It is uncommon in the U.S. to punish police officers so severely for brutality and its tragic consequences, yet this time such a verdict was expected. How did the murder of George Floyd change America?
On Friday, former police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced in a Minneapolis courtroom to 22 1/2 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed while in police custody last May. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost 10 minutes, even though Floyd was handcuffed and offered no resistance. The court considered aggravating factors in the murder, namely the particular cruelty of Chauvin’s behavior in ignoring Floyd’s cries that he could not breathe, and the fact that the crime was committed with the active participation of three other officers and in the presence of children. It is uncommon in the U.S. to punish police officers so severely for their brutality and its tragic consequences, yet this time such a verdict was expected.
George Floyd’s Case Sparked a Breakthrough
Floyd’s killing was a landmark event reminiscent of the lynchings in the 1940s and 1950s. The lynchings sparked the uprising against racial segregation and started the large-scale fight for African American civil rights. The Minneapolis killing launched a wave of protests against police brutality, racism and misuse of firearms. The Black Lives Matter movement, which spearheaded the protests, recalled that Floyd was just another Black victim of the police, as we saw in many similar cases during the last decade, although proving culpability was not always easy.
The protests, joined by hundreds of thousands of white and mostly young Americans, demanded an end to the lawlessness of police, and called for combating systematic racism. Public attention was drawn to phenomena such as the fact that African Americans are disproportionately more likely to be sentenced for the same crime as white Americans. Moreover, Black individuals remain at the bottom of the economic and social classes, something which the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters attribute to covert racial discrimination.
Although they were peaceful at first, protests turned violent in certain cities, and involved looting stores and vandalizing police stations. President Donald Trump tried to use those events as a bogeyman before the elections, arguing that the country faced the threat of chaos and anarchy from the Democrats who supported the protests. However, the protests proved to be the catalyst for awakening and mobilizing Black voters, which contributed to Trump’s defeat in his fight for reelection.
Putting an End to Police Brutality
The Democrats, who held a majority in the House of Representatives last year, passed a bill legislating against unwarranted police brutality, providing laws to prohibit strangulation and unreasonable use of force and firearms. However, the bill did not pass in the Senate, dominated at the time by the Republican Party, which argued that limiting police powers could lead to a spike in crime.
After Joe Biden took office and the Democrats took control of the Senate, there was a chance to push through police reform. On Thursday, on the eve of the verdict in Minneapolis, Minnesota, three African American members of Congress, Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, announced a bipartisan deal to pave the way for the reform. However, they have yet to disclose any details.
Until recently, the main bone of contention between the parties was the issue of qualified immunity; in other words, the rule that shields police officers from civil lawsuits by the families of African Americans who are killed or injured as a result of police intervention. An influential police union, supported by many Republicans, opposes doing away with such qualified immunity.
There is a strong likelihood that reforms aimed at reducing police brutality to some extent will eventually be introduced. In the wake of Floyd’s killing, some cities and states have already imposed restrictions on police immunity from lawsuits. It is unknown, however, whether these changes will ease concerns among the African American population.
Struggle for Racial Equality?
Racial antagonism in the U.S. has recently been fueled by Republican initiatives to amend election laws, which in practice would restrict African American voting rights. Democratic efforts in Congress to neutralize that proposal at the federal level are proving ineffective, since the Republicans have sworn their staunch opposition to the bill. They can block it using the filibuster; in other words, preventing a bill from coming to a vote by prolonging debate, a process that requires a majority of at least 60 out of 100 votes to end. At the moment, the Democrats only have 50 votes, and only the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris could break the tie in their favor.
Following Trump’s presidency, a man who fed his supporters with a racist rhetoric, there has been increased support within the Democratic Party for the “woke” movement, centered on racial justice and critical race theory. This radical movement calls for such measures as defunding the police and funding social programs instead. It also proposes to reform how history is taught to put greater emphasis on several hundred years of slavery and racial segregation, and the role of African Americans in the construction and development of the country.
There is a growing demand for reparations for African Americans. For a year now, there have also been demands to bring down the monuments of both Confederate leaders and of the Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as many were slave-owners.
Racism and Antagonism
The reasons behind the extreme inequality in the U.S., the disproportionate number of impoverished Black Americans, and the fact that they are more likely than white Americans to suffer from COVID-19, are only partially racial. The fact that they are losing the economic race results from the mechanisms of a global capitalist economy, which hinders their social and economic advancement.
Meanwhile, extremist rhetoric, which insists on racial identity politics, provides the right with new arguments. It argues that limiting police power could lead to a spike in crime – which has been the case for a few years now – and notes that constantly blaming white people for racism perpetuates and exacerbates divisions in the country.
The Republican Party is trying to convince Americans that the Democrats’ support for the “woke” movement – despite the fact that Biden and his party distance themselves from its more radical ideas – proves that Democrats are detached from the prevailing sentiment in the United States.