The cruel murder of the gentle man George Floyd in 2020 led to a guilty verdict from a Minneapolis jury in April, and last week to a 22-and-a-half year prison sentence, for police officer Derek Chauvin.
This verdict and sentence may represent the beginning of an end to absolute police impunity. George Floyd’s murder and the trial that followed mark an important moment in US history.
Although we note that systemic police violence has continued at the same pace since George Floyd’s murder until now, the impunity is what may now begin to waver. This is important.
The progress, if made, will have been due to the mass protests against police violence and against systemic racism in the USA that George Floyd’s death provoked.
If there is progress, it will be due to the putting into question of violent colonization and slavery that are part of the often-hidden foundation truths of the American state apparatus. The indigenous people of what is now the USA were literally hounded off their land, as it was colonized by settlers. Slaves were brought in on ships from Africa as labour, and kept in slavery for generations. So, on stolen land and with slave labour, capital was built up. When slavery was abolished, reconstruction began. But, it was overtaken by a reactionary movement based on racism and bigotry that has, truth be told, lasted until today we see it in Trump fans. Meanwhile, out of this capital created on Native American land and with slave labour, a story was spun of “the American dream” – which is about how inequality is good, so long as everyone has a supposed chance to rise within this inequality. “Everyone” did not include, inter alia, slaves, indigenous people or women. The George Floyd murder has somehow exposed the true narrative. And so “the American dream” is being partly challenged – even as inequality continues to be glorified on the grounds that anyone can rise within it; even as its criminal justice system kills and locks up so many of the country’s young men; even as the USA’s State becomes more belligerent world-wide by the day under Joe Biden, who intensifies, for example, the anti-China rhetoric launched by Trump. But the murder of George Floyd somehow shone light on this hidden history. Questioning has begun.
George Floyd’s murder by slow suffocation, filmed by a child witness Darnella Frazier, sparked the biggest protests ever against violence by officers of the State, protests that took place all over the USA – not just in big cities, but all over, as well as world-wide. Soon, statues that symbolize colonization and slavery were being pulled down. Demonstrations and pulling down statues spread to Britain, South Africa, Brazil, France, Australia, Belgium. So, not just questioning, but also action has begun.
Derek Chauvin’s conviction is one of the rare guilty verdicts for police officers who kill those in their custody, particularly when victims are Afro-American or other oppressed groups. The sentence is a long one by most standards but not so long by the USA’s draconian levels of incarceration. People in the USA routinely get handed down sentences of over 100 years, bizarre as this may seem, and sometimes more than 1,000 years’ sentence. The medieval aspect of “revenge” in sentencing is still clearly the norm. But, any 22-and-a-half-years is a long time. All police officer training will feel the weight of that length of time. Impunity may thus have been dented.
The USA is known for having the highest prison population in the world, by sheer number as well as by percentage of population. It has 25% of the world’ prison population for 4% of the world’s human population. People get arrested, often violently, for minor offenses, offenses for which they should simply be summoned to Court the next week for.
George Floyd should never have been arrested at all.
He should have simply been issued a summons to appear in Court. He is accused of presenting a 20-dollar-bill that was fake. That is exactly Rs 850 today. That is all. So, it is a technical offense. He clearly did not know it was counterfeit otherwise he would not have stayed around chatting to friends opposite the store where he had paid for his cigarettes with the bill. Someone else had previously slipped it to him. That is all. Why should this minor infraction of the law escalate into all that police violence? George Floyd represented no danger to anyone. If he did not want to get into the police car, the Police should have backed off and asked him to give his address, and then serve him a summons to appear in Court the next week, say. Instead, the police officers, as if it were normal, escalated this minor infraction of the law, and killed Mr. Floyd.
The police regularly kill people in the USA. They kill some 1,000 people a year. And while most convictions in the USA’s criminal justice system, taken as a whole, come from “plea bargaining”, where people are first accused of a serious crime, then the Prosecution offers to charge with a lesser crime in exchange for a plea of “guilty”. This mercantile arrangement is the rule in the USA “justice” system. And it is what leads to the bulk of convictions in the USA. Many of them of innocent people, mainly men, and disproportionately black men.
But when Police Officers are charged with criminal offences like murder and manslaughter while on duty, they almost always plead “not guilty”. They rely on a Federal Court judgment that says police officers can use “reasonable force” during arrests, and this is then broadened by the judges’ referring to the difficulty of “split second decisions” officers need to take. There is no reliable data-base on the conviction rate but one longitudinal study shows an average of 5% of those officers charged were convicted of murder.
Police violence is endemic in the USA. With between 1,000 and 1,100 people killed each year, it is a grave problem. Physical violence against someone is illegal when perpetrated by anyone other than police and army officers. For them, it can be “legal”. And it is this that makes unnecessary violence by officers of the state so heinous. It is sanctioned. It is paid for with peoples’ VAT contributions. With systemic racism in the USA, the rate at which black men are killed by police officers is over twice as high as for white people. The Guardian, which kept a fine data-base gives the numbers and percentages:
No of people killed by US police per million inhabitants by community
Indigenous peoples: 20 individuals each year; 8 people per million.
Black people: 290 individuals each year; 7 people per million.
White people: 770 individuals each year; 3 people per million
All these deaths must end. Police officers cannot continue to kill with impunity. We have noted that deaths have not gone down since the George Floyd murder and protests. However, public opinion on police violence has shifted. The days of impunity of the police are numbered. More profoundly, people are putting into question the history of the USA that has somehow allowed this violence to continue with such impunity.
In Mauritius, we in LALIT have long been involved in all the campaigns to end violence by officers of the State. Here, too, this struggle continues, as does the continued struggle to undo the harm done by colonization in all spheres. In the USA, the people do not have the benefit that others have had all over Africa and Asia of having lived through a hundred years of de-colonization struggle – in the run-up to Independence world-wide. In Mauritius’ case, there is still part of the country physically occupied by a colonial power: Chagos, including Diego Garcia. This too must end. The Palestinian people, too, are still colonized by the American pawn in the Middle East, the Israeli State. This, too, must end. Just as Apartheid in South Africa came to an end. And even though it does not, in itself, put an end to the violence perpetrated with impunity by officers of the State. Society needs to become more equal-for-all, without class divides, for that State violence to be abolished.