A 4/20 Memoir

Today, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. I was asked to give a reporter a quote. I said,

“Last summer’s protests made justice possible for George Floyd, only to recall how Dion Johnson, Breanna Taylor and Trayvon Martin never received the same grace… In many ways this verdict is the exception that proves the rule. It took thousands of protests to get one conviction, but if what happened to Floyd was a criminal act, then law enforcement continues to protect criminals in their ranks without accountability or apology. Hopefully, this verdict lays the legal framework for a more just and peaceful future between the American people and the police officers sworn to protect us.”

It freaked me out to read that in print. I started thinking about what it meant.

When I was a child, there was the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) camps at our elementary school… which was different from D.A.R.E (which was about drugs… not gangs). Basically, they told us gangs were bad, and that people joined them because they didn’t care about their family, and basically discouraged us from joining any gangs. Meanwhile, when I moved to my unified school district, there was a blanket dress code designed to prevent gang apparel from appearing on campus. No backwards hats, no wave caps, nothing that was associated (in their mind) with gang culture. Now, this was traumatic for me, because it represented an erasure of my cultural practices. But during this period, gangs were seen as a public crisis, and Black students did not organize to protest these restrictions.

But lo and behold, when I get to middle school, I come to find that there are two “gangs” in my eighth grade class. The Pinecones and the Honeycombs… something like that. Lord knows they weren’t taking it seriously – except some of my classmates really did have family affiliated with gangs. I didn’t know this back then, but when one of my friends joined their fun, I looked at him horrified, like, “But don’t you love your family?” Because, I had G.R.E.A.T. in my elementary school district, which was transitioning to serving communities of color, while we had D.A.R.E. in my predominately-white unified district. We talked a lot about drugs, but very little about gangs, and the values that had been jammed down my little throat were no where to be found among my white counterparts. They missed out on that indoctrination.

I thought about the murder of Star Johnson. He was a Black officer killed in the line of duty, back in the forties, when he was murdered by a white officer. These articles by Jon Talton do a wonderful job of explaining, but essentially, Johnson was killed while writing a traffic ticket to an off-duty detective. “Frenchy” Navarre claimed that he shot Johnson after the beat officer cursed him and started to pull his revolver, and his daughter would later allege Johnson had been hired to murder her father. Still, this death had to go before a jury trial, because Navarre shot Johnson five times downtown during lunch hour, and the prosecution was able to produce eight witnesses to support a guilty verdict. Talton finds that these witnesses faced threats and intimidation on their way to trial, and since several of them were people of color, their assertions broke a white supremacist taboo. African-Americans could not testify in court against white defendants in much of the United States, and due to this civil inequality, often failed to gain convictions when killed by white perpetrators. True to form, Navarre was acquitted and returned to his job at the police department.

From here, however, history moves forward. When Navarre returns to work, he is killed by Joe Davis, who had been Johnson’s beat partner. Upon shooting Navarre, Davis holed up in the city jail and refused surrender to anyone other than the Police Chief. Talton claims that Davis openly shared his plan to murder Navarre if “the courts” didn’t deliver the correct verdict. Many of the downtown merchants felt sympathetic toward Davis, as he allegedly argued that he shot Frenchy in self-defense, but he was eventually convicted of manslaughter. Talton finds that these actions reflected complaints arising from nearby Black soldiers after a racial uprising against alleged police brutality two years prior.

But, pertinent to our time, the Navarre estate argues that this was little more than a cartel dispute. But the ambiguity that arises out of this claim lays clear how law enforcement served as a haven for white criminality. Navarre either was murdered due to a hit put out by organized crime, or he got away with killing a black officer in a community already reeling from a racial uprising. These contradictory truths both suggest that our police forces were corrupted. Why would we believe that a similar conundrum could not be at play today?

Moreover, there is ample evidence that law enforcement has been providing cover for illicit and illegal activities. There is sufficient evidence out here that corruption widespread without casting blame on a single officer or department. We are facing a systemic conundrum – how do we trust that there are “good” cops when we see officers escape punishment under a judicial system that has shown rank indifference toward the value of Black life. This is a critical crisis of confidence and allows for more grandiose speculation to occur.

So, when I think of the officer who killed Dion Johnson, with multiple use of force allegations yet never having to face the public that claims abuse, it leads me to conclude that there must be more criminals within law enforcement. Not even because we have evidence of organized activities, but because we have evidence of a willful disregard for humanity that – when unchecked – proves ripe for criminal infiltration. Moreover, as we saw with the Chauvin trial, it is possible for a jury to decide that an officer commits a violent crime against civilians, which few officers have had to face dur to protection by their peers. While convictions are rare, we are seeing how law enforcement – while well trained – make anodyne mistakes like many civilians. But the protection of this entire class from similar scrutiny faced by civilians during these encounters creates a power disparity that can monetize violence. Our law enforcement is so powerful that they inspire fear due to their ability to elude justice. That is the exact reputation necessary a successful criminal syndicate.

When I have to engage with law enforcement, I put my hands up and state that I am unarmed. I usually am unarmed when dealing with law enforcement. I want all of us to make it out of that encounter safely. I do not think that they are planning me harm… I’d like to believe people I encounter do not practice that type of evil… but my safety is not guaranteed in these interactions. In a moment, a spark, a flash, a bang, and it becomes his word against mine. What Navarre believed, and his trial shows, is that white officers were not held accountable for police violence that targeted communities of color. The testimony of an officer carried more weight than any other witness, and as the conviction of Davis showed, this status conferred white officers with privileges that black officers did not have. This continues into our time, as shown by whistleblower cases where Black officers are expelled from the force for confronting internal corruption, and reflects a systemic bias that could – possibly – be unintentional but is better explained as good ol’ fashioned white supremacy. This system sustains power inequalities that breed corruption, and civilians have not been able to decide if much of this behavior is criminal or not.

So, I don’t think that I’m off in my assessment. If anything, I would want to hear from Black officers about what we, as civilians, can do to help root out corruption in law enforcement. We need a way to determine who the good cops are at this point, and one way of doing that is by removing bad cops from the force, and determining “bad” on the basis of community input. If officers are to serve our community, we can’t live in fear of them, because distrust creates too many opportunities for exploitation and abuse, so we need officers to promote peace (not compliance) when engaging with civilian populations. That requires a radically different approach to policing – one that reduces violent outcomes during casual encounters between civilians and law enforcement. But, lacking this mechanism, we live in a system where many civilians are terrified of the people sworn to protect them. The onus for change is not on the part of the citizen, but instead, it is on our law enforcement agencies to expel agents that do not equitably encourage peaceful resolutions between civilians and the state.

Our children deserve a more just and equitable world that the one we have inherited. I hope that we can reconsider how violence operates in our society.