than enough to convince me that Derek Chauvin had no business being a law enforcement officer, and that he likely made other officers around him worse.

          But that doesn’t mean that the system itself is somehow okay, or that Derek Chauvin is uniquely horrible. After all, he remained on the force for all those years, despite the complaints and “multiple violent, and deadly cases of police abuse.” The system is designed to tolerate this kind of abuse, and even protect officers that act violently. This is not hypothetical. Please remember that the system allegedly set up to respond to complaints, to protect the community from abuse, and to remove officers who violated those standards, kept Derek Chauvin on the force. More often than not, the complaints against Chauvin were closed with “no discipline.” The system is not innocent, either. It has never been innocent.


Blaming the Victim

          In this instance, like so many others, we watch as the defense develops an intricate case of victim blaming. In their presentation, Derek Chauvin is not responsible. He was only acting according to his training. He was distracted by the crowd. George Floyd struggled with an opioid addiction and had drugs in his system. George Floyd had underlying health concerns. The police were only responding to a call and doing the best they could. It is the courtroom version of “he was asking for it.” And it is immoral and wrong. It is part of an ongoing attempt to always consolidate power and to insure that law enforcement officers can act with impunity. As Rashad Robinson of Color of Change explained:

“This is the playbook from police unions, who are paying for the defense, who have injected well over $50 million since 2012 into elections to actually help to dictate what prosecutors and mayors and other folks who are responsible for police accountability do. And this is what they do in trial after trial, is work to put the community and work to put the victim on trial, to make the victim someone who deserved to be killed. … it is a playbook that actually ... draws on all of the deep levels of the racism, all of the ways in which the system is not broken but is operating exactly the way it was designed, to let police officers off and to put Black people on trial, regardless of whether we are victim or perpetrator.” ( )

          This dynamic was demonstrated in another courtroom this week, as we received the news that that there would still be no convictions for three of the violent, abusive police officers who beat up Luther Hall. Back in 2017, Hall was an undercover police officer observing the protests that erupted related to the trial of former officer Jason Stockley. Stockley had been on trial for killing Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011 ( ) and was acquitted ( ). It was yet another example of failure in a long line of failures to address police violence, and the city rose up to demonstrate that this was not okay. The police responded to this protest of police violence by violently attacking the protesters, and Luther Hall was caught up on the receiving end. The AP reported that:

“Hall, who had been recording criminal activity during the protests, became separated from his partner while fleeing officers who were firing pepper-spray pellets and bean bag rounds into the crowd. / … as Hall was complying with orders to get on the ground, he was knocked down, hit, picked up and knocked down again before being attacked with fists, feet and a baton. / Hall said he did not push, fight or pull away from the officers. He said he was stunned. ‘I couldn’t believe it was happening,’ he told the jury.” ( )

          Cases like these remind us that there are at least two justice systems in the USA, and that Black Americans are especially at risk of being targeted for injustice and oppression. As Cori Bush tweeted: “If an undercover cop can’t get justice, how will the rest of us who have been maced, shot, beaten, and brutalized ever get justice?”  ( )


A Litany of Sorrow

          But the bad news didn’t stop with systemic injustice in our courts of law. We’ve also been mourning another week of mass shootings. Just from last Sunday through Friday, we had mass shootings in Cleveland, Ohio; San Antonio, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Essex, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Orange, California. 32 people were injured, and eleven were killed. ( ) In the Orange shooting, we were left with the tragic and haunting image of a wounded woman, now in critical condition, cradling a nine year old child. He died in her arms. ( )

           Yet before we could even process these tragedies, the news called our attention to Myanmar. The coup in February has been met with protests and demonstrations, and the military has responded with violence. The UN Special Envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener, reported that more than 520 people have been killed, and condemned the:

"‘widespread and systemic attacks on the civilian population’ by military forces. / ‘Already vulnerable groups requiring humanitarian assistance including ethnic minorities and the Rohingya people will suffer most, but inevitably, the whole country is on the verge of spiraling into a failed state … [The people of Myanmar] deserve to know why the Myanmar security forces are allowed to continue to go on extra-judiciary killings, why military snipers are shooting at unarmed protesters, why they can arbitrarily detain, torture people and abduct the bodies of those killed … ." ( )

           And we also began getting more information about the ongoing violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, as journalists and human rights defenders gain access to region. The conflict has deep roots, but, last November, a civil war erupted between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. According to at least one estimate, “Thousands of people are believed to have died and nearly one million forced from their homes, including some 43,000 refugees who fled to neighbouring Sudan.” ( )  Further, “The Norwegian Refugee Council said between 140,000-185,000 came from west Tigray over a two-week period in March.” ( ) And one United Nations humanitarian official warned that there’s been “targeted civilian killings, over 500 recent rape cases, an increasing number of people fleeing violence, 4.5 million people needing food, and children on the brink of starvation.” ( )

