Black Perspective: Protect and Serve — The “Us” in Justice

As Derek Chauvin’s trial regarding the death of George Floyd continues into its second week, Black people nationwide are again painfully forced to watch a process that seems rigged against them. We watched Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, get acquitted in 2013. We watched Alton Sterling’s murderers get off in 2017. We watched Michael Brown’s murderer, Darren Wilson, escape in 2015 and 2020. Now, we watch this.

This time, however, we are told it is different. It feels different. This time, “justice” may be truly served. But what does this notion of justice represent? We reject the idea that justice, in this situation, is even a possibility. After all, we cannot bring Mr. Floyd back to life — we cannot right the wrong. This impossibility shows us a gap — an inherent flaw in our justice system — between what we, the people, consider “just,” and what the arbiters of justice (police, judges, etc) consider “just.”

The discrepancy between the justice system’s notion of justice and the citizen’s notion of justice is readily apparent. So where does this discrepancy come from? 

We interpret this discrepancy to be a necessary product of the way the law functions in the U.S. The law is usually understood as a set of principles or ideals by which the order and smooth functioning of society is maintained. However, the discrepancy arises because these principles do not exist literally, but rather, only the interpretation (carried out by judges) and enforcement (carried out by police) of these ideals exist in reality. Thus, while the “law” exists as an idea for those who carry out its bidding, it exists as something wholly material for those who are subjected to it. 

Black people have always felt the sting of this discrepancy between the law’s material enforcement and its immaterial model. From the inception of the United States as a country, the principles propounded in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, simply did not apply to Black people. “We, the People” does not, and never could, include us. Therefore, Black people have always felt the weight of a society structured against their interests rather than the lofty ideals of freedom, justice and liberty.

The standard response to this criticism is that these ideals, though initially applied in a racialized manner, are not racialized in themselves, and thus can be salvaged if only we bring reality to match them. This is a horrendous response. The best (and in a sense, only) way we can understand principles and ideas is by the way in which they exist materially. It is a farce to say that things can be understood outside of their objective existence. For instance, under the standard response, how can we condemn the actions of a murderer if he purports to be a “good person”? He may say he is good, yet the true measure of his character can be defined only in his actions. 

Thus, for Black people, not only do the American ideals of justice represent something that does not exist in reality, they represent something in contradiction to reality. This discrepancy can also be shown to exist in Amherst’s very own microcosm of a justice system: the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD). The discrepancy here is between the police’s perceived view of their duty and the students’ lived experiences with the police’s enforcement of such duty. 

When put in the context of campus life, it is easy to understand the discomfort Black students feel when constantly surrounded by an overbearing, armed police presence. Almost two years ago, on April 16, 2019, two black youth were shot sixteen times by two police officers, one of whom was part of the Yale Police Department (YPD). In response, students created a group called Black Students for Disarmament at Yale (BSDY). Despite this unjust use of force against an unarmed couple who were singing along to music in their car, the Yale Police Department has refused to listen to the pleas of the students requesting the disarming and eventual abolition of the force. 

Here at Amherst, ACPD is heavily involved in student affairs. Each time a student wishes to rent a car, call a Safe Ride or even request a new dorm key, they are forced to interact with an armed entity. Sofia Guerra ’22, an Association of Amherst Students (AAS) senator for the class of 2022, organized a town hall with ACPD on March 29 in hopes of creating a dialogue between the student body and their self-proclaimed protectors. Though AAS came prepared with notes about ways the student body feels we can achieve public safety, some of which were even included in President Biddy Martin’s Anti-Racism Plan, ACPD remained inflexible and never budged from their cemented, conservative mindset. Instead of truly considering disarmament or reform, we have gotten “Coffee with Cops” and a dog. The parallels between the responses of ACPD and YPD to the disgruntlement of the students aren’t surprising either, considering that John Carter, chief of the ACPD, looked to Ronnell Higgins, chief of the YPD, for assistance in his “reimagining” of ACPD.

Despite supposedly being an institution meant to protect and serve, these police departments have blatantly ignored the requests of the citizens they’re meant to serve. In the case of Derek Chauvin, eighteen complaints were filed against him in his nineteen years of work, yet only two resulted in any form of disciplinary action. Had the complaints of those citizens been taken seriously, perhaps there would have been the opportunity for proper justice; a version of justice that George Floyd didn’t have to die to achieve. Must we wait for a tragedy like the Yale shooting or George Floyd’s murder to occur before our calls to action are taken seriously? Can we not favor preventive action over delayed reaction?