‘This case is a turning point in history’

Black history: A timeline of major incidents since 2014 involving police officers.

Will the George Floyd verdict end racist policing? A jury has found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder, offering hope to many that America can heal its divisions.

As the verdict was read, the camera stayed on Derek Chauvin, blinking impassively behind his mask. “Guilty,” the judge read three times, guilty on all counts.

Chauvin may not have reacted, but the family of George Floyd, for whose murder Chauvin now faces many years behind bars, expressed their relief, sorrow and anger.

Last year, a video of Floyd, a Black man, gasping for breath as Chauvin, a White police officer, kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes, set off a worldwide wave of protests against racial injustice. Floyd died shortly after its filming.

The Floyd family’s lawyer, Ben Crump, said: “This case is a turning point in history for accountability of law enforcement.”

Chauvin is only the seventh police officer to be convicted of murder in the line of duty since 2005. In that time, police have killed around 15,000 Americans.

Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed as White men, and many suggest American policing needs to be transformed to fight racism. Following Floyd’s death, a bill in his name to reform police practices was put before the US Congress.

Outrage at police has been a key driver of protest and change in American history. When Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a White man, anger at her arrest helped launch the wider Civil Rights movement.

Ten years later, after the Civil Rights Act and the end of legal segregation, a Black protestor, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was killed by police, triggering further protest – and further police violence.

For some, that violent response is the unchanging nature of American policing, which they say has its real roots in slave patrols.

Even when police enforce laws that seem to have nothing to do with race, the results have sometimes harmed Black people far more than White.

One example often given is the War on Drugs, which led to an explosion in the number of Black men in prison and to more hostile policing of poor Black communities.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which started after the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, is the latest campaign to make policing a front in the fight against racism. The movement won many over to its cause, including politicians, who have become more vocal in their support since Floyd’s death.

“Accountability” has been the common refrain among politicians discussing the verdict. By this, they mean that the case sends a message. Police officers can no longer get away with murder.

Some, however, doubt that the message is loud enough. Minutes before the verdict, it emerged that police in Ohio had shot and killed a sixteen-year-old Black girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, after she had called them for help.

Will the George Floyd verdict end racist policing?

Policing the police

Yes it will, say some. The Floyd verdict sends a message that police will be punished for killing Black people. Another Minneapolis police officer is now being prosecuted for the killing of Daunte Wright. The reforms that politicians have promised in Floyd’s name as well as the simple act of holding police to a higher standard already represents a major shift in policing.

No it will not, say others. The verdict will allow politicians and police to point at Chauvin and say that the problem is bad apples, and not the methods of modern policing itself. Policing will be distorted by racism for as long as America is. Without root and branch reform, policing in the USA will continue to reinforce injustice at least as much as it enforces the law.

You Decide

  1. Should police who commit crimes receive stricter punishments than ordinary citizens?
  2. Many police killings take place during arrests for minor crimes, should police retreat rather than enforce these laws violently?

Activities

  1. In pairs, watch the video of reactions to the verdict in the expert links. Together, agree on a scene that you thought was the most powerful or moving. Write a short explanation for why you chose it.
  2. As a class, come up with a proposal for a new syllabus at your school to educate people more about Black history – and to celebrate Black voices.

Some People Say...

“Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.”

Claudia Rankine, (1963 – ) Jamaican-American Poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that the trial of Chauvin hung on medical testimony about whether or not his actions were the primary cause of Floyd’s death. His defence tried to argue that Floyd was killed by an underlying heart failure rather than by Chauvin’s restraint. This conclusion was rejected by the jury. The prosecutor said that the problem was not that Floyd’s heart was too big – but that Chauvin’s heart was too small.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is about whether or not to defund the police. Critics of policing argue that America’s police budget would be better spent on social services, and that in fact spending more money on police encourages them to find or even invent problems to solve to justify their budget. If the US police were an army, they would have the third highest budget of any military in the world. Others argue that cutting police funding would result in worse policing, not better.

Word Watch

Impassively
Without visible feeling.
All counts
Each count that Chauvin faced carries a different maximum sentence: 40 years for second-degree murder, 25 for third-degree murder and 10 for manslaughter.
Accountability
Responsibility. In this sense, it means facing consequences for your actions.
Civil Rights Act
Passed in 1964, this law outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and sex in a range of public and private institutions. The act was the most important law for ending legal discrimination against Black people in the United States.
Segregation
Separation by race. In many states in the US, discrimination by race was enshrined in law. School segregation was ended in 1954. But to this day, many neighbourhoods are highly racially segregated.
Slave patrols
Some scholars trace a history of American law enforcement to militias that patrolled the slave states of the South looking for runaway slaves.
War on Drugs
President Nixon was the first to use the phrase in 1971. He promised to crack down on crimes such as drug use. The war on drugs is often given as a reason for America’s high prison population.
Refrain
A chorus or repeated line in a song or poem.
Abolish
To put an end to.

Subjects

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