The Chauvin Verdict, Ma'Khia Bryant's Killing and Why We Must Resist Settling for the Breadcrumbs of Justice
By Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
Last week, people around the world breathed a sigh of relief upon news that the state of Minnesota had successfully convicted Derek Chauvin for squeezing the life out of George Floyd. Yet for many of us, even as we joined together in this tearful victory — nodding along with the heartfelt congratulations to the jury, prosecutors, witnesses, and protesters whose collective actions brought about this reckoning — a bitter aftertaste followed.
Indeed, the mass outpouring of relief that Floyd’s murder would not stand as a legally sanctioned, modern-day lynching revealed a deeper, far uglier truth: that until the very moment the verdict was read, it was an entirely open question whether, to paraphrase the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott, Black people had rights that anyone was bound to respect. That police could take a life as viciously and flagrantly in 2020 as racist mobs had in 1920 and 1820 was a stark reminder that the modern-day equivalent of Black enslavability is our killability. As Chauvin’s trial proceeded, Black Americans were forced, once again, to confront the unceasing attempts to weaponize the same racial tropes that have long converted white fear into justified homicide. We all sensed that the outcome of Chauvin’s trial — like the outcomes in the killings of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and countless others — might well plunge the nation back into a past in which there was no denial that policing was grounded in anything other than in logics of racist reaction and officer impunity. Against a damning video that chronicled the excruciatingly inhumane killing of a shackled and powerless Black man, Chauvin’s defense gambled that this jury would see George Floyd through the same eyes that Derek Chauvin did — as a hyper-active, all-powerful agent of mayhem and chaos that required brutal submission. To the relief of millions, the Minneapolis jury broke with longstanding precedent and rejected these brutal, blood-soaked libels. The defense’s case sought, yet again, to portray a Black man who died at the hands of the police as a brand of superpredator — some supernatural evil who could have sprung up from a handcuffed, prone position to threaten four police officers. It was a classic projection of racial anxiety onto the Black body; one that harkens back far beyond the specter of superpredators to racialized popcult threats to white authority, from Jack Johnson to Fred Hampton — and, perhaps tellingly, to leaders of would-be slave rebellions. Chauvin’s defense team sought to exploit that same reflexive white paranoia to criminalize the entire neighborhood — to cast the trauma of a crowd held off at gunpoint as a distracting threat to Chauvin and the team of officers beside him, all while trying to blame Floyd’s heart for failing to beat. These efforts at twisted justification failed, and Derek Chauvin became one of the less than one percent of police officers who killed on the job to be convicted of murder. But as we sank to our knees in thanks, we caught a glimpse of our reflections in the Du Boisian mirror — desperately scooping up crumbs that had fallen our way from the table of justice, revealing just how starved we truly are.
Indeed, even these crumbs only came to be because of an extraordinarily rare set of conditions. The video of George Floyd’s death — taken by a 17-year-old girl — was the “but for” condition of the verdict’s possibility. Without that video, the official police account claiming that Floyd had died because of a “medical incident” would have ensured that his death would only be counted among the thousands of unmarked deaths-in-custody that are sanctioned by the blue trappings of law and order.
Still, observers of the trial were haunted by the knowledge that the video of Floyd’s killing was not likely enough, by itself, to convert a murder-in-plain-view to a murder-under-law. It took the crumbling of the blue protective wall — the testimony from the police chief, use-of-force experts, coroners, and medical personnel — to ratify what the world saw with its own eyes.
Regardless of the circumstances, we are all justified in feeling relieved that Chauvin’s insidious justifications for a heinous murder have, for the moment, been muted. But we cannot afford to ignore the massive trauma that has been inflicted on every Black person who was terrified by the defense’s attempt to play every joker in the racism deck. The ease with which Chauvin’s attorneys were able to deploy racially coded justifications for lethal violence in colorblind packaging evidences the deep-seated anti-Black racism in our culture and justice system.
