Dr. Kaye Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
Like many of you, I counted down the moments, with both trepidation and worry, to the reading of the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. As someone who has both studied and witnessed state-sanctioned violence against the Black community, and who grew listening to my father talk about how the brutal murder of Emmett Till instilled a deep-rooted fear of white men in young Black boys throughout the South, I do not have much faith in a system that is rooted in White supremacy. As I watched Chauvin’s face as the verdict was read, his look of surprise, in many ways, mirrored my own. Given that less than 5% of police officers who commit unspeakable acts of atrocity against our communities are held responsible, I was not expecting the system to work the way it was supposed to. I watched as people cheered and cried, exhaled and hugged and I could not help but wonder what our lives would be like if police accountability for the killing of unarmed Black and Brown people was the norm and not the rare exception. I sat there after hearing the verdict, and though I wanted to exhale, I knew that I could not because this was only a small step toward moving us closer to where we need to be so that we can be safe in this country. I was reminded of something that Angela Davis once said, after the failure of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, “There is so much history of this racist violence that simply to bring one person to justice is not going to disturb the whole racist edifice.”
This past year has been challenging for the Black and Brown communities, as we have struggled with both the devastating impact of COVID-19 and the increased reality that we are still fighting to convince the world that our lives matter. We are in the middle of a syndemic, fighting to breathe, fighting to survive and fighting to find moments of peace and joy. According to Mapping Police Violence, the reality is that more than 1,000 unarmed people died due to police harm between 2013 and 2019, and about a third of them were Black. Additionally, about 17% of the Black people who died due to police harm were unarmed, a larger share than any other racial group and about 1.3 times more than the average of 13%. In 2020, between January and August, police killed at least one Black person every week, and only two states, Rhode Island and Vermont, reported no police killings.
During the trial of Derek Chauvin, approximately 75 people have been killed by the police, including 20-year-old Daunte Wright; 13-year-old Adam Toledo; and16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. Since the reading of the verdict, Andrew Brown Jr. was shot and killed, and Isaiah Brown was shot at least ten times (he is currently in critical condition). In every case, there was a rush by the police and the media to shape the narrative, to criminalize the victim and to spin a story that would justify why a routine encounter with the police would once again end with a funeral, a cry for justice and push to forgive and move on.
The American policing system, which has its roots in slave patrols and Jim Crow, is not broken. It is racist and built on white supremacy and whiteness. It is unfair. It is deeply problematic. It is designed to terrorize us and force us to submit. It is all of this and so much more, but it is not broken because it precisely does what it was designed to do. We cannot fix this system. We must break it and then build back something better. We must begin to imagine a world without police brutality and where Black and Brown people are treated with justice and equity and then work like hell to make it happen.
This is the moment where we must fight. This is the moment where we must stand. This is the moment where we must hold fast to our dreams for what this country can and should become. We add our voice to the growing chorus of organizations and individuals speaking out in support of the Chauvin verdict, but we are clear that this is not the end of our work but just (yet another) beginning. We know that pain and joy can exist in the same space. We invite you to stop and hold space with us for all of the families who have not received justice but who are, at this moment, finding some peace and perhaps some joy. “Freedom,” as Coretta Scott King reminded us, “is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” We do that by standing together, fighting together, dreaming together, mourning and grieving together, and working to dismantle a white supremacist system together.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice and the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. Portions of this statement were included in Dr. Whitehead’s NWSA President’s Statement on the Derek Chauvin Verdict.
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