Ponder: Lamenting “Guilty”

I can’t celebrate. I can’t find peace in Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict because I am never happy to see anyone go to prison. Prison is a horrible place. Yes, Chauvin must pay for his horrific crime, but his conviction only reminds me of the men and women—especially those I know—tortured in our prison system.

Derek Chauvin is about to face great hardship. Prisons in the United States are not designed to rehabilitate but to punish, and they offer only a handful of outcomes. It might well be that, for his own safety, Derek will need to remain in coffin-like isolation for years. Or guards will turn their backs as other inmates inhumanely punish him. Or a hate group will suck him in, never allowing him to deal with the pain he caused. Or Derek will commit suicide. How is this something to celebrate?

These grim consequences of imprisonment have been Black people’s reality for centuries, yet most of us refuse to see our nation’s prison system for the dangerous and evil establishment that it is. There is no justice in America’s prisons—only punishment, revenge, and death.

The system that funneled George Floyd into a life of poverty and drug use is the same one that shaped Derek Chauvin into an authority abusing his power—killing another human being—while fellow officers stood by. Why do we evade responsibility for this calamity? It is our system too.

Punishing Derek Chauvin is not the only answer to the loss of George Floyd’s life. While it’s easy for us to point the finger at him and cathartic to watch his conviction, we can never forget that there are thousands of Derek’s patrolling our streets every day. There are myriad George Floyds about to suffer and die by their hands. Until we address the issues that collided on May 23, 2020, we will never truly achieve a more just justice system.

George Floyd’s death opened our eyes to the racial injustices in our country; our penal system’s violence and inhumanity should do the same. Many of the recent cases in the limelight have involved Black and Latino men logically fleeing and resisting arrest. They know that law enforcement could destroy their lives in an instant, without a fair trial. George Floyd and Daunte Wright were rightly afraid.

I wish I did not care what happens to Derek Chauvin in prison, but I do. I wish I could say he deserves what’s coming to him, but I can’t. Derek and his family will never know what George Floyd experienced before and during his arrest, but they are about to get an up-close and personal look at why people of color fear imprisonment. We who uphold the penal system must not close our eyes. We have a moral obligation to consider Derek and his family and the pain they endure.

I’ve experienced trauma with the penal system that makes me lament anyone being sent to prison. Whenever I learn of a crime, my heart and mind shift to the perpetrator because I know that our punitive response will harm or even destroy that person. We are no better than the criminal when we feed our need to punish. Why don’t we focus on enabling Derek to recognize that he made a big mistake, confess, and demonstrate that he is truly sorry? Our system doesn’t allow for this. Instead, accused individuals must minimize what they have done to protect themselves from laws, policies, and practices focused on harmful retribution. 

We must transform our way of dealing with crime to shift our focus from retribution to redemptive and restorative justice. I pray for the day when I’ll be able to celebrate a guilty verdict because of good reason to believe it will lead to shalom.

14 thoughts on “Ponder: Lamenting “Guilty”

  1. Patricia Hershberger on said:

    It was the right decision but there is no joy or satisfaction. We must become aware of so much inequality. I’ve become surprised at myself.

  2. Caprice Becker on said:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I found myself wondering about Chauvin’s family, then felt guilty because I rarely think of families when I hear of others being imprisoned. Another lesson.

  3. Sandi Hostetler on said:

    Thank you, Cyneatha, for your thoughtful and honest response to the outcome of the Dereck Chauvin trial and the horrors of our prison system. I just attended the introduction to the STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) training program and was reminded again how holistic healing could happen with a focus on restorative justice rather than simply punishment. Yes, there need to be consequences for persons causing harm to others, but often those persons never have to face the ones they have harmed and both parties may not survive the long term trauma that occurred.

    • Cyneatha Millsaps on said:

      My name is Cyneatha Millsaps. I am the Executive Director of Mennonite Women and a pastor in the Mennonite Church.

  4. Paul S.Cook on said:

    Yes Cyneatha. I absolutely agree with you, and of course am well aware of your own experience. I agree that our correction system should be restorative, and that policing needs to be seriously rethought. The whole justice system needs to be rethought. I am not sure what I myself can do about this upper level structure, but it has me thinking about the experiences I had in high school. I think, for police officers like Chuavin, the structural part starts in high school, where young white men are socialized into a hyper masculine identity, where violence and aggression are seen as good and productive. The violent aggressive behavior is rewarded by society, and therefor these individuals are socialized into values and behaviors that then lead into careers in policing, guards, and other forms of enforcement. While I am not sure what meaningful impact I can have on policing, and prisons, other than not getting in the way of reforms, I am wondering how I may be able to have some intervention into this socialization of young white men in their teenage years, before they become another Derek Chauvin.

    • Cyneatha Millsaps on said:

      Paul, I have been encouraging my white brother and sisters to do just that, since Charlottesville. It was clear to me that it would take white people to engage other young white boys and girls and show them an alternative to the racial hatred and violence embedded in our systems. It is important for all of us to share, but there are places I and others who look like me can not go. People who cannot and will not hear us. I pray white allies will begin focusing their energy into showing young boys and girls that we are all equal and should be treated as such.

  5. Everett Jay Thomas on said:

    Thanks, Cynthia. I did not know you are now pastoring in Elkhart. If you’ve not already done so, you might want to share your thoughts with Corey Martin, the chaplain at the Elkhart County Criminal Justice Compound (jail). I think you would find the conversation fruitful.

  6. Marian S Hostetler on said:

    Thanks so much Cyneatha for your response to the guilty verdict. I have been waiting for someone to express some concern for Derek Chauvin and his family. I’m not downplaying BLACK LIVES MATTER, but want us as followers of Jesus to stand up and be counted as caring about our horrible penal system.

    • Cyneatha Millsaps on said:

      Marian, it’s a tightrope we all have to walk. But for me, children of God have to know that we stand for righteousness. Even if Derek Chauvin does not respond in a way to believe he should, we have to try and see the soul of the man. And praying for him and his family shows we are trying to tend to his soul. All I can think about is his mother, what is she going through… I pray God is with her.

  7. Catherine Everingham on said:

    Yes, Cyneatha, you are correct: the same system that robs the killer by putting him/her in prison is the same system that placed the victim in his path, by virtue of poverty and racism. It is not a straight nor clear path out of the tangle we have created for our brothers, so my prayer is that we look for every chance we can find to make little corrections, at least, and big changes, if we can.

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