          The list of the suffering in this world could go on indefinitely. And it is enough to leave us all without hope. Why should we even bother?  How do we look despair in the eye, feel it in our hearts, and yet keep going? Why do we insist on gathering, week after week, to tell ourselves that justice and peace are possible? Why do we bother to grieve the oppression and violence, celebrate the moments of joy and justice that we encounter along the way, and encourage each other to live like another world is actually possible? How will we carry both our hope that love and justice will win the day, and our fear that we will fall short? How do we do this in a world where we are also grieving for George Floyd, victims of gun violence, the people of Myanmar and Ethiopia, and so many more? 

          All those questions I asked during the week lead me here. Working for social and ecological justice often feels like an uphill battle. Most of the time, it’s easier to relate to the story of how the powers-that-be conspire to crush movements for social justice. Even our victories are drowned out by the constant barrage of bad news, so that, on any given day, you can find one thousand reasons to go hide in your room. 


Born into Privilege; Born into Struggle

           When I was growing up, I was taught that our particular religious, cultural, social, and political traditions held the answers to all of life’s problems. But it never added up. I studied history, and discovered that every cultural and religious system’s history was made up of the same mix of both foolishness and wisdom, both violence and extraordinary love. I studied other faith and no-faith systems and found poetry, art, and beauty that stirred my soul, even as I found stories of abuse, coercion, manipulations, and lies. No society or system has been immune, and the common denominator is our humanity. Our humanity held that breathtaking potential for both compassion and cruelty. What is left is for us to learn how to live with one another in a way that doesn’t destroy the earth or harm each other.

          Taking up this task, again and again, is the heart of reflective practice, and adrienne maree brown has put it into words:

“Where we are born into privilege, we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. Where we are born into struggle, we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy and liberation.” ( )

          This work looks different in our different lives and situations, but it lives on in our humanity, even when it often passes without notice. In the courtroom, we have watched witnesses reclaim their dignity, and George Floyd’s, daring to call out a system of violence and injustice and, unfortunately, with no guarantee that Derek Chauvin and the system he represents will be held accountable. Remember, for example, the witness of Charles McMillian, who cried out to Chauvin to "get your knee off his neck" in an attempt to save Floyd’s life, and who confronted Chauvin after the murder because, in his words, "what I watched was wrong.” ( )

          Remember, too, the witness of Cori Bush. In 2017, before she was a US congressperson, she was helping lead those protests against the system’s acquittal of Jason Stockley. St. Louis Public Radio reported on one of those nights of protest, writing about one of the standoffs that:

“came an hour or so after activist Cori Bush took to the megaphone to tell police gathered outside the stadium why protesters keep bringing their message there. She said many in the community do not trust police — and that won’t change until extrajudicial violence against black people ends. / ‘We know you’re tired of us coming to Ballpark Village. We know you’re tired of the protesters. You’re tired of us,’ Bush said. ‘We’re tired of the police killing black folks. We’re tired of the police killing brown folks and trans folks. We’re tired of you killing people that look like us.’” ( )

          And remember the witness of the people of Myanmar in the face of state-sanctioned violence. According to Maria Stephan, they:

“have led a remarkable campaign of civil resistance to restore democracy. Nearly every segment of the population, including young women, civil servants, transportation workers, bankers, members of the Buddhist sangha, and even some members of the police and security forces have gone on strike or defected to the opposition to pressure the junta. Tech-savvy Burmese youth have mobilized the resistance on and offline, devising creative tactics and clever messaging to evade censorship and spread dissent. The scope and depth of what organizers are calling the Civil Disobedience Movement, or CDM, have been astounding.” ( )

          None of this takes away the sting of grief, the unnecessary suffering that comes from injustice and oppression, or the need for change. But, in every case, we can find people who are embodying that message that adrienne maree brown imparted to us:

“Where we are born into privilege, we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. Where we are born into struggle, we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy and liberation.” ( )

          The more of us who take it to heart and make it a habit in our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities, the better chance we have to make it a reality. There will continue to be bad news, and we need to care for ourselves and one another in the midst of discouragement. But we also keep doing what we can do, even in the face of grief and despair. Together, we might find that, sometimes, it really is possible to create communities where justice, equity, compassion, and joy are available to each and every one of us.