Members Only | April 21, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Maxine Waters understands why violence from an armed-agent of the state is existential
She shouldn't have said it, but she wasn't wrong, writes Issac J. Bailey.
United States Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, urged protesters to be more active and confrontational1 if former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin wasn’t convicted. She should not have said that, at least not when she said that, shortly before the jury went into deliberations. She could have waited a couple of days or not weighed in at all. At the time, though, the judge in the Chauvin trial was right when he scolded her and other elected officials. And a political slap on the wrist by the United States House of Representatives, which almost happened, wouldn’t have bothered me. Public officials have to be mindful of what they say.
That doesn’t mean, though, what she said was wrong or anything like what former President Donald Trump did leading up to and on January 6, Insurrection Day, a phony comparison too many conservatives have been making. Waters spoke for millions frustrated by a criminal “justice” system that has too infrequently delivered justice in cases like Chauvin’s despite overwhelming evidence of guilt beyond doubt.
Waters’ assessment of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial was correct, writes Editorial Board member Issac J. Bailey. The only right verdict was guilty. That’s not because of a blinkered bias. That’s not because of a fringe leftist view, nor because of a misinterpretation of the facts. It was absolutely clear.
I was pleasantly surprised when the guilty verdicts were read. I did not expect them. I have such little faith in our system I never expected a police officer to be held to account. That’s why I know what Waters said resonated with millions. It resonated with me. She did not tell a lie, did not spend weeks spreading falsehoods about what happened to George Floyd the way Trump spent his time after losing in November stoking outrage among his base over a repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory that he had somehow won. (Instead, he lost by more than 7 million votes to President Joe Biden.) She verbalized a well-documented truth about injustice in this country.
Waters’ assessment was correct, that the only right verdict in the Chauvin case was guilty. That’s not because of a blinkered bias. That’s not because of a fringe leftist view, nor because of a misinterpretation of the facts. From the moment the videos were released to the public, it was absolutely clear that Chauvin had nonchalantly murdered a man on the side of the road in broad daylight in the presence of a crowd angry and unnerved because they knew they were witnessing a murder and that Chauvin’s fellow officers were more concerned with his well being than Floyd’s.
Had our justice system not been able to convict a cop under such circumstances, it could have destroyed us. And I don’t mean any resulting unrest or rioting. I mean there would have been no hope for the system. None. It would have left us in a perilous place. What good would telling the aggrieved, the put-upon, the oppressed to rely upon supposed constitutional protections and principles such as “due process” if a cop could get away with that kind of murder? Such words would have rung hollow in their ears, hollower than they long have. An acquittal would have been devastating.
Street violence, which my family and I know all too well, unfortunately,2 can be debilitating. It can convince you to support policies, including aggressive policing, you otherwise never would. You do it out of desperation because the system is the only place you can turn, even if you know the system is broken and isn’t set up to snuff out injustice often enough. But violence from an armed-agent of the state is existential.
You have no other options other than taking justice into your own hands, yet you know that will only lead to cycles of violence. Police officers getting away with wrongdoing, especially when they cause great bodily harm or even murder someone, are a threat like no other threat. That’s why police violence is often the spark of civil unrest and riots. No matter what Waters said, had the jury said not guilty, that anger would have likely spilled into the streets. Saying so was not an attempt to intimidate the jury, no matter how many times Fox News hosts and personalities keep insisting otherwise.
From a strictly political standpoint, Waters should have held her water. Biden also unwisely weighed in before the verdicts were read, even if he, like Waters, was right on the facts and what this country faces. Asking public officials to stay out of high-profile cases while they’re ongoing is a principle we all should uphold. But the effects of police violence shouldn’t be seen solely through a political lens. The anger and frustration and pain Waters tapped into was real. If the goal is to get us to a better place, rather than simply trying to assess how the words of a politician in a heated moment might affect the next election, we must never ignore that either.
—Issac J. Bailey
Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s been published by The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Politico Magazine, Time, among many other publications. He recently released his third book, Why Didn’t We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.
Published in cooperation with Alternet.
Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He's been published by The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Politico Magazine, Time, among many other publications. He recently released his third book, Why Didn't We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.