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Wendy Brown on the Chauvin trial, classical liberalism, and ‘democracy of the streets’

“I want to suggest that the Chauvin trial, and the outcome, is one of those beautiful moments where, instead of people feeling powerless when they go and rally …, is actually one of those moments that change the political conscience and consciousness of part of the country.”

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin listening to Judge Peter A. Cahill read the three guilty verdicts on Tuesday afternoon.
Screen shot

The New Republic hosted a livestream panel of five very smart analysts in the aftermath of the conviction (on all counts) of Derek Chauvin after his trial for killing George Floyd. I was very struck by one of the panelists’ opening remarks, so I transcribed them.

Wendy Brown, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was reacting to one of the other panelists, said the verdict brought “a sigh of relief” but added that it was just “tiny step in the right direction.” She analyzed it in the context of a split between two historical meanings of the word “liberal,” which I found interesting and useful in understanding the difficulty of communicating across right-left lines.

Brown’s reply (any errors in the transcription are mine):

“Well, it’s a tiny step, but it’s a historic day.

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“A white cop was convicted of murdering a black man. This was a historic day. And I have lost count — somebody here might have the count — of how many white cops have gone free of these kinds of murders. What made that [verdict in the Chauvin trial] possible?

“Black Lives Matter made that possible. There’s just no question about it.

“So, on the one hand, Osita is exactly right. Our institutions are a mess. The Supreme Court is a mess. (Me: Osita Nwanevu, also a panelist, had just said so). Gerrymandering has made voting into a mess, even apart from other forms of voter suppression.

“Certainly, the filibuster and other aspects of institutional rules, norms and broken norms, have made our major political institutions for representative democracy a mess. But there is another democracy, and I want to separate it from both meanings of liberalism that Osita beautifully parsed for us.

“Liberalism comes to us from the Latin, liberales, which, as Osita said, already has two meanings packed into it. One is ‘freedom,’ but the other is ‘generosity and magnanimity.’ It was never equality. … And that was assumed, in the Latin classical world and Greek classical world, to be the qualities of a free man.

“So it has built into it … a separation of what freedom is for, from this other understanding of liberalism – equality, or expanding inclusion and so forth — and what’s important about that is that at this point those two meanings of liberalism I think have very much split between the two parties.

“The right has grabbed onto ‘freedom’ as individual rights, including rights that mostly horrify the left. Not just gun rights, and not just corporate rights, and not just the right to do and say and be anything you want, even if you do hurt somebody, which violates the original precept of liberalism, but also so-called religious liberty, which is now just being used to re-Christianize the nation, not to actually expand freedom of conscience.”

“So, there’s liberty over there and then there’s equality, sort of, animating the Democratic Party.

“But there’s another democracy, which is the democracy of the streets. And that is the democratic emergence of a people saying ‘no justice; no peace,’ saying that climate change cannot be addressed by simply tinkering with the levers of capitalism. It has to be addressed in a way that will actually transform the way we live, the way we produce, the way we extract, the way we heat our houses, the way we have our energy and our transportation grids and so forth.

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“So, I want to suggest that the Chauvin trial, and the outcome today, is one of those beautiful moments where, instead of people feeling powerless when they go and rally and chant and make demands and congregate and assemble, is actually one of those moments, like Occupy, that change the political conscience and consciousness of part of the country.

“Now, of course there’s another part, and I’m sure we’re gonna get to that. We need to talk about the 70 million Trump voters. We need to talk about what’s happening over in the papers and the news domains that some of us force ourselves to look at daily, whether its Newsmax, or Fox, or Breitbart or more extreme than that. There’s other things going on.

“But what has happened, I want to suggest, is not just that the Democratic Party is animated by a progressive vision but, in everything from the Sunrise Movement to the movement for Black Lives, to many others that we could name, an insistence on saving this world and making it both more just and more likely to have a future. And that is a different energy and a different power than the one we need to also bring to figuring out how to repair or transform our institutions.

Sorry that went on for so long,” she concluded, although I wanted to tell her it wasn’t all that long and it was full of food for more discussion.