Black Lives Matter: civil rights advocates warn against complacency after Chauvin guilty verdict
In April, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder and manslaughter of George Floyd, who was Black. Floyd was arrested by Chauvin and three other officers in May 2020, on suspicion of trying to use a fake $20 bill. Chauvin, who is white, knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes.
A 17-year-old bystander’s video recording of the killing sparked global racial justice protests and calls to reform or defund US policing.
Chauvin’s sentence is expected in June, but he is appealing the verdict. His lawyer, Eric Nelson, has alleged misconduct by prosecutors and jurors, and argues Chauvin was denied a fair trial due to pre-trial publicity ‘so pervasive and so prejudicial’ it created a ‘structural defect in proceedings’.
Matt Kaiser, Vice Chair of the IBA Criminal Law Committee, says that having a fair trial when there’s a public video is ‘a complicated question, especially when you have cases that get a lot of notoriety and press play.’
This is a punitive consequence for a singular individual, it’s not the system being held accountable
Policing Policy Advisor, American Civil Liberties Union
‘I suspect that merely going to Black Lives Matter protest after the video came out is probably not going to be the kind of thing that would warrant a reversal. I worry a little more about some of the statements made before the jury was sequestered. I think those arguments may have a bit more traction with an appellate court,’ he adds.
Judge Peter Cahill criticised politicians like Congresswomen Maxine Waters, who attended a protest nearby and said if Chauvin was not found guilty, ‘we’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.’
Waters explained that she meant confronting the justice system, but, even as he denied the request for a mistrial, Judge Cahill told Nelson that Waters’ comments could help him get the trial overturned on appeal.
If the verdict stands, Chauvin may face a longer sentence of up to 40 years imprisonment, as Judge Cahill agreed with prosecutors’ arguments that Chauvin abused his authority as a police officer, and treated Floyd with ‘particular cruelty’.
Despite relief at Chauvin’s conviction, this result produces complicated feelings in advocates for criminal justice reform. Kaiser says, ‘our prison system is broken, and excessively punitive, and he’s probably going to spend the next 12–20 years in solitary confinement for his own safety. Which is a horrible thing for anyone.’
Paige Fernandez, Policing Policy Advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees it’s ‘conflicting’.
She tells Global Insight ‘the relief I feel is that I hope the family can sleep and that this provided them some semblance of peace and justice. But this is a punitive consequence for a singular individual, it’s not the system being held accountable. It’s really in many ways not Chauvin being held accountable, because the criminal legal system is the only form of accountability we have in the US, but accountability requires self-reflection and repair and apology and changed behaviour, which you don’t get through that system.’
She highlights that Chauvin is only the eighth officer convicted of murder since 2005 in the US, although there have been over 16,000 killings by police in that time.
Several Black Americans were killed during Chauvin’s trial: just a few miles away, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed during a traffic stop 24 hours after 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot by police in Chicago.
Kaiser hopes the verdict may increase accountability for police violence, in that the incentive structure for prosecutors has changed now public sentiment is more in favour of prosecuting police after wrongdoing.
He also suggests that individual officers might be deterred from dangerous conduct by the greater risk of prosecution, and that more people feeling empowered to record police encounters could lead to more prosecutions.
But Fernandez is less hopeful. ‘This isn’t producing any change in our criminal legal system. In the week since [Chauvin] was convicted there have been a ton of grand juries who have not brought other officers to trial and prosecutors who have decided to not file charges. This isn’t going to fix the harms.’
To Fernandez, individual accountability is not justice. ‘Justice, to be very clear, would be George Floyd being alive today,’ she emphasises. ‘But stepping back and thinking about the legal system and our police institutions at large, justice is really dismantling these systems of harm and oppression. It means dismantling our policing institutions, our criminal legal system at large, dismantling jails and prisons and reducing mass incarceration. It’s taking money away from police, limiting the role of police, reducing their power and developing other systems of public safety.’
Kaiser worries that focus on individual accountability could mean the harder work of reform gets abandoned: ‘a lot of work reforming policing in the US is happening, just because of our structure of government, in states or localities. But you’re only going to be able to get politicians to work on it if there’s sustained public interest in reform.’
Pressure is also coming from abroad. The United Nations is being pushed to launch an inquiry into police brutality in the US, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is due to produce a report on the topic in June 2021.
The International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in The United States has already released a report, which argues there is ‘a prima facie case of Crimes against Humanity warranting an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC).’
The US is not a party to the ICC, but Hina Jilani told The Guardian that she and the other commissioners ‘felt that the US would benefit were individual police officers further deterred from resorting to unjustified force, knowing that some kind of international criminal responsibility might be held against them.’
Fernandez believes ‘the best pressure, the pressure that gets the most done, is from the ground up, from communities up and grassroots organisations,’ but she says racism is ‘so deeply ingrained’ in US systems that external ‘top-down’ pressure on the government is needed.