“Justice” and “accountability” are often used interchangeably in public discourse these days, whether in the immediate context of the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, or in the broader context of racial justice and social justice. It would advance both discussions to distinguish between the two concepts.
Using the Chauvin murder case as an illustration, a just result for the deceased George Floyd would be if, somehow, he was restored to life. Justice would be served and society could go on to the issue of accountability for those who caused harm to Floyd in the first place. Justice for other people of color who remain alive would be a new world that does not put so many of them in constant peril.
What Is Different About George Floyd’s Death?
Yet the word “justice” is often substituted for “accountability,” perhaps to give some grander notion to the fundamental concept of holding others accountable for their harmful actions. Justice also seems to imply a certain freedom from the retribution that is often a component of the demands of those seeking accountability.
The Derek Chauvin Murder Trial
In the Chauvin case, whether “justice” is served or “accountability” is achieved rests within a singular legal proceeding. We now know that some measure of accountability has been achieved with the guilty verdict just rendered. And we know that George Floyd is still dead. So, in this context, there will be no justice for Floyd or his family and friends.
Not only did the trial itself fail to achieve justice for any of them, but the larger “system” also failed all of them and has not been significantly altered to ensure justice for others. On these broader issues, the distinction between justice and accountability may have a profound impact on the outcome of America’s racial and social conflict.
The “justice” at the heart of this discussion contemplates that which is equitable and fair and impartial. “Accountability” refers to being held responsible for one’s actions. It has nothing to do with equity or fairness, except to the extent that holding someone accountable for his/her actions may seem fairer than not doing so.
Seeking justice seems to be aspirational, a goal. The point at which justice is actually achieved never seems to arrive. Some among us think of the search as a lifelong struggle. That struggle is for me — a lawyer and a progressive — very personal but not personal in the usual sense of that word. Like almost everyone, I want to be treated fairly. Generally, I have been. And that makes me and my view of justice very different from those who believe that generally they have been treated unfairly or that they live in an inequitable or partial world.
The challenge in finding common ground rests at the juncture where my privilege meets the disadvantage and misfortune of others. My world looks pretty fair to me if I am only focused on myself. Not perfect but pretty fair. A black father living in inner-city poverty in today’s America probably doesn’t see his life in the same terms that I do mine and almost certainly questions whether society values his child’s life to the same extent that my child’s life is valued.
Now, take a look at accountability. If someone walks up to me and hits me in the face or walks up to the black guy and hits him in the face, both of us will want some measure of the same thing to happen — that the person who hit us be held accountable.
If justice is aspirational, that leaves it for accountability to act as a deterrent to reckless or harmful conduct. It is pretty clear that “justice” isn’t what America has. We have a justice system that too often administers justice unjustly and is way more suited for determining accountability if that can be done in a just manner.
By any reasoning, accountability is an indispensable component of a system of justice. If America can just start there, those who most often suffer will begin to look at the justice system as a part of government that meets a most fundamental need. Meanwhile, those who are held accountable for their actions will provide a template for the likely outcome of similar misconduct and a deterrent to that misconduct.
Are You Paying Attention?
To highlight how critical the distinction is, it is surely hard to understand how any experienced white police officer, never mind one a scant 10 miles away from where George Floyd lost his life at the hands of a white police officer, could kill an unarmed 20-year-old black man after stopping him for an expired auto registration tag. This occurred while Chauvin was facing decades in prison for the unconscionable escalation of a small-time police intervention to what a jury has now determined to be the culpable disregard for the life of another human being.
Officer Kim Potter, the white veteran police officer 10 miles away, had to be aware of what was going on in the Chauvin trial when she escalated a minor infraction to a deadly encounter. Did she not care? Did she think that she was a much smarter and better cop than Chauvin, or that her moral compass was somehow fixed somewhere differently than Chauvin’s? She shot a 20-year-old black kid at point-blank range after a traffic stop. I expect that she wishes that she had kept her weapon where it belonged and that, maybe even in memory of George Floyd, had told that young black man to go home and make sure to update his auto registration. And, oh, by the way, you missed a court date and you need to get that taken care of as well.
I don’t know if she will be held accountable, but she probably wishes she didn’t have to find out. While this was festering, the public learned that cops had killed a 13-year-old boy in Chicago and a 16-year-old boy in Maryland. Then, minutes before the announcement of the Chauvin verdict, a 16-year-old black girl in Columbus, Ohio, was shot dead by a cop. If you can’t see something terribly wrong here, you aren’t paying attention.
The core of the problem is the justice part of the equation. Unfortunately, the justice system is working exactly as it was designed to work. Way too many police officers seem to believe that America’s justice system will protect them from accountability because that is how it is designed and how it has generally operated. It seems that the only accountability they fear is rejection by fellow officers operating within the same entitled system. Rarely do cops believe that another cop has gone too far.
Is Justice Possible?
In Chauvin’s case, fellow officers testified against him, some apparently believing that his actions were beyond what they could countenance. But what Chauvin’s trial did not include was any evidence about the seemingly lengthy record of official misconduct allegations against him. If he is a “bad apple” now, why did it take the agonizing video of George Floyd begging for his life for the supposed “good apples” to finally step forward?
And more importantly, where are the good apples now that the Chauvin trial is over? Will we see them in other trials? Will we see them stand up publicly against the bad apples in their midst? Will they become vocal and visible advocates for serious gun control so that every cop on the street isn’t running around so fearful in the moment that whatever judgment and compassion they may have fails to engage?
I know what the answers to these questions have been. I know there can be no justice if the justice system remains unjust. And I know that accountability is the only path to a systemic transformation that will begin to look like equal justice for all.
*[A version of this article was co-published on the author’s blog, Hard Left Turn.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.