A month ago, on October 27, 2021, Daunte Wright’s family celebrated what would have been his 21st birthday. Wright wasn’t at that event because, seven months before police officer Kim Potter shot and killed him in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, just ten miles from the scene of the murder of George Floyd. Wright was a Black man and a father. He was shot dead during a traffic stop by Potter, who allegedly mistook her gun for a taser. Two days after killing Wright, amid protests, Potter resigned from the force. She was far from an inexperienced cop to make such a mistake. She was the union president of the Brooklyn Center Police Officers’ Association and had been on the force for 25 years.
After Wright’s murder, law enforcement spared no effort in brutally cracking down on protesters and guarding big businesses in Brooklyn Center. Currently, as jury selection for Potter’s trial is underway, activists and community members are holding demonstrations outside the Hennepin County Government Center to demand that Potter be convicted.
Potter was initially charged with only second-degree manslaughter. She was charged in Washington County rather than in Hennepin County, where she killed Wright. This was in accordance with an agreement between the metro area county attorneys whereby they will not prosecute or review cases involving use of deadly force by cops in their own jurisdictions. The official reason for this agreement is to “avoid any appearance of conflict of interest when handling such cases.” But this agreement allows for a use-of-force case to be handled by a prosecutor from an outside county who is not accountable to the victims and community members affected by the incident. Additionally, the difference in the demographic makeup and politics of the county where the case is being prosecuted can completely change the perception of the use of force incident. In Washington County only 5 percent of the population is Black compared to Hennepin County, where 13.8 percent of the population is Black.
The second-degree manslaughter charge sparked outrage among many people, who demanded that Potter be charged with murder. Activists protested for days outside Washington County attorney Pete Orput’s home in Stillwater, Minnesota. These demonstrations did not sit well with some of the residents in the town of Stillwater, some of whom confronted the protestors. A driver got into a scuffle with protesters on the streets. On one occasion Orput himself emerged from his home and argued with the activists, who called him out for being too lenient in charging Potter. On another occasion, during an activist-led church service outside Orput’s home, a white couple were filmed calling the activists the N-word.
The case was eventually handed back to Hennepin County. Imran Ali, the lead prosecutor and assistant county attorney in Washington County, resigned from his job altogether, citing “too many outside influences” and “intimidation” from activists as well as from the Wright family’s attorneys. Ali is now serving as the director of law enforcement education and training for a law firm in Stillwater.
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As a result of the mobilizations, the case is now being prosecuted by the office of Attorney General Keith Ellison, who has added a first-degree manslaughter charge. Before becoming Minnesota’s attorney general, Ellison was seen by many as a great progressive hope for the Democratic Party, running an insurgent campaign for chair of the DNC and being the only sitting member of congress to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2016. Now, five years later, a few elections and an abuse scandal later, Ellison has emerged as a key defender of the state’s criminal “justice” system, arguing that the courts will handle police brutality and that protests are unneeded. Such is the fate of progressive Democrats who talk a big game and then end up carrying water for the bourgeois state.
After the protests against Wright’s murder, the Brooklyn Center City Council approved a resolution mandating that medical and mental-health professionals, rather than cops, will respond to medical and mental-health emergencies. The resolution also called for unarmed civilians to respond to nonmoving traffic violations, as well as for oversight and regulation over police use of force. Over half a year later, the resolution still hasn’t been implemented. As for the failed proposal to dismantle the Minneapolis police department, it remains to be seen what effect this will have on policing in Brooklyn Center. The same goes for Jacob Frey’s winning a second term as mayor.
During the jury selection, prospective jurors are being asked questions to ascertain “impartiality.” These questions are similar to the those posed to prospective jurors in the Chauvin trial, including questions about participation in protests, ties to law enforcement, and perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The concept of impartiality, for both judges and juries, is a myth in a racist capitalist system, in which there can be no justice. Recently we saw Judge Bruce Schroeder openly show his affinity for white vigilante murderer Kyle Rittenhouse. Often people speculate that the lack of diversity in a jury, as in the mostly white juries in the Rittenhouse and Arbery cases, has an impact on the ruling. But it is ultimately not so much the prejudices of individual judges and jurors that lets racist murderers walk free. The cause lies, rather, with this country’s laws, which are designed to privilege property over human life and to protect the rights of property owners, who historically have been white men.
Potter’s attorneys are planning to argue that her murder of Wright was an accident. They are even planning on bringing in a forensic psychologist to testify that a “slips and capture” error caused Potter to accidentally discharge her gun while thinking that she was using her taser.
Apparently, “mistaking” a gun for taser in high-stress situations is a known problem in the law enforcement world. Cops are typically supposed to keep their guns on their dominant side and their tasers on their nondominant side. This is a recipe for disaster. It allows trigger-happy cops access to a convenient method of killing Black people. Black people are already more than twice as likely to be killed by cops compared to people of other ethnicities. The slips-and-capture defense provides an easy way out for cops to evade responsibility for senselessly killing Black people.
The verdicts in the Chauvin, Rittenhouse, and Arbery trials show how hard it is to get any semblance of justice in a racist system that is built to work against us. We got a guilty verdict for Chauvin, but a few months later a proposal to replace the police department was defeated at the ballot and the pro-police mayor won a second term. Rittenhouse was allowed to walk, but Arbery’s killers were convicted. The jury found that it was perfectly legal for then 17-year-old Rittenhouse to shoot three people and kill two of them because he claimed that he feared for his life in a dangerous situation. It was a situation that he made dangerous by showing up (to protect private property) with an assault rifle. On the other hand, it took 74 days and a change of two corrupt prosecuting attorneys to even bring about charges against Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan in the racist murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Georgia repealed its citizen’s arrest laws after Arbery’s murder but also enacted racist voting laws to maintain power.
When its rule is threatened and when it sees no other way out, the ruling class occasionally gives us concessions in order to maintain the social order. But it also uses methods such as repression and co-optation to offset any social progress that threatens their profit margins. It was the tireless efforts of activists and community members that helped secure a first-degree manslaughter charge for Potter and helped allow the media inside the courtroom. Regardless of this trial’s outcome, we should not allow this energy to be funneled into the capitalist Democratic Party or their nonprofit front groups. These institutions are not reformable. They sink social movements and ultimately uphold the pro-police racist capitalist system that killed Daunte Wright and others like him. To win justice, we should organize against all forms of oppression and exploitation, not just in the streets but also in our communities and workplaces.