George Floyd case verdict: A Victory for Humanity

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After the decision was announced, crowds across the country celebrated, honking car horns, streaming through the streets with signs of Floyd's face and breaking down in tears. Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, left, and attorney Ben Crump raise their hands in triumph during a news conference after the murder conviction against former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., April 20, 2021. Photo: AP/UNB

George Floyd is now not just a name but a symbol of rights, identity and humanity not only in USA but also in the World. The video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis triggered protests around the world since last year. It brought renewed attention to the high-profile deaths of black Americans during the past decade and ongoing concerns about systemic racism in the criminal justice system of USA.

Floyd’s killing in May 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic -which has disproportionately infected and killed black people- exposed long-standing racial inequities in every aspect of American life and forced a deep reckoning across society. Corporations are pledging to combat systemic racism in their companies. Some cities are considering proposals to reduce funds to police departments and activists have renewed calls to remove Confederate monuments, with some even toppling the statues themselves [The New York Times, April 20].

Let me describe the fact of this cruel killing. In a confrontation captured on video, Chauvin, a white veteran of the police force, pushed his knee into the neck of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in handcuffs, for more than nine minutes on May 25, 2020. Chauvin and three fellow officers were attempting to arrest Floyd, accused of using a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes at a grocery store.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on May 20, 2021 of murdering George Floyd, a milestone in the fraught racial history of the United States and a rebuke of law enforcement’s treatment of Black Americans. What was also clear is that this trial was not just about Chauvin, and not just about the man he killed. Policing itself was on trial. A 12-member jury found Chauvin, 45, guilty of all three charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter after considering three weeks of testimony from 45 witnesses, including bystanders, police officials and medical experts. Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison. While the U.S. criminal justice system and juries have long given leeway and some legal protection to police officers who use violence to subdue civilians, the Minneapolis jurors found that Chauvin had crossed the line and used excessive force.

The verdict brought some sense of closure in the death of Floyd particularly to those who were close to him. But on the larger issue of police killings and use of force around the country, there were challenges ahead. More than three people a day were killed at the hands of law enforcement during Chauvin’s trial. It is a landmark moment not just in the history of US policing and criminal justice, but around the world. George Floyd’s death came to embody the struggle for racial justice and equality in so many ways they are impossible to condense: from forceful calls for police reform in Minneapolis and new legislation in Washington, to a reckoning on the history of British imperialism in the UK and a resurgence in activism over Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia [The Guardian, April 20].

The conviction triggered a wave of relief and reflection not only across the United States but in countries around the world. “It was a murder in the full light of day and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism,” President Joe Biden said in televised remarks. “This can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America.” In his comments, Biden emphasized his support for legislation "to root out unconstitutional policing," including the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and seeks to increase accountability for law enforcement misconduct [Reuters, April 20]. President Biden called the verdict “too rare” and said that it should serve as a catalyst for reforms in law enforcement.

In the wake of the jury’s decision, there are broad calls in many cities for recalibrating the relationship between the police and the public. “Reckoning suggests that we are truly struggling with how to reimagine everything from criminal justice to food deserts to health disparities; we are not doing that,” it was held. The verdict, he (Judge) said, “Is addressing a symptom, but we have not yet dealt with the disease.”

The verdict, said former Newark Police Department lieutenant Ronald Glover, “sounds an alarm that will wake up every New Jerseyan to the fact that traditional policing is dead.” Most also said the verdict was not the end but a beginning. Now, New Jersey and other communities would have to rebuild trust among those in the community and those assigned to protect it. Others said that the even harder work of overhauling how public safety is handled in this country is just beginning. “A flawed system laid the groundwork for the death of George Floyd. It’s a system that too often fails to recruit police from the communities they guard, fails to train officers properly, fails to place just limits on the use of force against citizens, and fails to create mechanisms for the independent investigation of misconduct,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “It’s a system that badly needs reform here and across the country [The Guardian, April 20].

