By Emmanuel Onapa:
Last week, Derek Chauvin, the serving police officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, was found guilty of murder. In this rare case, a verdict was produced in America that was intended to be a sweet song, appeasing the world’s collective and shared rage. A jury of 12 people - unseen and unnamed throughout the trial in Minneapolis - found him guilty, after deliberating for more than 10 hours.
For almost a year since George Floyd's death, people across the world have been protesting, organising and waiting for some sort of accountability and for justice for this undeniable and unjustified murder. Now, for many people, “justice has been served”. The conviction of Derek Chauvin means he will finally be held accountable by the state. But is this real justice?
The state offers ‘accountability’ and ‘justice’ through a purely disciplinary lens, focusing on punishment and vengeance. Restoring lives and repairing harm has never been a priority. Despite the fact that we are all invited (or forced) to participate in this model of justice, those who are the ‘gatekeepers’ of this very justice system - those acting on behalf of the state as part of the prison industrial complex - are rarely subject to this same model or standard. The state and those who enforce its authority want us to endorse and believe in a form of justice to which they do not even conform.
How does this play out? In the US, since 2005, there have only been 110 prosecutions of police officers who have shot and killed people, while police officers have killed on average 1,000 people annually since 2014. In the six weeks since the Chauvin trial began, 65 people have been killed by the police. It is clear that the much celebrated form of justice handed to Derek Chauvin, when it comes to police officers more generally, can only be described as infrequent at best, and novelty at worst. Even as Chauvin’s verdict was handed down, Ma'Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl was shot by police in Columbus, Ohio.
So what was different about the murder of George Floyd? The extended video which captured Derek Chauvin kneeling on George’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds? The global outrage? The international mass mobilisation and movement building against police violence? It should not take millions of people in the US and abroad to organise day and night to hold the system responsible for the death it caused. Is this what it will take for police officers in the UK to be held accountable?
Last week, as the verdict was announced, we watched politicians in the UK swimming in their own hypocrisy. Our government, including the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other cabinet members like Sajid Javid, came to Twitter to exclaim ‘Black Lives Matter’. Yet they had denounced our protests and mobilisations last summer. The leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, tweeted "Justice". Yet when he was the Director of Public Prosecutions, he upheld the decision not to prosecute the police officers who killed Jean Charles de Menezes in an operation led by the current Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick. How can they champion justice abroad without advancing the same in Britain, where they hold power?
The stark similarities between the US and the UK are apparent. Like George Floyd, 23-year-old Olaseni Lewis was killed following prolonged physical restraint by police. He ended up dying due to a lack of oxygen to the brain. The six police officers involved continue to roam our streets, unaccountable for their actions as the Metropolitan Police cleared them in closed hearings.
More than this, in England and Wales, no police officer who has been involved in a death in custody or following police contact has been found guilty of manslaughter or murder for over 30 years. In all of the 10 cases that have made it to court since 1990 the trials have failed or subsided, with officers being let off or acquitted by the system.
This is not just about deaths at the hands of the police, it is also about the idle infrastructure that leaves police unaccountable. Fewer than 1 in 10 officers found to have a case to answer by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) for gross misconduct, the most severe disciplinary charge that can be levelled, actually end up being dismissed from the service. Of 641 officers in England and Wales charged with gross misconduct from 2015 to 2020, a mere 54 (8.4%) were dismissed. Of the further 848 police officers whom the IOPC decided to hold a case against for less severe misconduct charges, less than half (only 363) were found guilty.
When it comes to carceral justice, of the 391 cases the IOPC considered worthy of prosecution over the same 2015 - 2020 period, only 69 officers faced prosecution. 22 were found guilty. 4 received custodial sentences. The IOPC, an institution supposedly built for police accountability, mirrors and upholds the same violent establishment of policing we are fighting against. The IOPC does not have the desire to hold police responsible. We have several institutions, bodies and groups, created to hold the police accountable such as the IOPC, the office of Deputy Mayor for Police and Crime (DMPC), independent advisory groups and others. Yet none of these people, groups have brought, or can bring, solid change. At levels of authority where systemic changes could be addressed, like the DMPC, is there even the political will to do so? Their 'accountability' does not function even by their own standards, let alone ours.
As the United Kingdom and the USA continue to sing hymns and lullabies that justice and accountability has been served in Derek Chauvin’s trial, these institutions dance around accountability for serving police officers. There is a big difference between accountability and punishment. Chauvin’s imprisonment is punishment, not accountability. He did not accept responsibility for his wrongdoings.
So what is real justice? Those of us who believe and strive for a better society are rooted in the movement of love. Any response advocating for incarceration is a breach of that movement. We know that prisons are inherently obsolete and violent; they do more harm than good and don't fix systemic problems. We know prosecutions don't often bring about accountability because prisons are a den for every social problem to which the status quo wishes to turn a blind eye. To us, justice looks like a community free from state violence, blossoming with love, peace and freedom in her heart. She harvests beauty. In an abolitionist world, community accountability aims to intervene and respond to violence through consolidation of relationships and communities, emphasising mutual responsibility for addressing the circumstances that allow violence to occur and supporting people to take accountability for the harm they may have caused, including violence.
Centering justice and accountability in a broader sense is not merely a fantasy. Organisations are working to build and deliver holistic justice as we speak. Take the Chicago Torture Justice Centre, who respond to community members harmed by police violence and race-based trauma with comprehensive support rooted in Politicised Healing.
The organisation - built following the torture of over 120 people, predominantly African-American men, under the command of Chicago Police Department (CPD) Commander Jon Burge, between 1972-1991 - they highlight that our politics is healing, and our healing is political. In addition to their therapeutic services for individuals, they identify harmful structures and systems that are rooted in fostering and replicating trauma at individual, familial and communal levels, and that reproduce inequity. They are dedicated to naming, deconstructing, and transforming these systems as an integral part of their work.
As a society, we need to move towards a more profound conception of what accountability can and should look. By prioritising politicised healing, we can build a reparative culture. The framework of accountability through reparation has five features: acknowledgement, repair, restitution, cessation and non-repetition.
In this model, the accountability process involves the swift termination of the police officer/s who perpetrate the harm/s. They will be blocked from holding any position within the criminal legal system. More importantly, they will be accountable to the families, friends and impacted by the harm they have caused by hearing their pain - which will enable them to understand the full extent of the impact of their actions. Repair comprises compensation for those who have suffered the harm without dealing with the drawn out litigation period. The compensation will also cover any litigation costs which would hinder any further financial suffering throughout the process. Those affected will also be entitled to healing and restoration services.
This framework of accountability offers more than an individual response to systemic violence and failure. It ensures that people are entitled to an immediate end to the actions which caused the harm or death of a loved one. Communities at large will also be entitled to non-repetition of the conditions which caused hurt, pain, police violence and/ or death. This is a framework rooted in transforming lives. We do not have to subscribe to the ‘justice’ of punitive institutions who refuse to accept even the most basic accountability that they themselves define. We can build real justice defined by love for our communities.