American politics remains trapped in its hyperbolic spiral. For that reason, the reforms that the country so urgently needs will not happen, even after the murder verdict in Minneapolis.
On Tuesday, it was Democrat Nancy Pelosi who unwittingly demonstrated how irredeemably trapped American politics is in its hyperbolic spiral. In her relief over the jury’s murder verdict for former police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, the House speaker said, “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.”
The attempt by an experienced, top-ranking politician to declare Floyd a martyr, a man who was killed almost one year ago during a brutal police operation, is cynical. At the least, it is no less cynical than all the attempts from conservatives to define the verdict as evidence that there is no need to fight racism and police violence, because the judicial system seems to actually work.
Floyd’s death was a unique case in only one respect: it happened in broad daylight and was filmed. Chauvin’s behavior as he needlessly knelt on the neck of the suffocating Floyd, unmoved by his pleas or the cries of observers, was such an egregious and well-documented violation of justice and morality that it caused an almost unanimous outcry almost a year ago. Even those who, like former President Donald Trump, tended to counter every “Black Lives Matter” slogan with “Blue Lives Matter” to defend police, condemned it.
’Abolish the Police!’
But the commonalities stop there. Trump’s camp has vehemently rejected the depressing declaration that America has a “systemic” problem, even when it was made by prominent Republicans, and instead warned of anarchy. In contrast, on the left, the (well-grounded) demand for radical police and judicial reform was reduced to the expression “Abolish the police!” which is off-putting to most Americans.
Thus, there is no consolation in the fact that both sides are now expressing relief at the jury verdict in Minneapolis. For many years, there has been widespread agreement around the idea that the American police and justice system is dysfunctional, even broken. That is because it holds millions of poor Americans, including disproportionally large segments of the Black, male population, trapped in a labyrinth of criminality and lack of prospects. The legal system is not oriented toward rehabilitation, but instead toward toughness against a precariat* that many citizens (read: voters, taxpayers, party donors) fear.
The direct appointment of police officers, state attorneys and judges; funding the legal system through fines that discharged criminals can barely pay legally; the crude bail system that leads to overly harsh punishments for the poor; the economic interests of private jail administrators and many other factors are causing colossal social imbalance. On top of it all is an affinity toward violence in a country that has turned the question of whether military-grade weapons belong on the streets into an ideological litmus test. No, police officers do not have an easy go of it in this society. And their training often leaves much to be desired.
Biden Wanted a Working Group
Pelosi’s unfortunate “thanks” to the murder victim served to add grist to the mill of a law named for Floyd, which has already passed the House of Representatives but has little to no chance of passing in the Senate. It includes a range of recommendations about how the federal government should better pursue charges of racism among the country’s thousands of independently organized police forces and assure that police misdeeds will be punished. The Democrats also want cases in which police violence has led to death to be registered at a national level for the first time.
The proposals are sensible and much more valuable than the idea that Joe Biden proposed during his campaign of just continuing down the same path and establishing a White House working group against racism and police violence. But given the dimensions of the social and legislative challenges, these are all just drops in the bucket.
Floyd is no martyr for the civil rights movement as was Martin Luther King Jr. But that does not mean that millions of Americans were wrong in declaring this man, who had multiple prior offenses, a five-time prison record, a drug addiction, and was arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, an icon in their fight. Society must urgently ask itself how it engages with this class of people; Floyd’s class.
Editor’s note: Precariat is a recently coined term for a social class formed by people who are unpredictable or insecure, affecting material or psychological welfare.