Cities across the country are in turmoil after the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. While the protests are motivated by and calling for a range of solutions to the ongoing problem of police brutality, the loudest call is for accountability in the form of criminal charges against the officers involved in Floyd’s death. Already, these calls have born fruit. The Minnesota Attorney General, Keith Ellison, who has taken over the prosecution, announced second degree (felony) murder charges against Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Mr. Floyd, and through accomplice liability, this murder charge will also apply to the three rookie officers who were present and did not stop Chauvin, their training officer. All four face 40 years in prison if convicted. Meanwhile, protesters, media pundits, and influential celebrities have turned their attention to criminal sanctions as the means for justice for Breonna Taylor, a young black woman who was killed during a botched and likely illegal no-knock raid in Louisville, Kentucky.
In some sense, the notion that a quick criminal legal response is “justice for George” makes perfect sense. For too long police officers have committed violence against poor and marginalized people of color with no consequences. Moreover, there is no “equality under law” in our criminal legal system, which imprisons black Americans at a rate far outstripping white Americans. But for those of us with the privilege and power to take a step back and think before we jump on the criminalization band wagon, it is worth considering both how limited the justice of individual accountability in the form of criminal prosecution will be, and how much police brutality is a symptom and a result of our bloated, racist, and dehumanizing prison industrial complex.