The judgement convicting the Minneapolis Police official Derek Chauvin in the matter of using ‘excessive force’ upon the 47-year-old black African-American George Floyd resulting into his death has opened more issues than settling them triggering serious thought process for addressing wider and deeper aspects of not only police and judicial administration but also of social and political attitudes towards the people of color in American set of things.
George Floyd had been arrested on a charge of tendering a $20 counterfeit note for a packet of cigarettes and refusing either give back the packet or tender another correct note. Having been handcuffed, Floyd was resisting being taken into the car and this is when Chauvin allegedly used excessive force to control him keeling down on his neck for over nine minutes causing him breathlessness and consequential death. The incident took place at Minneapolis chowk witnessed by many standers by taking video shots of the act, who became prime witnesses during the ensuing trial of Chauvin.
The next day the 26th May 2020 Derek Chauvin was fired, was arrested on 29th June, the trial held from 8th March 2021 to 20th April. 20th April itself he was pronounced guilty and on 25th this month was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. He had been accused and found guilty of manslaughter, second-degree murder and third-degree murder of Floyd in a very rare rebuke by the criminal justice system given the fact that about a thousand people are killed every year by the US police. Significantly enough, many serving police officers came as witnesses in support of prosecution and even the Minneapolis Police Chief came out testifying before the jury that the conduct of Chauvin was ‘not part of our training and it is certainly not part of our ethics and values’. The trial was allowed to be telecast live and entire legal process remained highly transparent.
Pronouncing the judgement on behalf of twelve-member jury constituted for the trial, Justice Cahill concluded that Chauvin ‘abused his position of trust and authority’ and treated Floyd with ‘particular cruelty without respect and denied him the dignity owed to all human beings’. Justice Cahill further added that the police officer ‘objectively remained indifferent to Mr. Floyd’s pleas’ even as he was ‘begging for his life’.
Nevertheless, the incident shook the conscience of peace and liberty loving activist world over and caused the wounds of history to revive fresh again across the US. ‘Black life matters’ stir travelled too fast, too widespread and too intense through 2020 Presidential campaign and Joi Biden – Kamala Harris duo took the lead to not only pledge support to the cause of Floyd but did vowed sweeping legislative reforms in policing of the country. To begin with, Biden did personally welcome the conviction and sentence terming this ‘a giant step forward justice in America’.
The oldest and vibrant democracy that the US undoubtedly is, its society remains deeply divided and the system still accused of practicing discrimination. An overwhelming section of blacks comprising around 14% of the US population feel deeply and deliberately sidelined, prejudiced and undermined by the 60% of non-Hispanic whites widely supported by the system everywhere – from education to health to housing to job and promotion to policing and justice administration. Especially when it comes to overall attitude of police towards them, it is visibly crude and disrespectful. War on drugs, for instance, saw police mainly targeting people of color for arrests. The fact that Justice Cahill thought it prudent to record that ‘what the sentence is not based on is emotion or sympathy’ – confirming the high sentiments and boiling anger the people have had about the crime committed by the police.
All this in spite of the good progress made during all these years but prejudices always take lot of time to die down and still lot of honest efforts are needed to be taken. The Floyd case trial and judgment thereof has reignited the fire for the change at least threefold – an urgent police reforms, further legislative protection for the minorities and the political will for social re-engineering of further empowerment of so far ignored and neglected segments.
One of the most rigid constitutions of the world that they gave unto themselves indicated the US’ rather conservative attitude towards rapid and revolutionary changes at least in so far as their social ethos and living ethics are concerned. That is why in spite of rocketing speed of economic and materialistic progress, there are very slow pace of change of social and ethical values and beliefs as well as deep-rooted prejudices.
The US constitution, when enacted, did not do away with slavery and thus did not grant universal individual liberties. Until 1870 only white citizens were allowed to vote. It took years of evolutionary legislations as also struggles and intense movements that resulted in various constitutional amendments and Congressional laws to put blacks on same platform as whites. 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution followed by various laws, especially Civil Rights Act 1964 and Voting Rights Act 1965 did bring out parity among communities and ushered new era of democratic participation at larger levels. But there had been serious bottlenecks of regressive systematic attitudes coupled with many actions at various state level which facilitated continued structural racism and preserved racial inequalities. There have been instances of allegedly reducing voting time schedules and/or suspending voting at centers having majority population of people of color.
Many recent studies, surveys and research still go on to prove existence of experiencing slurs, insensitive offensive comments based on negative assumptions by people of color. Most Americans, including white Americans, feel more changes are required to achieve racial equality. The Biden administration appears quite seized of the seriousness of the issues involved and very actively proceeding rectifying and modifying systems and initiating structural legal changes. Training modules for police forces are being restructured to enhance sensitivities and empathy. The US dept of Justice has instituted investigation into the practices of Minneapolis police dept, which would involve official of the US Attorney’s office as also the Justice deptt’s civil rights division. The investigation would take a broader approach of examining whole of behavioral conduct of the police dept and will release a public report thereof. Side by side Congress is going ahead with the reform legislation known as George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The President and the Vice President have already shown their support for the bill which will see the bill through becoming an Act.
Attorney General Merrick B Garland has articulated the issues at hand suggesting, ‘Building trust between community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency knowing that change cannot wait’. The US system and society has an inherent capability of self-repairing and self-correcting themselves. The only need is to provide the leadership to focus and coordinate this exercise and take them to logical conclusions. Joe Biden has already come forward too positively stating ‘There is more to do’ beyond the Act as well!
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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