I did not follow the Derek Chauvin trial closely. I was most interested in the reaction to the guilty verdict and the beginnings of overcoming the practice and fear of police brutality it represents. The verdict represents for the Black community, and for all us, an assurance about the viability fo the U.S. court system. A centerpiece of systemic racism, the fear of unaccountable police brutality, has been confronted, and a precedent set for the future.
Within the context of American history, right up the present, there has been far too little accountability for the horrendous treatment of people of color. These past several years the Black Lives Matter movement has provided the opportunity and impetus for in-depth exposure, especially for the White community, to the immense cruelty and injustices heaped upon generations of African-Americans following the legacy of slavery. Like many of you, I have been surprised how little I really knew. Before the current surge of information and demands for accountability, I thought I knew something about racism from films about the whips and iron arm and leg cuffs; I knew a little about the lynchings but preferred to avoid the photos and the feelings associated with them; I hadn’t really taken in, however, what it means to reduce people to chattel property to be bought and sold and used as disposable property no better - and sometimes worse - that animals and machinery; I knew something about “white only” exclusion on “white only” signs but they didn’t mean much personally; I knew quite well the disproportionality of imprisonment of Blacks and the dispossessing stigma and added punishment for being a “felon:” disenfranchisement, loss of access to state and federal safety net benefits, inability to find work, among others; I knew only a little about racial profiling and police brutality; I increasingly knew racism would eventually require a wrenching reckoning; and I knew I was in many ways part of the problem and would need to try to be part of the solution.
What I really didn’t know, however, is how all these realities feel while living within a black skin. My White male privileges did not really allow me to know the daily fear of sudden, unprovoked harm or even death, at the hands of a policeman that was supposed to be protecting and supporting me. And, of course, I still don’t know the reality of “being Black” and living with an endless wariness and weariness about the need to deal with prejudice and potential harm, even if the Black person were successful and presumed to be “safely mainstreamed.”
What I have heard from the voices of Black writers and speakers now, however, is a compelling and timely need for a Black person to be seen, to be heard, to be reckoned with, to be provided the Constitutional protections and rights available to all citizens. The Chauvin guilty verdict has now provided recognition that justice and accountability were possible. The trial does not signal further accountability for the cruel subjugation of slavery, for lynchings, for the failure to provide political agency through fair voting practices, for all the police brutality that was tolerated, and for reparations for the pain and lost wages for building this nation. But the guilty verdict does declare that a precedent for a crucial part of our nation’s systemic racism, unaccountability for police brutality, has new power. And the fear of the police, although likely to persist at some level, has been successfully named, confronted and overcome. Thus we can all share in the huge outburst of relief and celebration that followed the verdict, primarily from the Black community, but importantly shared by many Whites as well. Justice was done, for many too late, but justice was done, and because of this trial the fear of the police has been checked in a celebration of release and renewed confidence that the system can be reformed.
I continue to study the writing of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. A key chapter is entitled “Fear,” and it provides a crucial analysis into the nature of a particular fear, the kind of existential fear that has shadowed Blacks for four hundred years, the fear that for no fault of one’s own, only because of the color of one’s skin, there is a constant sense of personal danger and diminishment. As a white male I have rarely if ever experienced that level of pervasive fear. (Women are more likely to experience this kind of fear for their safety than men, of course, as noted in the Me Too movement, and we all have had some intimations of the existential fear of the vulnerability of contracting Covid-19 and dying a perfunctory and lonely death). Thurman declares overcoming existential fear is the prime message in Jesus’ teaching. I cannot adequately summarize the chapter here, but it is fair to say that through the practice of creative, active nonviolence fear of the powers-that-be can and will be overcome. In spite of being “disinherited” by those who will subjugate us, we can also know we are a beloved child of God, a person of intrinsic worth, and when you have that assurance, we are less likely to fear, even the fear of death, as witnessed by MLK, Jr. and Gandhi among others. I can appreciate how important this assurance is for the “disinherited,”but I am still learning how Thurman’s analysis and insights about nonviolence can be more effectively applied to us all. And I truly believe nonviolence is the “force more powerful” as the teachings and politics of Jesus and his followers and interpreters have affirmed.
The loud cheers to relief and encouragement that followed the Chauvin guilty verdict were a response to the years of the fear of unaccountable police brutality. As has been amply noted, the trial was only the beginning of a long process of reckoning and liberation. Release from our fears will always be a continuing process. But Thurman’s wisdom about our God-given worth, plus a new-found glimmer of assurance of the fairness of the American court system, are sources of hope and gratitude that we can rely on the possibility of overcoming that special sense of fear of our unprotected vulnerability to police brutality and systemic injustice. .