Chauvin’s conviction will not dampen opposition to police reform

Derek Chauvin

This screenshot obtained from pool video feed via Court TV on April 2, 2021, shows former police officer Derek Chauvin (right), charged in the death of George Floyd, during his trial in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on March 30, 2021. 

Photo credit: AFP

There should not have been even an iota of doubt about a guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd by policeman Derek Chauvin. The jury had seen the unimaginably gruesome video of his life being excruciatingly snuffed out by Chauvin over nine hate-filled minutes.

Floyd lay utterly helpless, face down on the pavement, his hands handcuffed behind his back, his neck under Chauvin’s murderous knee. Three other police officers stood casually by, taking it all in without asking him to stop.

And yet there were fears Chauvin might not be found guilty. Decades of efforts had failed to get virtually any convictions for the hundreds of police killings of African Americans that take place yearly, beginning with Rodney King’s ferocious beating captured on camera way back in 1991.

Positive changes

No wonder a rapturous, cathartic joy of a kind unseen in a generation erupted all across America when officer Chauvin was found guilty. The euphoria was powerfully captured by President Joe Biden, who not only telephoned the Floyd family but engaged in banter which was televised, telling family lawyer Ben Crump that with big, positive changes coming, “you all better get ready, because we are going to put you on Air Force One and get you here [to the White House]”. A vastly premature declaration of victory, but that is US politics.

But the guilty verdict is an immense breakthrough and was driven through the convergence of two pivotal events last summer: vast Black Lives Matter-led protests over Floyd’s killing, and the presidential election. The protests had dramatically broadened recognition of “systemic racism” in America, and with a razor-sharp presidential election just months away, Democrats seized the opportunity of weaponising for Joe Biden the momentum and mobilisation of African-American support, without which no Democrat can win the Presidential election.

In return, Mr Biden pledged to create a police oversight commission if elected. It’s unlikely many Democratic leaders would have supported strong anti-police measures if there was no election last year. President Trump, of course, supported the police as part of his racist, white supremacist message.

Mention must be made of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s role in securing the guilty verdict. An African-American civil rights attorney for indigents who began bringing cases against police brutality 30 years ago, he subsequently became a powerful progressive voice in Congress for many years. For the Floyd case, he assembled a superlative team to lead the Chauvin prosecution, which was removed from the Minneapolis attorney’s office, which had initially reported that Floyd died in a medical emergency!

Struggle for justice

After the verdict, Ellison emphasized the struggle for justice had only just started. But the always brilliant Prof Cornel West, appearing on CNN with Don Lemon, was more eloquent: “This was only the first of the thousands of convictions that need to take place.” In a worried rejoinder, Lemon added that “those thousands will be on their own”.

The magnitude of police killings constitutes the most raw, open and constantly inflammatory wound of Blacks’ oppression in the US. While mass gun killings take many more lives, police killings are infinitely more abhorrent as they are carried out in the name of the state. Yet none of the three presidents under whom these had reached visibly alarming proportions – Obama, Trump and now Biden – had launched a campaign to end it.

The reason is simple: police wield political power. In a country with the highest crime rates in the industrialised world, a result of millions of even white Americans living in impoverishment and disaffection, most moderate white Americans favour a strong police force. Democratic presidents are, therefore, reluctant to take on the police directly.

President Bill Clinton provides an excellent example of this triangulation. He enjoyed very close ties to African-Americans – Maya Angelou called him America’s first Black president – but to attract moderate whites’ support for his re-election in 1996, he enacted the now-maligned crime bill that mightily affected Blacks and led to their mass incarceration.

Last week, President Biden unexpectedly announced that he would not create the promised police commission, but would instead embrace Congress’s broader police reform package, named after George Floyd.

Swift action

The abandonment of his campaign pledge, wrote the NY Times, “has renewed questions about what civil rights advocates could expect from an administration that promised swift action but so far has been slow to deliver.’”

It also pointed out that the reform legislation “is unlikely to become law” given the tiny majority held by Senate Democrats and the strong Republican opposition.

President Biden’s confrontational posture towards China and Russia apart, he has won joyous acclaim from liberals and progressives for his unexpectedly far-reaching domestic initiatives costing trillions of dollars in support of Black and other working Americans. But these initiatives will not curtail police killings, which are also seriously eroding America’s international standing on human rights and racism at a time of profound challenges to its global domination.

Police killings of African-Americans are a continuation of a 400-year long history of enslaved labour, segregation and lynchings.

 As late as 1955, 14-year-old Emmet Till was lynched for offending a white woman in Mississippi. In 1961, when I arrived to study in the US, Democrat George Wallace, running for Governor of Alabama, would roar, “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Always.”

Interestingly, last week President Biden gave up on his pledge to roll back Donald Trump’s racist order drastically reducing refugee admissions. But a withering backlash from within his own Democratic party made him backtrack within hours.

In a clear example of the lack of appetite among some mainstream Democratic leaders for quick, strong action against police killings, there was no pushback for Mr Biden’s backtracking on the police commission.

Few African-American leaders feel strong enough to publicly criticise a Democratic president, which gives other leaders the excuse to stay silent.

For African-Americans, no action is more important than stopping police killings.

Violently eliminated

This country’s long history of anti-Black violence was capped in the 1960s, when a vibrant new set of African-American leaders was violently eliminated: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Matt Clark, and the prison activist George Jackson, among others.

President Biden needs to meet this historic African-American agony with a heroic, transformational vision focused on modern-day Black emancipation and freedom from fear for Black families.

Lyndon Johnson, using powerful popular backing that leaders like Martin Luther King mobilised, brought about a totally unexpected revolution for disenfranchised Blacks with civil and voting rights and the War on Poverty.

FDR will always be remembered because of his courageous enactment of the bold New Deal when confronted with mass impoverishment and social devastation.

The scourge of police killings of African-Americans is a vestige of the Jim Crow era. President Biden must make ending this travesty an absolute priority which would be based on his new legacy for African Americans.

 The Justice Department’s investigation into racism in the Minneapolis police force should quickly be widened to ensure federal leadership at the forefront of the fight against racism, as in the 1960s.

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