Similarly, the way that legal and media commentators could discuss Chauvin’s monstrous bid to rationalize a lynching-by-cop in the calm and dispassionate registers of supposedly post-racial America shows how impermeable the facade remains. And even when President Joe Biden weighed in with an anodyne hope for the “right” verdict to emerge, or when Congresswoman Maxine Waters referenced the obvious fact that a not-guilty verdict would be both a direct threat to Black America and a challenge for them to step up demands for justice — these observations were called “disrespectful” and “abhorrent,” and seen as threats to the orderly, impartial workings of the justice system. Such efforts to police Black dissent served as a textbook illustration of how white racial power has risen anew — brash, unapologetic, punitive, and out of the ashes of post-racial wishful thinking.
Falling back from the precipice, the worst did not happen — this time. But Black people still suffered psychic harm from this brush with white supremacist (in)justice, an injury that stems from wrestling with the possibility that our fellow Americans could harness the forces of white panic to rationalize murder. That injury resides in the very souls of Black folk, and it contributes to panic, stress, and other societal conditions that lead to the weathering of Black bodies.
Perhaps more insidiously, this harm also produces our forced othering from non-Black allies, family, and friends — people who love us, who want to stand with us, but know that at the end of the day, our continuous killability separates our fate from theirs. Simply put, the Chauvin trial demonstrated the devastating lie of an America that had transcended its bloody past, and that had interred its lynch mobs and ritualistic sacrifice of Black life.
That there is no respite for the justice-weary could not be more tragically embodied than in the police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who was killed just before the Chauvin verdict was announced. There will be no legions of Americans galvanized by yet another familiar story of excessive force because her death presses against almost every available frame that has created sustainable alignment across stakeholders, constituents, pundits, and politicians: She was a female, not a male; a teenager, not an adult; a fighter, not a bystander; armed, not weaponless; killed within the proverbial “split second,” not brazenly tortured in an act widely denounced by policing experts; and surrounded by a chaotic, adult-involved melee, not by a bouquet of humanity begging for de-escalation.
Bryant’s killing challenges some preconceptions within the communities protesting Black death. Our most readily legible frame of anti-Black violence — amplified and reinforced during the global wave of public protests over George Floyd’s death — is the killing of a Black man, innocent of any violent crime or threat, being slowly, painfully, unjustifiably drained of life as a full-framed expression of racial depravity. More broadly, Chauvin’s conviction is all too prone to serve, retrospectively, as proof of the popular, white-sanctioned theory of the “bad-apple” police officer — and this interpretation could only gain traction in the event that the other officers on the scene of Floyd’s killing are acquitted.
While the Floyd consensus was singular and temporal, it is unlikely that a similarly unified voice about Bryant’s death will emerge. But the differing circumstances of her death should not delimit our thinking about lethal police violence in the Black community. We have to dig deeper to name the senselessness of her death — not by exclusive reference to the ten seconds in which she died, but in the larger context in which she lived. Her death cannot be set apart from the multiple police killings in Columbus, Ohio within the past several months, including the killing of Andre Hill, who was shot in his friend’s garage, and Casey Goodson Jr., who was shot in the back as he was entering his own home with a take-out order of sandwiches. The conversation we have now should not boil down, on the one hand, to the failure of the Columbus police to determine whether Goodson lived in the house he was entering before opening fire — and on the other, to suppose, as the bulk of early media coverage has, that cops on the same police force were right to see the knife in Ma’Khia Bryant’s hand as an imminent threat, and therefore justified in shooting her.
If we are to entrust split second decision-making to officers, then they should at least be required to assess when and whether an alleged threat has abated. Shooting Bryant four times, center-mass, is a warzone strategy, not a justifiable intervention in a fight between young women.
Digging deeper still, we can also see that breaking down both Floyd’s and Bryant’s fatal encounters with police in terms of individualized assessments and individual actors produces a similarly atomized model of public safety. That is to say, the general public is spared any sustained reckoning with the background conditions that shaped these shootings. Ma’Khia’s lost life demands more than armchair prognosticating; it demands that we attend to the conditions in which our children, disproportionately Black, become wards of the state in chronically unsafe circumstances.
