Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general and now lead prosecutor in the case involving the death of George Floyd, is choosing his words carefully these days. He says he seeks no rush to judgment against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with the homicide. He wants the trial to be fair “to all parties.” He pleads for patience from protesters seeking a swift conviction. The trial could take months. He says he simply wants the “facts and the law” to prevail.
In other words, justice in the case will be individual. It will not be directed at a group, such as white policemen, or at a class, such as a wealthy establishment. Any punishment will be solely for an unlawful act, not a racist motive.
Inside the courtroom, Mr. Ellison will not be seeking systemic change or social justice. He merely wants, as he says, “the highest level of accountability” for Mr. Floyd’s death. Winning the case would be enough because, he says, too many other trials for alleged police brutality in the United States have not resulted in convictions.
His approach sends a message to protesters attacking police buildings or other government buildings. The justice system must judge individuals on their acts, treating them without dehumanizing stereotypes – even if they treated their victims with dehumanizing stereotypes. Black protesters who fear they or their loved ones might be the next victim of police deserve to have that message made loud and clear.
The former Democratic congressman is not against systemic reform. He seeks to diminish the power of Minneapolis’ police union. He supports a bill in Congress that would require federal officers to use force only when necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury.
In a trial, however, society does not seek broad-brush solutions but individual justice – truth-telling and accountability. The best answer to the inequality of police brutality is the practice of equal justice for all.
Law, fairly administered to each individual, is not the enemy of social justice. Rather, it ensures that individual rights remain at the heart of ending group inequities.