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Robin D.G. Kelley on Derek Chauvin Murder Trial, Reparations in Evanston & Cornel West Tenure Fight

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As opening statements begin in Minneapolis for the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, we speak with UCLA historian and author Robin D.G. Kelley, who says a guilty verdict alone would not represent justice for George Floyd. “The real victory would be to end policing as we know it, to end qualified immunity, to end the conditions that enabled Derek Chauvin to take George Floyd’s life and his colleagues to kind of stand there and watch,” says Kelley.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kelley, I wanted to move on to a couple of other subjects before we end today. I want to turn to the opening statements beginning today in Minneapolis for the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd last May by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes. Floyd’s death set off a worldwide protest movement. Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder, as well as manslaughter, the jury made up of one Black woman, three Black men, three white men, six white women, and two women who identify as multiracial. George Floyd’s family and friends came together yesterday for a vigil in Minneapolis. This is one of Floyd’s brothers, Terrence Floyd.

TERRENCE FLOYD: We’re asking the system for the justice. But this gathering we’re doing right now is what’s needed. We’re going to take not one knee, but both knees. Get down. And we’re going to ask God for the justice, because our justice can’t compare to his.

AMY GOODMAN: Still with us, UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley. Can you respond to what’s happening today in Minneapolis to this trial?

ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Sure. First, I’m not really holding my breath over whether or not Derek Chauvin will be convicted. I mean, the jury selection is pretty extraordinary. I mean, given the history of jury selection in this country, it’s great that it’s a little bit more representative.

But there are two important things to keep in mind. One is that the fact that the city has already provided a settlement to the Floyd family suggests some effort at accountability, but this trial is not so much about accountability. It’s about whether or not the killing reaches a threshold of second-degree murder. But, you know, I’m not — I have to say, I’m not excited about anyone being in a cage, even if you’re a killer. That, to me, is not the victory. The real victory — the real victory would be to end policing as we know it, to end qualified immunity, to end the conditions that enabled Derek Chauvin to take George Floyd’s life and his colleagues to kind of stand there and watch, and to really divest from the kind of death-dealing systems like policing, and invest in life-sustaining policies and institutions that make us safe. I mean, that, to me, that hasn’t been lost. And that’s what that struggle was about in the first place. And to me, that’s what can vindicate, if vindication is even possible, the murder of George Floyd.

AMY GOODMAN: And I also wanted to ask you about this historic moment in Evanston, Illinois, historic for the whole country. The City Council has agreed to pay Black residents reparations for historic housing discrimination, making it the first U.S. city to adopt such a measure. We talked to Evanston City Councilmember Robin Rue Simmons Friday about this vote.

COUNCILMEMBER ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: What we passed, actually, was in 2019, a resolution to provide reparations to Black Evanston residents. We passed it with funding from our cannabis sales tax, with an initial commitment of $10 million. And what we passed on this last Monday was the first disbursement or the first remedy, which is going to be in the form of a housing remedy, $25,000 direct benefit to eligible Black residents for home equity, home wealth, acquisition or purchase, any type of improvement, but something that will build wealth through home equity.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kelley, your response to what’s taken place? And do you see this as a grassroots approach to dealing with this from the bottom up, considering federally it has not been dealt with?

ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Exactly, yeah. I mean, I think it’s historic. And we’re seeing the same thing happening — beginning to happen in places like Vermont and elsewhere across the country. Ten million dollars is a good start. And I get the idea, which is that part of what this reparations campaign is trying to do is address the wealth gap, especially around real estate. But I have to say, I’m a little bit — I’m concerned sometimes, because, one, when you pay out — when reparations are paid, sometimes that shuts down all conversations about other kinds of inequalities that are produced by historic racism.

And we have to ask ourselves really hard questions, like, for example: What does it mean to secure Black property ownership as reparations on stolen land? How does that change kind of racialized property values? I mean, if the property values in Black communities are still lower, how do you address that? Even if you can provide people startup money to put down on a home, how do we address the reasons why Black people are poorer and go to inferior schools? How do we disentangle, say, property values and property taxes from school expenditures or school budgets, like how we actually fund schools?

And then we have the wealth gap. We also have the wage gap. And part of what I’m going to talk — I have this conversation with Reverend William Barber this afternoon at 3:00 about the Amazon workers, but it’s also about, you know: How do we address these kinds of gaps, even through multiracial, working-class organizing? Because my question, of course, is: Will reparations ensure not just equality, but the dismantling of the kind of racialized structures that devalued our lives, our experiences, our property, our wages in the first place? I mean, and this is something that is really important, because racialized wage differentials are also compounded by gender. How are we going to address that, that women make, women of color make, Black women make less money? How do we deal with other kinds of violences, sexual violence, for example, reproductive violence? You know, that goes way beyond the loss of property. Now, so, I’m not saying I’m against it. I’m just simply saying, as we move forward, this is just the beginning, an opening for a larger question.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Kelley, before we end, I wanted to ask you about the piece you wrote in the Boston Review headlined “Why Cornel West’s Tenure Fight Matters_. Earlier this month, Cornel West announced he’s leaving Harvard to rejoin Union Theological Seminary, after he was denied tenure at Harvard. In this last 40 seconds we have, explain.

ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Right, right. Very quickly, I think Dr. West shows enormous integrity by making the decision to leave Harvard to go to Union — go back to Union, in many ways. Why do I say that? Because he could have stayed at Harvard. I mean, the chances of him being fired are pretty slim. And he understands that. He was making a larger statement about what tenure is supposed to represent. That is, the protection of our intellectual and academic freedom. And there’s a relationship between the story you told about Bandy Lee, for example, with Cornel West, that if we can’t speak out, if we can’t do our work and make controversial stands —

AMY GOODMAN: Three seconds.

ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: — and not be protected, then we don’t need tenure.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history at UCLA, studies social movements. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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