Ma’Khia and her sister were among the staggering number of Black children who are in some way under institutional supervision (as documented by Dorothy Roberts’ tour de force, Shattered Bonds: The Color Of Child Welfare). By numerous accounts, Ma’Khia’s environment was an unstable one, in which police contact was not unusual: law enforcement had been called seven times in recent months, sometimes by her foster mother, and other times by neighbors. One of those 9-1-1 calls was from Ma’Khia’s sister, who pleaded to leave the foster home.
What could have been done to secure their familial living arrangements rather than removing them to foster care? Why do we routinely make more resources available to break up families than to provide the support they need? How do patterns of violence between Black youth — and particularly Black girls — take root, and fester, outside of the scope of resources, programs, and other critical projects devoted to addressing the hazards of violence and other dysfunctions that afflict boys? For all the limitations of My Brothers Keeper, we must ask: when will the trauma, the pain, and the disregard of Black girls ever rise to the top of our agenda to enhance their well-being — psychologically, physically, and spiritually? When will we, as a society, answer the call to become our Sisters’ Keepers?
For many it will be all too easy to accept that Officer Nicholas Reardon, the cop who shot Ma’Khia, had no choice — one girl or another may have died. But we as a society do have choices. And we can make different ones if we are willing to see the life-threatening vectors that collided on that fateful day in Columbus. We cannot look away from the desperate situations we have left so many families to navigate; we cannot disregard the under-resourced and soulless institutions we have charged with warehousing our youth; and we cannot ignore how their unmet cries for support convey ugly messages about their self-worth that serve as the backdrop for tormenting, bullying, and scapegoating among each other.
In short, we cannot accept that the inevitability of Bryant’s killing rested somewhere in the psyche of all of the young women involved in this tragedy. Ma’Khia Bryant’s death is an indictment of all of us for leaving only armed officers of the state to resolve precarious conditions that the wider public has facilitated.
One of the core commitments shared among protestors and activists amassed under the banner of transforming public safety — ranging from police reformism to abolitionism — is to shift resources from law enforcement to life enhancement. That means a principled refusal of the zero-sum logic that routinely rationalizes police violence, and a corresponding commitment to broaden our vision to address just what sort of social order American police are working to enforce. Shifting resources away from the routine use of lethal force is meant to change those actual conditions — not merely to change the way those conditions are policed. This means, among other things, that we look long and hard at the social priorities instituted when we invest in high-powered weaponry and tools of surveillance and control, while starving families and youth of the resources needed to support healthy relationships.
We cannot afford to once more fall back into an individualized, scenario-specific, micro-analysis of good- or bad-apple policing. After all, it is the conditions of Ma’Khia’s life that we as a society must fully confront. In tracking the broader reasons behind Ma’Khia’s tragic killing, we must seek answers with the same zeal that we have reserved for victims of police violence against Black people that we are most primed to register as a pressing, devastating injustice carried out against the community at large.
The past week has presented a stark picture of what we face as a people and as a society. Our police kill more people per capita than any of our peer nations. Armed with military-grade weaponry, law enforcement has been rooted in white supremacy, genocide, slavery, and apartheid since its inception. It is this history that continues to stunt our ability to imagine alternatives, to see our common humanity, and to shift from law enforcement to public safety. Ultimately, this anchor to our past endangers us all — differently to be sure, but unnecessarily nonetheless.
Our dual reckonings with the Chauvin trial and the Ma’Khia Bryant shooting should mark ground zero in an ambitious and urgent initiative to reimagine the world we want. To squarely confront the conditions that stand in our way, there must be multiple reckonings — not only with the past that plays on a constant loop in the national consciousness, but also with the conditions of those whom we do not often think about in terms of anti-Black state violence: children who have been wrangled, endangered, and sometimes killed by a state that purports to protect them.