I'm an incarcerated person. I know for a fact that Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict isn't 'accountability,' it's just punishment

  • When Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, many people heralded the concept of “accountability.”
  • As an incarcerated person who has strived to better myself, we need to learn the difference between accountability and simple punishment.
  • Christopher Blackwell is a writer who is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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“Accountability” is a word that’s often thrown around with little to no understanding of its true meaning and purpose. This has never been more true than with the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin and the dialogue around it.

When NBA superstar LeBron James responded to the conviction with one word, “ACCOUNTABILITY,” it got over 228,000 likes and over 30,000 retweets, it showed that people have lost touch with what accountability actually means.

Yes, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, as he should have been, but this is not accountability, this is just punishment. The criminal justice system conflates these two concepts, but we cannot follow suit.

Worth a thousands words

The false equivalency between punishment and accountability has been dished-out to society through our dysfunctional justice system. We’ve been led to believe that punishment will solve all our problems, but it won’t. What makes an arbitrary number of years spent in prison equivalent to accountability? How does that right the harm that was caused?

We need to understand what accountability actually is. When used properly, true accountability can bring growth and healing, and this is what we should all strive for when harm occurs. True accountability allows us to learn from the pain we caused and break the cycle of our harmful ways. I know, because when I was 22 years old, I took a human life during a drug robbery. This led me to receive a 38 year-long prison sentence. When I first received my sentence I thought, “I deserve this. I took a life, and now I have to pay the price.” This was what I had been taught growing up in a dysfunctional system that never had my or my community’s best interest at heart.

Years went by before I realized that being accountable for my actions had nothing to do with the prison sentence I received. Being accountable was about me doing deep personal work that would help me see I needed to own the harm I had caused, and most importantly, I had to stop making excuses for my actions and acknowledge that only I was responsible for the damage.. Of course, there are mitigating factors and circumstances that lead us to live certain lifestyles — especially criminal lifestyles — nevertheless, our actions are our own and must be acknowledged as such.

When I took an individual’s life, it didn’t matter what my intentions were — whether it was an accident or self defense or a rash moment of confusion — I had chosen to do a robbery and during that robbery I had taken a human life. I needed to be accountable for that harm. I could serve a hundred life sentences, but that wouldn’t make me accountable, nor would it do anything for those I’ve harmed.

When doing the work to hold myself accountable, I found that the extremely broken criminal justice system doesn’t offer accountability, or even a path towards it. It merely offers a conviction through the law and then warehouses those convicted. That’s it. I came to the conclusion that only I, and I alone, would be able to begin the process of holding myself accountable.

I do want to acknowledge that it’s easy, after being stepped on for a lifetime, to lose sight of the end goal and mistake a conviction through the courts as accountability. Even after all my years of training as a restorative justice facilitator in accountability, I fell victim to wanting to see Derek Chauvin suffer. When they said he would be held in solitary confinement, an evil laugh escaped my lips because I have spent countless days in there and I wanted him, a cop, to feel that isolation and pain I and others have been forced to feel. However, I quickly realized that as a prison abolitionist, this isn’t what I actually want. I don’t want to accept this broken system of justice as my own.

Over the last decade, I have committed myself to understanding accountability and how to best hold myself accountable for the harm I’ve caused. I’ve learned how to do this while also taking into account those I’ve harmed: my community, my loved ones and myself. Building these skills while facing the harm I had caused didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still working on it. I will be for the rest of my life. This was the only way to begin to atone for the life-ending harm I caused in my youth.

In Derek Chauvin’s case, accountability will only come if he does the work to hold himself accountable. As a society, we can punish him, but that’s all we can do. Accountability is his responsibility. Being held responsible by someone else is much different then being held accountable by ourselves.

As a society, we need to decide: are we looking for the kind of justice and accountability that will stop police from killing people of color in our communities, or are we just willing to buy into the broken system of so-called justice that has destroyed our communities and countless lives within them?

We cannot continue to allow these racist, over-zealous cops to continue to murder people in the streets. But we also don’t want to fall victim to believing that their version of justice is the same as ours, because in the end their policing system will always target those it was designed to oppress: impoverished communities of color like the one I grew up in. We owe them and ourselves so much more.

Christopher Blackwell, 40, is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, and is working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Jewish Currents, and many other publications. He is serving a 45-year sentence. Follow Christopher on Twitter.

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