Berkeley Conversations discusses race, racism, policing after Chauvin verdict

Photo of Black Lives Matter protest
Brianna Luna/File
At a Berkeley Conversations event Tuesday, UC Berkeley professors discussed the impact of Derek Chauvin's verdict and the police system. The panelists focused on reform and abolition as ways to change the police system.

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In the wake of former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin being found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, four campus professors discussed the verdict’s impact and how policing should change to better support communities of color during a virtual Berkeley Conversations event Tuesday.

Titled “Thinking About Race, Racism, and Policing After the Chauvin Verdict,” the event was introduced by Raka Ray, UC Berkeley’s dean of the Division of Social Sciences, and moderated by Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. Mike Williams, a campus administrator and alumnus, spoke on the verdict’s impact as well as his racist encounters with UCPD as a Black man.

Williams also spoke about how the verdict has not lessened the anxiety he has for his son going out into the world.

“We can no longer be silent. Not as scholars, not as a university and not as human beings who care about the success and thriving of our fellow humans,” Williams said during the event. “This is a human rights issue. I do not feel my teenage son is any safer after the verdict than he was before the verdict.”

Campus professor of criminal justice law Jonathan Simon suggested that the trial may lead to a “culture change” for white jurors, who may have believed that officers were fighting on their behalf.

Campus professor of African American studies Nikki Jones noted that while George Floyd’s brother saw the verdict as a victory, the way that prosecutors framed Chauvin as a “bad apple” did little to challenge existing norms of how Black people are expected to defer to police officers or risk death.

“We understand that that individual accountability does not necessarily mean that there will be systemic reform or systemic change about how policing occurs,” said Haas distinguished chair and professor of bioethics Osagie Obasogie during the event.

The panelists discussed two primary methods of changing the existing policing system: reform and abolition. Jones described reform as making changes within the system, while abolition is transforming it altogether.

Campus professor in the School of Public Health Denise Herd said reforming the policing system will require a strengthening of public health institutions, and the police brutality seen today is caused in part by a failure of institutions to keep people fed, healthy and housed.

Simon and Obasogie said an effective way to reimagine the policing system starts with change at the local level.

Local changes allow communities to figure out what policies work better than others, and the successful reforms can be adopted by other cities, according to the panelists.

Panelists additionally discussed how investment in police will always detract from investments in other institutions. Speakers also noted how legal precedent has worsened the racism Black people face, particularly in traffic stops and police determining what constitutes reasonable force.

“There is nothing natural or normal about policing in America,” Obasogie said during the event. “The courts have allowed the system to persist and grow into the way it currently functions. … Just as this system was constructed by a series of legal decisions that allowed it, it can also be deconstructed, rethought and reimagined.”

Contact Megha Krishnan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_meghakrishnan_.