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April 26, 2021

Justice for George Floyd

Opinion

April 26, 2021

No other event in recent memory has been as consequential as the videotaped killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in May 2020 that spotlighted the predicament of the members of the black community. The killing reignited a debate on police highhandedness while dealing with people from the blak community, and brought America’s perennial racial problem to the heart of the mainstream conversation.

The mass-scale protests that erupted in the wake of the reprehensible Floyd incident provided a fresh impetus to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, literally roping everyone in. The movement created a dynamic of its own and led to international outrage and shock.

The picture of Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinning George Floyd to the pavement with the unrelenting force of his knee emerged as symptomatic of the larger malaise that afflicts race relations in the US. It touched people and caught their imagination like no other event in recent history. The feelings of pain, anguish and agony that the incident fostered refused to subside over the past year.

The momentum so generated by the mass mobilization that at times turned violent did not allow the gloss to be taken off the overwhelming demand for justice and accountability. The heart-rending words “I can’t breathe” uttered by George as he struggled to catch some air became a symbol of the systemic oppression of the Black community.

The verdict passed by the 12-member jury last week that found Derek Chauvin guilty on all three counts was met with a mixture of emotions; an expression of relief here, and thunderous applause there. The crowds waiting for the jury to hand down the judgment at the George Floyd Square burst into celebration and motorists honked as soon as the word ‘guilty’ was uttered by the judge.

The sentence that will come into effect after eight weeks will land Derek in prison for a total of 40 years. The guilty verdict calmed frayed nerves and precluded the possibility of violent protests. The reaction also speaks to the rarity of law-enforcement personnel being held to account for the violation of the law, a practice that has seen many police officers walk away unpunished from such incidents.

This aspect of the police enjoying impunity was alluded to by the statement issued by the Floyd family that described the verdict as “painfully earned justice.” It further stated: “This case is a turning point in American history for accountability of law enforcement and sends a clear message we hope is heard clearly in every city and every state.”

President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris made televised statements after the verdict in which the American president called the conviction “a giant step forward in the march towards justice in America.” He urged the lawmakers to honour the memory of George Floyd by passing a police reform bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, to acknowledge and confront “head-on systemic racism and the racial disparities that exist in policing.”

The American president and vice-president also gave a congratulatory telephone call to the Floyd family in which they promised to “get a lot more done.” The verdict made instant international headlines as the British and Canadian prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Justin Trudeau, welcomed it in their tweets – with the latter acknowledging that “systemic racism” is not just confined to the US.

A close examination of the trial makes it abundantly clear that several factors combined to create conditions for the passage of the extraordinary judgment. The following is instructive in this regard:

First, the massive social mobilization under the broad rubric of Black Lives Matter kept the case alive. BLM used the incident to highlight the presence of more organized injustices and disparities faced by the African-American community. At no point did the movement waver in its purpose or lose sight of the need for continued vigilance in making the Floyd incident a turning point in the racial disparities. It adopted a variety of tools and methods, some of them unsavory, to keep the movement going.

The takeaway from the episode is that an informed and woke citizenry that is capable of organizing itself for a larger social purpose is central to the success of any movement.

Second, Floyd’s killing could have joined a long list of similar incidents that are merely statistics in the debate on racism but for the courage shown by a group of bystanders including Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old young woman, who filmed the ten-minute long video of George’s final moments. Her bold testimony went a long way in making the conviction possible and she was duly credited for her “bravery and quick thinking” by none other than the US president as well as the Floyd family.

The lesson we get here is that all of us can become agents of change, provided we have what it takes to be on the right side of truth and morality. A society whose members are driven by an abiding passion for justice and understand their intrinsic role in securing it can survive any upheaval.

Third, the Minneapolis police department did not stand by ‘one of their own’, as is invariably a routine practice, but aligned itself with justice and truth. Medaria Arradondo, the Minneapolis police chief, who was a key witness in the trial, stated unequivocally that Derek Chauvin violated departmental guidelines in applying excessive knee force on the handcuffed Floyd. In doing so, he also made an appeal for calm and peace, asking people to “use our humanity to lift each other up and not tear our city down.”

Fourth, the prosecution team worked with diligence in collaboration with other stakeholders in securing the conviction. It presented a well-organized and fool-proof case that could stand the court’s scrutiny. It produced 38 witnesses against the defence’s seven to establish its contention.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who oversaw the prosecution, made a telling remark after the verdict. He said: “I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice.” This is the most earnest and thought-provoking comment to emanate from a public official.

No doubt, Derek’s sentencing represents a major step forward in how law-enforcement personnel interact with members of the public in general and people of other races in particular. It will still require constant engagement on the part of civil society, media, and political parties to effect a lasting change in organizational culture and the behaviour of the public officials.

A couple of incidents such as the killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on April 11 reflect how deep-rooted the malaise of impunity runs into the police department.

The race problem in the US has a long history. However, it has become aggravated and more complex in the present climate of xenophobia and populism that manifests itself in mass shootings and targeting of minority communities such as Muslims. The resultant polarization could not be more pronounced than it is now. The genie of white supremacism is hard to bottle back and requires concerted action over a longer period of time to undo the damage.

Nothing captures the tragedy of our times better than the parting words of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe”, calling for a deeper reflection on the state of the world we live in.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222