Anyone who does the work of liberation knows how split the psyche becomes when we feel compelled to demand institutional accountability through the law by day, while working to dismantle the legal system by night. Interdisciplinary art studio The Bureau writes on the cultural and historical impact of the Derek Chauvin trial.
Believing in the credibility of the criminal justice system is akin to believing in magic. We so badly want to believe in the supernatural possibility of magic, of the surreal likelihood that there exists an alternate dimension in which the rules of basic science and time are surrendered for a period of time. Likewise, many of us want so desperately to believe that our criminal justice system is a conduit for justice, that its theatrical performers, gaudy costumes and pompous props are all a part of a noble pursuit of justice.
Like any magic trick, the thin line between reality and delusion is often hard to decipher.
There is no more apparent example of this phenomenon than the upcoming trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who, in 2020, was charged with the murder of George Floyd—in the third-degree, including second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter. The trial, which is set to begin on March 25, 2021, has been a long time coming. On May 25, 2020, the world witnessed the murder of Floyd in a tragic video in which Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes, causing him to asphyxiate and die.
Nearly ten months after we witnessed the murder, the stage curtains have lifted and we are now watching the theatrics of American law unfold. Jurors are being seated. Motions are overruled. Appeals are signed and filed. The Hennepin County Courthouse in which the trail begins is now surrounded by barbed wire and concrete barriers, a sign of deep unease and intimidation. The world awaits, weary of the delusion of the criminal justice system—yet hopeful, still, that perhaps magic is real.
Physical steps have already been taken to ensure that the voices and pain of those fighting in defense of Black life are ignored. Several state-level and federal agencies have been activated in anticipation of further social unrest: the Minneapolis Police Department, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, St. Paul Police Department, Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, Metro Transit Police, Minnesota National Guard, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Minnesota State Patrol, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Minneapolis Field Office. In effect, the courthouse is now impenetrable yet hollowed of any morality.
But, unlike a performance that ultimately comes to an end, the trial will not in any way remedy the raw pain and sorrow that has bled through the streets of Minneapolis. This is not to say it is not entirely important. It is. It is a litmus test of our institution’s capacity to hold itself to account for murder. But, as many organizers will tell you, our institutions have time and time again remained staunch in their hatred for Black life and loyalty to white supremacist violence under the guise of the rule of law—a rule of law that disregards structural violence, rewards murder, and punishes those that voice their frustrations. Only when we align the law with justice will this system have any credibility.
Anyone who does the work of liberation knows how split the psyche becomes when we feel compelled to demand institutional accountability through the law by day, while working to dismantle the legal system by night. Young Black activists have stormed sites of power, halls of state houses, and police precincts demanding deep and structural transformation in political and civic life. Animated by the collective grief of Floyd’s death, these young people have ushered waves of mass protests with a clear set of demands: defund the police, invest in communities, and abolish the carceral state.
Instead of a legal system that invests in the healing of impacted communities, the judicial system seems hell bent on the erection of punitive tools of repression and violence, all while maintaining a masquerade of moral authority. Once the show is over, the pain remains; suspense hangs from the rafters and fear lingers in the wings.
We are a community in pain, suffering the loss of a dear brother and loved one: the loss of a father—a man killed before his time by a man who knows no bounds to evil. As the jury selection process winds down, everyone is on the brink of anticipation. The trial outcome is expected, and in many ways unsurprising. And yet, it is a painful reminder of the grief we must hold alone as a community.