• Sharon Chau

Why Did It Happen, Again?



Summary:

  • Six years after the death of Eric Garner, George Floyd was killed in a chokehold by a white police officer

  • This happened because of individual officers' excessive use of force, systemic impunity in the criminal justice system and double standards abetted by Trump

  • To prevent similar tragedies, we should routinely remove unfit officers, prosecute more stringently, punish superior officers for transgressions of their force, hold workshops on racial biases and have quotas for minorities


In 2014, Eric Garner was approached by NYPD officials who alleged he was selling cigarettes illegally. Garner was exasperated, telling the policemen he was doing nothing of the sort and he was tired of being harassed. The officials attempted to arrest him. Garner resisted, but multiple policemen wrestled him to the ground. One put him in a chokehold, ignoring Garner's pleas of "I can't breathe" 11 times. Garner lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later.


What happened after that? A grand jury in New York decided not to press charges on the official whose chokehold killed Garner, sparking hundreds of demonstrations. The next year, the city of New York paid Garner's family $5.9 million in an out-of-court settlement. It wasn't until 2019 that said official was fired. Not prosecuted - just removed from his job five years after he demonstrated his utter incompetence and the danger he posed as a police officer.


It's been six years since then. One would hope that the system would have improved, with Garner's tragedy a sober reminder of the excesses of police power. But an eerily similar incident happened again.


On May 25, 2020, George Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill in a Minneapolis grocery store, leading to his arrest by four police officers. After Floyd was told to leave his vehicle, white officer Derek Chauvin made him lie face down on the road and knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd repeatedly said "I can't breathe", but the officer continued kneeling even after Floyd became unconscious. Floyd was later pronounced dead.


This time, there was a swifter response than Garner's death. The four officials involved in Floyd's death were fired the next day. The FBI is already conducting a federal civil rights investigation, and Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder (under "depraved-heart murder", where an individual acts with a "depraved indifference" to human life and where such act results in a death, despite that individual not explicitly intending to kill) and manslaughter. Charges are likely to be brought against the three other officers we well.


Why did it happen again? The individual police officers are somewhat to blame. Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd's neck and caused his death, was allowed to continue serving as an officer despite having 18 official complaints. He had been involved in three police shootings, one of which was fatal. Chauvin was an obvious threat to the community who had a track record of using excessive force; he should have been fired or at least suspended and investigated a long time ago. If that had happened, Floyd's death might not have occurred.


But it is too simplistic to pin the blame down to one or two bad apples. The systemic problems are as much to blame. There is a culture of impunity among police officers who think that they somehow won't be held accountable for their actions. The police officers involved in Floyd's death had body cameras and bystanders that were recording their every action, but they did not even cower under scrutiny. This is likely due to past events, such as the lack of prosecution in the death of Eric Garner, the acquittal of the police officer who shot Trayvon Martin, and the jury that decided not to indict the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. With all these precedents of policemen getting away basically scot-free, why should Chauvin and the three other officers worry? Even if Floyd was badly injured or died, they probably wouldn't face severe punishment. They would likely get off with a slap on the wrist and get away with saying their actions were in self-defence, or that the victim died from pre-existing conditions instead of excessive force.


Another contributory factor to this tragedy is the double standards used for African-Americans compared to white people. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow explains how there is a new racial caste system in the US, where black individuals are routinely rounded up and imprisoned, while white officers and their racial biases are given free rein. African-Americans are often stereotyped as more unstable, violent and dangerous than white people, culminating in what Alexander calls the image of "criminalblackman". This justifies excessive use of force against them due to "self-defence" or "fear of personal safety" on the part of the police officers. Had Eric Garner been white and the official who killed him black, it is hard to imagine the same impunity happening. These double standards were further witnessed yesterday, when a black CNN journalist was illegally arrested in Minneapolis. A white journalist standing nearby was not arrested. There cannot be a clearer example of blatant double standards at play.


The complicity of President Trump is a strong reason for the discriminatory treatment of black and white individuals. When your president calls protesters “thugs”, retweets false statistics claiming African-Americans are responsible for most murders of white Americans, repeatedly links African Americans and Hispanics with violent crime and refuses to strongly condemn white supremacists, you naturally get much less fearful about being held accountable for your racially-charged actions. After all, the most powerful man in the country is implying that black people should be treated more harshly because of their race - this confirms preexisting stereotypes many individuals hold and allows them to act recklessly according to these biases.


However, there is much to be hopeful about. If Chauvin is convicted of third-degree murder and manslaughter, this will set a good precedent for future instances of police brutality and will hopefully serve as a deterrence to other officials. But even if this happens, which is unlikely, there is still so much to be done. First, bad apples in the police force have to be routinely removed. Thorough investigations should be done for every complaint and officers suspended until it can be proven that the same problems won't happen again. For officers like Chauvin who had 18 complaints, they should be fired. The police have too much power, so we should err on the side of caution when deciding the who should have the right to use force on other citizens. Second, there should be systemic changes in the criminal justice system. Prosecution should happen more rigorously and the culture of impunity has to stop. Superior officers with members on their force who commit transgressions should be punished as well, encouraging greater oversight and internal mechanisms to stop police brutality from happening. Workshops on implicit and explicit bias should be conducted, and there should be quota systems for minorities, especially African-Americans, at the top. Additionally, we should strengthen initial police training and weed out racists at that stage, maximising preventative rather than be reactive measures. The whole police force has to understand that racism should not be tolerated and that everyone should be equal under law enforcement. Lastly, politicians ought to condemn police brutality and racist acts - but whether this will change remains to be seen.


The death of George Floyd is a sobering and tragic reminder of the immense flaws in the American criminal justice system. Hopefully, it will serve as a demonstration of the worst excesses of police power and spark reforms that will prevent another George Floyd, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.


You can sign the petition for Justice for George Floyd here:

https://www.change.org/p/mayor-jacob-frey-justice-for-george-floyd


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©2020 by Sharon Chau