The past year has been brutal for Black Americans, for whom the repeated images of deadly police-inflicted or police-assisted violence against other Black Americans has been no less traumatic as the dearth of justice or accountability that tends to follow.
But this week brought a ray of hope, at least from the US Department of Justice.
Federal prosecutors have ramped up their investigation of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whose fatal knee press to the back of George Floyd’s neck was caught on video and ignited nationwide protests last year.
According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, federal prosecutors have convened a grand jury, and witnesses have been called to investigate Chauvin’s actions in Floyd’s death as well as Chauvin’s previous conduct, including a 2017 incident where he allegedly pinned down a Black teenager with his knee in similar fashion, causing the boy to temporarily lose consciousness.
The accelerated Justice Department action is being carried out separately from, and simultaneous with, Chauvin’s state court criminal trial for second-degree murder, set to begin March 8. It is also a signal that federal civil rights enforcement is once again a priority, after years of being all but disregarded when it comes to the killing of Black Americans.
The news of the federal grand jury came during a week full of devastating reminders of the violence and lack of accountability that Black Americans know and feel and fear. New York State prosecutors announced Tuesday that no charges would be brought against police officers who handcuffed Daniel Prude, placed a mesh bag over his head, and held him down on the street until he lost consciousness — all in response to Prude’s brother calling police seeking help for Prude’s mental health distress. The police then allegedly sought to cover up the incident after Prude’s death, a week later in the hospital.
This week also marked the one-year anniversary of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black jogger whose modern-day lynching by white men in broad daylight in a residential Georgia neighborhood wasn’t disclosed to the public until a video of the incident was released by the attorney of one of his alleged killers. Arbery’s family has filed a lawsuit claiming that the men who allegedly killed him, and the local police who failed to bring charges against his alleged killers for months until after the video was released, violated his civil rights.
But it was also a week when attorney general nominee Merrick Garland finally had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In his opening remarks and answers to senators’ questions, Garland said that remedying the systemic inequities that put Black Americans at greater risk at every turn of the criminal justice system is a major reason he wants to lead the Justice Department.
“Like many, many Americans I was shocked by what I saw: videos of Black Americans being killed over the past summer,” Garland said. “That, I do think, created a moment . . . that brought attention for people who had not seen what Black Americans and other Americans in communities of color had known for decades.”
Garland called his new job, if he is confirmed, “an opportunity to make dramatic changes and really bring forth equal justice under law.”
The kind of reform needed to bring such real change will not be easy to implement, but for Garland the bar is low. He would head the department after an administration that, under former attorney general Jeff Sessions, gutted the agency’s use of consent decrees to address police misconduct and to reform departments where police abused their power.
And among the lasting public images Garland will have to erase is that of federal law enforcement officers using tear gas to clear protesters of police violence so that then-President Trump could walk through Lafayette Square as campaign video cameras rolled — with his then-attorney general, Bill Barr, at his side. This is the same Bill Barr who denied systemic racism even exists in policing.
Garland vowed to bring back the use of consent decrees to address policing abuses — though he also said that, like President Biden, he opposes defunding police. He also promised that the Civil Rights Division would give robust attention to claims of abusive policing.
The ACLU has called on Garland to do much more, including removing police from schools, ending all police involvement with people in psychiatric crises, and expanding DOJ guidance on racial profiling to national security and border patrol agents.
But above all, in his actions and leadership, Garland must earn the trust of people in communities who see police not as their protectors but as a potential threat. After a year of Black American trauma, that need couldn’t be more urgent.