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While mourning the life of Daunte Wright, yet another Black man killed by a Minnesota police officer, people in the Twin Cities are now waiting for a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd sparked massive, multigenerational peaceful protests, the burning and destruction of cities and neighborhoods, and citizen-led attacks against police and governmental structures, banks, and local businesses in and around the Twin Cities, helping to initiate a long-overdue 21st-century reckoning with the ugly and death-dealing reality of race and anti-Blackness in the United States. Without a doubt, hundreds of millions of people rightfully demand justice.
But what if justice is not a solution? What if instead of placing all of our eggs in the basket of the American criminal justice system, we instead lean into the deep uncertainty and groundlessness of this moment in history, energized by a society that is moving toward a fuller, more comprehensive awareness of what needs to change? Ironically, I’m finding some peace that this perpetual state of unease is impermanent and, like all things, the result of infinite causes and conditions. Buddhism offers us this insight while things are, as Pema Chӧdrӧn might say, falling apart. This, considering the long and brutal history of injustice against Black people in the United States, is a good thing.
There are three potential outcomes to Derek Chauvin’s trial. The first is that Chauvin is found not guilty, either of second-degree unintentional murder or the lesser charges of third-degree murder or second-degree manslaughter. After deliberating, the jury might find that Chauvin was well within his rights to exercise deadly force in subduing Floyd while handcuffed and in a prone position with Chauvin’s knee on his back and neck for more than nine minutes. This outcome is the most likely outcome, and one that will allow Chauvin to go on about his life. Chauvin will no doubt be hated and reviled by many, but he will be able to travel, work, and commune with people of like mind, culture, and values.
Those hurt and outraged by a not-guilty verdict will protest, organizing acts of civil unrest until their rage dissipates. People will continue to shout and chant and post slogans like Black Lives Matter! We will live life trauma-ghosted, carrying a deep and terrifying sense that another killing of an unarmed Black person can happen at any day and time. People hoping for justice will stand at the ready, like soldiers on a battlefield, waiting to be called back into the streets to protest another police killing.
Sadly, such an outcome for Chauvin aligns with the outcomes of several police officers who have killed Black men in Minnesota, including Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Philando Castile, a 28-year-old St. Paul native who was my first cousin’s first cousin. Or Jamar Clark, who at 24 was shot and killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Dustin Schwarze. No charges were filed against Schwarze nor another responding officer, Mark Ringgenberg, with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman deciding against filing charges against the officers, even though bystanders say Clark was shot in the head while handcuffed. No charges in spite of the thousands of protestors, including me, my children, and neighbors occupying the 4th Precinct in North Minneapolis for several weeks demanding justice.
A second potential outcome is a “hung jury”—which means the jury will not be able to reach a verdict. In this situation, Chauvin will be released and able to resume his life; millions will organize and pressure for a retrial, which may or may not occur, and the nation will be left with a deep and pervading sense of unfinished business. We will hold our breath and clench our jaws and often live our lives tight with repressed rage. Underlying this vicarious sense of incompleteness, feelings of resentment and deep mistrust will simmer just below the boiling point until these emotions explode with yet another police shooting, and police officers will retain their right to use deadly force.
The third outcome is that Chauvin is found guilty, and be sentenced to up to 40 years in state prison if he’s convicted of the maximum charge against him (second-degree murder). And, like other police officers who have killed Black people, he’s likely to be released early.
In this case, George Floyd’s family and friends may experience a bit of peace commingled with grief, and perhaps some small, yet well-earned sense of relief. Protesters and organizers will feel vindicated that their protests and their convictions were meaningful and worthwhile, finding a renewed sense of faith in the legal system and continuing to struggle for what they believe is right. Communities, businesses, and neighborhoods will rebuild and many will feel the economic hardship and devastation was worth it. A horrifying page in history can now be turned. Many will believe that justice has been served and progress made.
But in this last scenario—the best of all of the possible scenarios—the racial status quo will still be upheld. Police officers will still reserve the right to use deadly force to arrest, detain, or retaliate against those suspected of any crime—which means just about anyone and especially people who have dark skin. Black people like me.
It is for this reason that I experience a deep sense of hopelessness when it comes to the trials of police officers who have used lethal force against unarmed Black people. These laws that govern police behavior emerge from a society that makes it permissible for armed men to take the lives of Black people who make them feel threatened.
But even more specifically, they run against the first precept of Buddhism: “I undertake the training to refrain from harming any living being.” Until we as a society begin to deeply embrace and practice the spirit of non-harming and non-killing, Black people like Daunte Wright, Jamar Clark, George Floyd, and many others who are killed in and across this country will continue to die needlessly. People march for charges and convictions and rights. People march for Black life. But who marches for the principle of non-harming and non-killing?
I have no hope and truly no significant emotional, political, or spiritual investment in the outcome of Chauvin’s trial. Only when there are laws passed with more, dare I say, peace-full and nonviolent sensibilities that make it unlawful for a police officer or anyone else, for that matter, kill another living being, will things change. (What if our law enforcement officers dispensed with “policing” humans and were encouraged instead to study and practice Thich Nhat Hanh’s elaboration on the first precept in his commentary on the Five Mindfulness Trainings of the Buddha: “I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life.”) In other words, there needs to be an all-encompassing cultural shift that is reflected in our laws and culture that makes it inexcusable for a human being to take the life of another human being. Only then will we see a dramatic decline in the killing of Black people, and specifically Black men. Collectively coming to such a determination, however, will take a very long time.
This moment provides a challenge for all of us who aspire toward a deeper sense of justice than the outcome of any individual trial. I understand that may not happen in my lifetime or my children’s lifetimes. Still, my faith in the impermanence of this moment gives me the confidence that an era of peace and nonviolence will surely one day be upon us. This insight gives me great peace.
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