From this incident, some social movements grow in USA. First, the Black Lives Matter movement, already battling for an end to disproportionate police killings of Black people, and for justice and equity, drove a massive new civil rights uprising that spread from Minneapolis, across the US and internationally. It inspired marches and largely peaceful protests coast to coast, from small towns in rural areas to America’s biggest cities. The demonstrations expanded to include other deaths of defenseless Black people at the hands of police or racist agitators. Second, vital chunks of the traditional so-called blue wall of silence, where police departments harbor one of their own after wrongdoing and fend off demands for accountability, crumbled. So the level of transparency and accountability demonstrated during the Chauvin case was notable. Despite assertions at the trial’s opening that it was about one officer and one case, it was clear US policing and, as Floyd’s relatives said themselves, America itself was on trial.

The US has a sprawling, decentralized system of policing; the country has roughly 18,000 police departments each with their own use of force policy, hiring practices and oversight mechanisms, making universal reform near impossible. The Trump administration certainly sent limited progress towards reform hurtling backwards [The Guardian, April 20]. Securing a conviction in the rare instances that officer-involved fatalities make it to criminal trial has always been an uphill battle for prosecutors. Law enforcement officials in the US are endowed by a swath of protections; from ambiguous legal definitions over the proportionate use of force, to powerful police union agreements, and the many biases that stem from fundamental conflicts of interest in the system.

George Floyd case is the present incident of racism which indicates the long history of racism, discrimination, inequality and inhumanity in USA and other developed countries. Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Barack Obama’s taskforce on 21st-century policing published a detailed report and produced a set of 59 recommendations. [The Guardian, April 20] Black people are 3.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by police when Blacks are not attacking or do not have a weapon. Black teenagers are 21 times more likely than white teenagers to be killed by police. A Black person is killed about every 40 hours in the United States. The data are still limited, which makes crafting policy difficult. A national data set established by the FBI in 2019, for example, contains data from only about 40% of US law-enforcement officers. The law enforcement agencies didn’t provide information properly.

The Black people have been struggling to get their rights, liberty and fair treatment as human being for long time. The quest for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has been an American aspiration since the Declaration of Independence, but black Americans, Native Americans and women were not at the table in 1776. Lest there be any doubt about where the young nation’s sentiments lay, the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision made clear that people of African descent; whether enslaved or free would not be considered American citizens and had no legal standing in the courts.

In 1954, the Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board of Education decision struck down so-called separate but equal education and mandated that American schools be racially integrated.  As post-Brown vs Board children, they always attended integrated schools, encountering the occasional racist. Pressure from Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, thousands of activists and a powerful cadre of civil rights leaders combined with the political muscle and willingness of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to push for critical legislation during the mid-1960s.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting and firing. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed poll taxes and made it possible for thousands of formerly disenfranchised black Americans to vote. Now, throughout America, there are thousands of people of colour who are city council members, mayors, members of Congress, on school boards and of course, now in the White House.

During the last two presidential elections, black voters turned out in record numbers because they were motivated and because many of the old obstacles to voting had been removed. President Barack Obama‘s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 provided evidence of how much the nation has changed in the last half a century . While arrival of the “post-racial” era was much overstated and a result of magical thinking, Americans rightly celebrated the progress on Inauguration Day 2009. The high of the moment, though, was accompanied by the rise of the Tea Party and the reminder of the strain of white supremacy that is baked into the American DNA [Aljazeera, August 15, 2015].  Thomas Jefferson, the author of American freedom in 1776 wrote of American slavery as a necessary evil in this book, widely regarded as the most important political portrait of the nascent United States. Jefferson indicted the “tyranny” of slavery while also supplying fellow slaveholders with a batch of prejudices to justify slavery’s rapid expansion. Blacks “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he wrote. It is expected that Floyd case can influence to establish the civil rights, freedom and humanity not only in USA but also across the world.

The writer is Senior Judicial Magistrate, Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Feni.

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