Winner: The Derek Chauvin Defund Challenge
My lord, what a mistake. What a terribly misconceived idea. Horribly timed, inspired by short-term frustration and a genuine, frustrated desire to understand, offered with no consideration of the logistics…. A major undertaking launched on a pure whim, with money attached, meaning that I had a duty to take it seriously and really evaluate the various entries. Here’s some issues that immediately became clear with the (paid!) challenge I issued:
I was in the middle of buying a house and knew I would be moving in about six weeks.
I knew I had a book coming out in a few months and would be running around all over the place doing promo.
Unlike the annual book review contest (which yes, is happening this fall!), I did not restrict this contest to subscribers, dramaaaaatically expanding the number of submissions.
Despite so much experience of what a huge pain in the ass it is to search through emails in this sort of context, I did not set up some sort of Dropbox submission system to make my life easier. (Which is also something that will be happening this fall.)
Because I didn’t indicate that the submissions should be included as an attachment, and the required word count was only 250-500 words, many people simply wrote their submissions into their emails, while many others included attachments, denying me one simply way to organize and search through the various emails.
Several people submitted their entries via Google Drive which were accessible for my first read-through, but which had their authorization somehow revoked (I’m guessing automatically) later on, so that for the ones that I had marked to reread as possible contenders I would have to ask to restore authorization, another annoying administrative step.
There was no plausible way this contest would drive subscriptions.
I planned, and plan I guess, to run a big data-driven piece about the responses, coding and tagging and quantifying the kinds of responses that I got; in part, I intend(ed) to show how deeply contradictory much decarceral sentiment is. But it turns out that making tags and tagging and deciding on which categories different entries fell into was an immense wormhole and I fell into it for hours at a time without actually getting anywhere.
I still would like to do a big data-driven look at these someday, and maybe I will next year. For now, a few responses to some commonalities.
To the many of you who answered that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd before we would have instituted any de-carceral, de-policing reform, meaning that he would not have been eligible to be treated under that system… congratulations, that’s very clever. But it doesn’t help explore these issues, which was the whole point of putting money on the line.
Many of you gave pretty strong or very strong analyses of the superiority and viability of a de-carcerated state in general, but included some version of “I’m not going to get into Derek Chauvin’s situation specifically, but….” But that was the explicit assignment, guys!
There were some joke answers, some of which were amusing. There were also people who seemed to be checking to see if I would actually open their attachments; I did, and congratulations, you lost the contest.
I did not disqualify professional writers from winning this challenge, but I did ultimately give them a pretty big handicap. As you can imagine, a number of the writers who participated sent in strong entries. But I wanted to put a premium on amateur engagement. Still, I was willing to choose a response from a professional writer and considered several as finalists.
A lot of people broke the length maximum, which I said would be strictly enforced, and had to be disqualified. It was really a bummer to be reading an entry, digging it, then start to think “this feels too long…” and then confirm that when I did the word count check. Follow the directions, guys!
A preference that emerged in the process of reading these was for responses that were paragraph-based and essayistic, as opposed to bullet points, numbered lists, or similar. Again, using a list format wasn’t disqualifying, but I did develop implicit scoring criteria that favored conventionally written arguments; I just found them consistently more readable and articulate.
There were a surprising number of answers that insisted that defunding the police and dismantling the prisons was a moral necessity, but which also somehow devised a scenario where Chauvin ended up imprisoned anyway. Some of these were more compelling, some worse, but it was an interesting dynamic. I didn’t end up thinking that any of them were fully compelling as examples of decarceral politics, though.
The very cool thing about this contest is that people could take it in so many directions. The very difficult thing about judging it is that they did - there was such a remarkable breadth of approaches that it became very hard to know how to rank one entry above another. The move and my new book were the biggest reason I’m announcing the winner almost four months after I announced the contest. But another really big reason is because it was hard to know whether to prefer, for example, a remarkably practical answer over a more thoughtful and imaginative answer, or whether to value writing ability over sticking closely to the actual question at hand. In the beginning of this selection process, I was strongly predisposed against entries that had any kind of a thought experiment/sci-fi/satirical bent, as a fair number did. And yet I ended up considering several like that as very real contenders - a piece about making society one big Skinner box, for example, as a means to end crime “without coercion,” which was one of a number of responses that were subtly satirical or dystopian. But ultimately I went with an answer that I think is superficially simple but which reflects on the specific question, offers a solution that does not require any truly unlikely changes to human life, results in real rehabilitation while forcing Chauvin to make amends, and entails a degree of prevention and preemption of future crimes without any formal carceral systems. And after reading so many answers that were (enjoyably and generatively) complex or challenging or clever or based on fantasy, I found this entry refreshing in its straightforward and uncomplicated approach to the prompt.
So congrats to Contra LED Taxes!
Once Derek Chauvin has been found guilty in a court of law, he is sentenced to a term of community service of a length and type appropriate to the severity of his crime. (So in this case, a lot. Life?) That community service is overseen by agents of the court; I’m thinking more like lawyers or clerks, less like armed bailiffs. Those agents are not charged with forcing him to stick to the community service, but rather just observing whether he does so.
If he forfeits on his community service, as determined by the courts, then he will be considered an “outlaw” - meaning, specifically, someone not protected by the law. Anything done to him that would ordinarily constitute a crime no longer does. No police are necessary; if he refuses to serve his time helping his fellow man, then anybody with a chip on their shoulder can punish him for it. As long as he sticks to his sentence, he’s safe, with his life dedicated to helping others. And if anyone were to commit a crime against him while he was in that situation they would face the same fate he currently faces—an appropriate community service sentence enforced by the threat of being put outside of the protection of the law should he violate that sentence.
Obviously, it’s crucial that the courts are seen as impartial and unimpeachable, since they don’t have a bunch of men with guns to enforce their will. But it’s the best I’ve got. Derek broke the social contract; either he makes amends or we’ll put him outside of the protection of that social contract. Simple as that.