George Floyd, Derek Chauvin, and the Opportunity for Accountability

The criminal prosecution of former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin for his role in the death of George Floyd begins today. Chauvin is being charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter, the most serious of which carries a 10½–15-year prison sentence. The trial will be televised live “from gavel to gavel”, the first such broadcast in Minnesota history.

Brief Recap

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd bought a pack of cigarettes from a shop in Minneapolis. He paid with a $20 that a store employee believed to be counterfeit, and the employee notified police of their suspicions. While the store owner has since stated that George Floyd was a regular at the store and was a nice man, the employee who notified police said Floyd was drunk, belligerent, and was refusing to return his pack of cigarettes after being told his $20 note was a forgery.

Police arrived on the scene about eight minutes after being called, and officer Thomas Lane drew his pistol and informed Floyd that he was under arrest. Floyd was handcuffed and was initially compliant with the officers’ demands. When the police attempted to put Floyd in a squad car, however, he began resisting, though he remained handcuffed. As he was resisting, officer Derek Chauvin arrived on the scene and began helping the other officers get Floyd into the squad car.

Eventually Floyd was laid on the pavement beside the squad car, and Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck, where it remained for about nine minutes. During those nine minutes, Floyd can be heard repeatedly stating that he could not breathe, and even exclaimed, “You’re going to kill me, man!” Chauvin, upon hearing Floyd state that he could not breathe, simply said, “Then stop talking, stop yelling. It takes heck of a lot of oxygen to talk.”

Between five and six minutes after Chauvin first put his knee on Floyd’s neck, Floyd can be heard calling for his mother, stating that he loves her. He also asked that someone tell his children that he loved them. Around six minutes, Floyd became unresponsive and bystanders urged police to check his pulse. Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost three more minutes before getting off Floyd, and another officer called an ambulance. Floyd was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead about an hour later.

George Floyd’s death was met with protests across the country, and was seen as a pivotal moment in the Black Lives Matter movement. Video of the event can be found here.

Today’s Opportunity: Accountability

Counterfeiting money is not a capital crime. Trying to use counterfeit money is not a capital crime. George Floyd did not commit a capital crime. And yet he was killed by officers of the state.

Derek Chauvin’s defense team is asserting that Floyd died of unrelated medical problems, and perhaps he technically did. But it is difficult to imagine a scenario where Chauvin restricting Floyd’s airways for almost nine minutes did not contribute to Floyd’s death in a significant way. But this case isn’t really about causing George Floyd’s death, per se. Really it’s about law enforcement officers using unnecessary and excessive force, failing to treat people with humane decency, and treating the Black community in a disparately negative way.

Derek Chauvin did not need to have his knee on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. In reality he did not need to have his knee on George Floyd’s neck at all, but he certainly should have removed his knee when Floyd told him he could not breath, and he absolutely should have removed his knee after six minutes when Floyd became unresponsive. Any way you slice it, Chauvin did bad police work. He was a bad police officer and a bad human in those moments.

But today (and for as long as this trial lasts) provides an opportunity for the citizens of Minneapolis to hold a police officer accountable for his bad behavior. Jurors in Dallas were able to send a message that bad police would not be tolerated when former DPD officer Amber Guyger was convicted for the death of Botham Jean. That situation was slightly different because Guyger was not on duty when she shot and killed Botham Jean, but even still, a message was clearly sent.

Jurors in Minnesota can do the same thing but on a grander scale today. Jurors can send a message that police need to be trained better, need to be more compassionate, need to use more common sense, and need to be held accountable if they take inhumane, extra-judicial action while on duty. I’m not one for dramatics, but I do believe that the eyes of the nation are on Derek Chauvin’s trial. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, legislators, police, social workers, civic leaders, and the Black community will all certainly be paying close attention. We live in a time where it’s easier than ever for the government to exert control over our lives. Between domestic spying pursuant to secret warrants issued by secret courts, qualified immunity for law enforcement, and the ever-evolving government response to Covid-19, the government wields an incredible amount of authority over the life of an average citizen.

The jurors in Derek Chauvin’s trial have an opportunity to say “enough!” Enough bad police work. Enough bad police training. Enough immunity for government officials who commit crimes though their jobs. Enough unarmed citizens dying at the hands of policemen. Enough using excessive force. Enough protecting bad officers through some manufactured sense of fraternity. Enough allowing police who kill unarmed citizens to walk away unscathed. And perhaps most importantly, enough allowing the government to encroach further on the rights of people to live in peace.

George Floyd might have been a criminal. He might have knowingly passed a counterfeit $20 bill. He might have been drunk. He might have been doing a lot of things wrong. But he definitely wasn’t armed. Being in handcuffs, he definitely wasn’t a threat to any policeman’s safety or physical wellbeing. And he definitely did not deserve to die on the dirty pavement outside a convenience store as three policeman watched.

It’s time a police officer was held accountable. I am nothing if not a believer in the right of a person to stand trial before being convicted of a crime. But I expect the evidence will be overwhelming. If so, and if the evidence allows, I hope the jury finds Derek Chauvin guilty, and I hope his sentence serves as a warning and a reminder to other government officials that unnecessary force and bad conduct will not be tolerated.

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