Scapegoats vs. Systems

Hey, so, usually I assume everyone knows that this is my blog, the opinions expressed here are solely my own, &c, &c. But for this post it feels important to say explicitly: this is my personal blog. The opinions I express in this post are mine alone and do not represent my family, my employer, or any institution mentioned herein.

Content notes: discussion of the murder of George Floyd & the trial of Derek Chauvin, police brutality in general, and sexual assault

Minnesota has been in the news quite a bit lately. Most notably, for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis Police Department officer who murdered unarmed Minneapolis resident George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

This week, the trial has included several current and former MPD leaders and trainers, as well as emergency medical personnel who were on the scene, all testifying that Chauvin’s actions went against policy and procedure. The neck kneel that Chauvin used against Floyd: not taught in any official MPD training. Continuing to restrain Floyd after he stopped resisting: against MPD policy. Denying EMS access to Floyd: a big no-no.

On one level, I understand why this testimony is necessary. The laws around acceptable levels of force are so different for police in the US than they are for anyone else. In order to have even a shred of hope of conviction, prosecutors have to prove that Chauvin behaved outside of what is acceptable even for a cop.

The thing is… I had hoped, apparently naively, that Derek Chauvin’s trial could be part of the larger national conversation around police abolition or reform. That we could use it as a space to ask questions like: why is this considered murder only because Chauvin’s method was “not policy”? Why do we live in a society where one human being killing another is considered perfectly fine as long as the one doing the killing has a badge and the one getting killed has black skin? Why did Derek Chauvin, a man with eighteen complaints and two formal reprimands on his record, get to continue being a cop for so long? If we must have cops, why can’t we pay them enough that they don’t have to further risk their own and others’ safety by taking off-hours jobs as security guards?

I see how this case is shifting the narrative around police murder, at least locally. No longer “George Floyd died because he was a Black man caught in a system designed to constrain and shorten his life” but “George Floyd died because one rogue cop broke policy.”

Americans love scapegoats. We love being able to point our fingers and scream at someone else. Indignation requires little effort on our parts. We yell and wave our arms around, and when we’re done we feel kind of awful, and that’s how we “prove” that it was right, because many of us can’t tell the discomfort of Doing the Work from the discomfort of doing something we probably shouldn’t have. Also, scapegoating doesn’t implicate us. If those of us who are white in the US can point at Derek Chauvin and call him a loose cannon, or mentally ill (a scapegoating twofer that allows us to dodge our own accountability twice as much!), or “one bad apple,” then we don’t have to look at the racist core of US policing and our complicity in it.

Minnesota is also in the news lately because the state Supreme Court recently overturned a man’s rape conviction because the woman he raped had been drinking voluntarily (that is, alcohol hadn’t been forced into her by another person). Outrage across the internet was swift, furious, and often completely uninformed – the “yell first, read the article never” mentality that often plagues social media sites. In fact, for anyone who read the decision, it confirmed that what the rapist did absolutely was a crime; he had just been charged with the wrong offense due to something commonly referred to as “the intoxication loophole.” Justice Paul Thissen, who wrote the opinion, pointed directly to the intoxication loophole and called on the Minnesota State Legislature to close it.

But, again, doing the work is so much harder than getting really angry. If the problem is that SCoM is a bunch of woman-hating rape-lovers, then we (especially folks who live elsewhere) can rant and rail and wash our hands of “those rubes” in Minnesota. If we understand that the Supreme Court – any Supreme Court – can only uphold the laws as written, not change the laws to something they like better, then a weight falls on us, the constituents, to research whether our own, non-Minnesota state also has an intoxication loophole, to call and write our elected officials, to write letters to the editor, to talk to our nearest and dearest about the law, to educate the young people in our circle of influence that only yes means yes, ever.

These are just two of many examples I could’ve pointed to. They’re at the forefront of my mind because I live in the state where they’re happening. But examples are plentiful no matter where in the US we live. That’s the nature of systemic problems: wherever the system exists, the problem exists.

Not a single one of us is “a single one of us.” We exist within systems. Singling out individuals or groups within those systems as “the cause” of problems fixes nothing. Will sending Derek Chauvin to prison fix police racism and violence? Will yelling at the Minnesota Supreme Court fix rape culture? Absofreakinglutely not. It’s time for us to set aside our convenient scapegoats and get to the real work of dismantling and rebuilding broken systems.

A few things you can do:

  • Participate in the Justice for George Floyd campaign by purchasing a set of postcards to be sent to prominent figures in the trial to demand it be truly fair.
  • Follow @justiceforgeorge on Instagram to keep up with other action opportunities.
  • If you’re a Minnesotan, tell your state representative to support HF707, Representative Kelly Moller’s recently introduced bill that, among other updates to the state’s criminal sexual conduct statute, will close the intoxication loophole.
  • When you talk about these and other issues of the day with those in your life, try to keep the larger systemic issues at the center of the discussion, rather than falling prey to the siren song of an easy scapegoat.