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You Can’t Reform This

Daunte Wright's killing shows that true justice will only come from abolition.

Minnesota state troopers holding clubs, lined up as a wall of police in Brooklyn Center amid a second night of protests against Daunte Wright's murder
Screenshot via USA Today/YouTube

On Sunday, a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. The officer has been identified as Kim Potter.

On the day after Potter killed Wright, the murder trial continued for Derek Chauvin ten miles away. Eric Nelson, the defense attorney for the former Minneapolis cop who killed George Floyd, requested to sequester and re-interview the jury in light of Wright’s death and the protests that ensued, but the judge denied the request.

Chauvin’s prosecution has been hailed as a rare moment of accountability. The state, and the Minneapolis police themselves, have hammered home the message: this was an out-of-control cop, this is not who we are, this is not how we do things. Chauvin, in other words, was a really bad apple.

The fact that this was a very self-serving portrait for the state to put forward did not make the total abandonment of Chauvin any less striking. But Wright’s killing is a chilling reminder of how hollow this message really is. In the end, try as the cops and the prosecutors might, it’s not about one bad apple. It’s about a system that is rotten to the core.

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Potter herself is evidence of that. She is a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center police force. She has served as president of her police union. And, according to the Star Tribune, she has a history of helping to cover up police misconduct:

In a previous fatal shooting of a man in the Minneapolis suburb in August 2019, Potter was among the first to arrive at the scene where Kobe Dimock-Heisler died after he allegedly rushed at officers with a knife inside a home.

Potter instructed the two officers involved to “exit the residence, get into separate squad cars, turn off their body worn cameras, and to not talk to each other,” according to an investigative report from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. Both officers’ actions were found to be justified, and no charges were filed.

Now, Potter has shot and killed a young Black man over the heinous crime of having some minor traffic violations and an air freshener in his rearview mirror. Her boss, Brooklyn Center police chief Tim Gannon, has explained her behavior away by saying that she meant to fire her taser instead of her gun—an outlandish error for a veteran cop to supposedly make. It seems quite possible that this explanation will help Potter evade responsibility. The system continues.

And at the same time, the protests against Potter’s killing of Wright seem to be the overwhelming focus of the press and politicians, a narrative that is far easier to grapple with than any indictment of policing. So much of the story around Wright’s arrest and murder by police has centered on the community response. And I am sure that makes sense to an extent, because this fallout — cities instituting curfews, state police lining up around the Brooklyn Center Police Department with clubs and shields in hand, and police using “less” lethal yet still lethal weapons to subdue crowds and arrest people — is rampant policing, personified.

The narrative around the understandable community mourning and backlash to another cop killing a young Black man has taken the place of space to question what allowed for a cop to kill someone during a traffic stop in the first place.

In the press, reporters have, rightfully, centered Katie Wright and her calls for justice for her son and message to protesters to be peaceful. But the context of this reporting has shown little awareness for how politicians, and mainstream media themselves, use protest violence as a distraction from larger issues around police brutality and violence.

“There is absolutely no justification — none — for looting. No justification for violence. Peaceful protest? Understandable,” President Biden said on Monday.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz made similar comments, per the Star Tribune, emphasis mine:

“For those who choose to go out … to exploit these tragedies for destruction or personal gain, you can rest assured that the largest police presence in Minnesota history in coordination will be prepared,” Walz said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

“You will be arrested. You will be charged. And there will be consequences for those actions,” the governor said.

Of course, it is far easier to fixate on the looting, the fires, the water bottle throwing, than it is to look around and acknowledge that we went through a world-wide uprising against police brutality last summer, that people demanded better of their leaders, like guarantees to health and safety and freedom from harm, and nothing has changed.

In his Monday press conference, Walz called for the state Legislature to pass “more substantive police reform legislation than a compromise bill passed in last summer’s special session,” NPR reported. “We can either come together and fix this, or we can suffer together as fools,” the piece quoted him saying.

How can you legislate this? How can you think that a more robust legislative package is supposed to stop someone like Potter — not someone who needs more training, but someone who has had years of experience being a cop, and who is intimately familiar with working with and defending police who kill people — from killing, or even violently subduing someone, during a traffic stop? What could you possibly pass to prevent this situation, or similar situations, from ever happening again?

A cop has killed again, despite all the protesting and book reading and social media awareness, and Congress and cop kneeling, and police reform bills that have pledged to develop oversight of police by giving them more money. Not even the ongoing Chauvin trial, positioned as an opportunity to hold an individual cop accountable, will ever deliver the kind of justice that will stop police from killing Black people with impunity.

I cannot speak for the people who’ve had their lives ripped apart by police killing the people in their community, the people they love. But putting Chauvin on trial for killing Floyd was never going to be enough to end police violence. It was never going to do more than defunding and abolishing police, nor create a world where people are safe and cared for, and can care for themselves, and where empowered people with guns aren’t given free rein to kill someone over something so insignificant as an air freshener or expired car registration.

Without addressing the inherent problems of police and policing, and ending all opportunities for these situations to happen by defunding and abolishing police, what happened to Daunte Wright, and George Floyd, and Philando Castile, and so many others, is bound to happen again.