“Last Straw”: Americans encounter racism and violence in a chauvin process
© Reuters. People are responding to the Derek Chauvin trial verdict in Houston
(Reuters) – The trial and conviction of former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd came at a crossroads with America, a moment of fear but also possibility that historians and activists compared to the civil rights era had.
From policing to racial relations to the criminal justice system, the three-week trial of Derek Chauvin became “a symbol and a proxy for our feelings, fears and hopes regarding this whole range of issues,” said David Greenberg, professor of history and Media Studies from Rutgers University.
The audience for the study was difficult to measure, but likely huge given the many streaming services they broadcast live.
Even the President paid close attention to it. Joe Biden called Floyd’s family following Tuesday’s ruling on what could be a step “forward on the road to justice in America”.
That the case was the death of a black man by a white policeman was underlined during the trial – just a few kilometers away, another black man was fatally shot by a white policeman who stopped him for a traffic violation.
The trial found even more resonance for many when Floyd’s death was captured in a painfully intimate video of Chauvin kneeling on his back on Floyd’s neck with two other officers for almost 10 minutes.
Civil rights historian Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford University, was beaten by police with batons during the 1960s civil rights protests.
Then, as now, Carson said, times of excitement and activity were marked by atrocities that moved the public: the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman lied about insult; Children marching for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Carson points to the video of Floyd’s murder made by teen passerby Darnella Frazier using her cell phone, shared on social media around the world and shown repeatedly during the trial in which she testified, as the main reason for his death and the trial of his murderer drew such attention.
Floyd can be seen in the video lying on the street. He tells the police that he cannot breathe and screams for his dead mother. Chauvin’s lawyers had argued that he had completed his police training.
Mary Moriarty was the principal defense attorney in Hennepin County until last year, where Floyd died. She said she had long tried to draw attention to episodes of police brutality that were reported in her office and were often recorded by officers’ body-worn cameras.
Moriarty remembered the horror of seeing Floyd’s video.
“Poor George Floyd is begging for his life and here you have a cop who casually kills him in broad daylight in front of bystanders who ask him to stop and he knows he’s being taped and he just keeps doing it. ” She said. “Well I think that was the last straw here.”
Police departments in many American cities are working with community leaders on dozens of reform efforts since Floyd’s murder. Most reforms focus on banning controversial tactics – like choke holds – and making police who do wrong more accountable.
However, the changes are largely in the proposal phase and do not go far enough for many activists.
Problems with racism and police brutality “didn’t just emerge when George Floyd took his last breath,” said councilor Andrea Jenkins, who represents Minneapolis’ Ward 8, including the intersection where Floyd was killed.
But pandemic shutdowns, she said, allowed Americans to see problems in more intimate ways. As life slowed down, people had time to watch the video of Floyd’s murder and think about it.
His death and trial also came at a time of fear and vulnerability in America, as more than half a million people died from the virus, and economic instability and political divisions rocked the country.
YEARS OF UPHEAVAL
For Mark Bray, a human rights historian and author, the current era of social and political upheaval began years before the pandemic and Floyd’s death.
The latest era of activism was sparked in 2011 during the month-long occupation of the Wisconsin Statehouse when protesters opposed a proposed anti-union bill, Bray said.
It continued in the early protests against Black Lives Matter following the Michael Brown assassination in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and repeated demonstrations that followed more police killings of African Americans.
“The template for radical resistance for the past decade is that something happens in a city – and then it spreads when others ask what we are going to do in our city to show solidarity?” Said Bray.
But the protests against Floyd’s death went beyond people who could radically adopt the term. People who don’t normally demonstrate have shown up in massive protests around the world.
Such protests must be built on to raise awareness of the root causes of police violence and racism, said Patrick Ngwolo, a Houston criminal defense attorney and pastor who met Floyd over a decade ago.
He said convictions are inevitable – but also that the country must face the bigger problems.
“What is it like for us as a country to try to do the whole thing to try to address the centuries of systemic racism that this country has been through?” he said. “How does it look for us to think about it, sit down and find constructive ways to unite this yet-to-be united United States of America?”