The conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd represents another inflection point—an opportunity for corrective action. In our “Land of the Free,” yet another man is in the bag and another stain is on our flag, to paraphrase the song.
“I can’t breathe” is a haunting yet revealing and fitting phrase that reflects the current state of relational policing in this era of Black Lives Matter.
But is this phrase a foreshadowing one? Will it result in the death of public trust and confidence in our institutions of government and governing and those intimately involved in these efforts?
I can’t breathe … How did we get here? Where do we go from here?
The death of George Floyd and so many others serve as perplexing and defining moments that reveal the commitment, or lack thereof, of individuals, professions, and institutions. The actions and inactions of these moments reveal what is valued. They speak, as Emerson noted, so loudly that others can’t hear what is being said. Consequently, things remain unchanged.
This current inflection point is a turning point. At this latest juncture of administrative evil and administrative racism, we have an opportunity to go in one of two directions: forwards or backwards.
The path forward is a path of temporary discomfort that can lead to progress and eventual peace. The path backward is a path that leads to pain and demise—both literally and figuratively. Going back will result in turmoil, unrest and deaths of people, our institutions, and our sense of being one nation, under God, indivisible, with justice and liberty for all.
Opportunities in the Moment
So, how did we get here? We arrived at this dystopian destination by intentional effort. Our “founders” were the original architects who envisioned and built our system, structures, and institutions.
These historical influencers are like contemporary drivers. They plugged in a desired destination into their navigation system and we have arrived. But do we like what we see, hear, experience and feel?
Recent public opinion data reveal a trend of growing discomfort to the suffocating events that have taken place. So what should we do about it? Can we deconstruct our systems, institutions, structures and supporting policies and practices and reconstruct a more just, equitable and inclusive society … to build a more perfect union?
Are there opportunities on the other side of now? When opportunities are nowhere, in actuality, opportunities are now here! They are hidden in plain sight. Same alphabets but two completely different sentences that can lead in two different directions.
This requires going beyond looking up, or engaging in research and other brainstorming activities, to looking around. We have assets within our communities that allow us to name, frame and make difficult decisions and implement those actions in a meaningful, intentional and inclusive way, with potential positive results.
We must also listen, in a very active and deliberate way to those voices that have been muted…on purpose. Many have had miserable experiences with the police and the criminal justice system, yet, their voices and their pain, have gone disregarded.
By looking around, this will allow us to look ahead to some much-needed reforms that can have an impact on policy, practice, and our current notion of leadership. We can be intentional in our efforts to collaboratively, equitably, and inclusively, co-create socially just policies and practices.
State actors and lay actors can engage to co-produce public safety, public order and community well-being, as well as evaluate those policies and practices. But this requires a different approach to leadership—courageous “followership.”
Courageous followers are leaders. These individuals orbit around the mission of the organization or institution, and not its leader. When they see or hear something that is amiss, like I can’t breathe, they not only say something, but like Buffalo, N.Y. police officer Cariol Horne, they do something—even with an understanding that their actions could cost them their careers. But what is more important is that they also understand that if they fail to act, it could cost someone their life.
The Power of Prosecutors
Prosecutors are capable of remedying the effects of administrative racism and reduce administrative harm. Prosecutors yield enormous discretion and power at various points throughout the criminal process.
Once law enforcement makes an arrest, prosecutors determine the charges to be filed, plea deal offerings, the venue to try the arrestee, and what types of crimes to prosecute. They can play a positive and restorative role in advancing racial equity and criminal justice reform.
Kim Foxx of Chicago is one of those courageous leaders, who as a prosecutor, began to transform the criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates and criminalizes people of color. During her tenure, Foxx reduced charges for low-level offenses such as retail theft, and vacated the sentences of at least 100 wrongfully convicted men.
Jose Garza is another courageous leader. As the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, and a former public defender, Garza has reimagined the priorities of keeping communities safe with an understanding that criminalizing low-level drug offenses and prosecuting non- violent offenses does not make a community safer.
These two exemplars are helping to change the criminal justice system. As courageous followers, they are leaders in the fight against administrative evil and administrative racism.
At this latest inflection point, reform is needed for the U.S. criminal justice system and the policing profession. At this juncture, individuals, professions, institutions and organizations must hear and respond to the cries of our darker brothers and sisters. Like Hughes said, we too sing America ... no longer are we going to eat in the kitchen when company comes.
At this inflection point, let’s all breathe. Let’s heed the wisdom of the African proverb that cautions us not to go the fast route by going alone, but to go far by going together. Corrective action is collective action. It requires a commitment to courageous followership by all.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Brian N. Williams is an associate professor of public policy in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, where he examines the interplay between race, policing, and public governance. He is author of “Citizen Perspectives on Community Policing: A Case Study in Athens, GA ,” and is co-author of the forthcoming “Race, Policing & Public Governance: On the Other Side of Now.”
Carmen J. Williams is a third-year law student at the University of Virginia School of Law. She is the daughter of Brian N. Williams.