Let’s be brutally honest here. George Floyd was murdered. Not just killed. The difference, as my law students over the years will (hopefully) attest, is the concept of ‘intent’. Both ( to ‘kill’ and to ‘murder’) result in the loss of life, but the difference is vitally important and not just in respect of sentence.
If not overt intent, then presumably we (Scots criminal lawyers and students) can say Officer Derek Chauvin was ‘wickedly reckless’. I suspect that the last statement is something of an understatement. Once again, I turn to my criminal law students who will cite, (hopefully), Cawthorne v HMA (1968) JC 32 – which provides a useful starting point. The facts were startling analogous to the Oscar Pistorius case and both sum up very succinctly the ‘wickedly reckless’ concept. Whilst the great institutional writer Baron Hume’s work must always form the foundation of criminal jurisprudence in Scotland, it is worth examining an extract from Alison’s Criminal Law, Vol.1., cited in the Cawthorne appeal which states,
“…in judging of the intention of an accused who has committed an aggravated assault, the same rules are to be followed as in judging of the intent in actual murder, viz., that a ruthless intent and an obvious indifference as to the sufferer, whether he live or die, is to be held as equivalent to an actual attempt to inflict death…”
Of course, Scots Law does not apply in Minneapolis but nonetheless it is a useful look at what he could, potentially, face. It will all surround the issue of intent and premeditation and then the often baffling world of US Criminal Law with 1st degree, 2nd degree and so on will kick in.
What this horrific case highlights palpably is the most appalling history of police brutality against black people in the United States. The gruesome killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer has catapulted the utter fury over racial discrimination and sheer injustice into startlingly sharp focus. Could it be that after some 400 years and goodness knows how many similar deaths, out of this shameful episode might come some good?
The grisly footage of a Police Officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes as he pleaded for breath sickened not just his own nation, but the entire world and has triggered mass protests. The killing has almost sparked a ‘tinder box’ that has ignited anger, incandescent rage and intense frustrations among black people. It has been bubbling under the surface for years, decades, centuries. The lid on the pot has now been violently flung off.
The harrowing footage was visceral for anyone watching and for African-Americans it was just too much. Regrettably, it is just yet another nightmarish chapter in a long history in America of urban unrest and social problems, very often triggered by the maltreatment of black people by various police forces. Social media has contributed to bringing these types of incidents into our living rooms, but make no mistake, this is nothing new.
In July 2014 Eric Garner died whilst an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold. Garner’s death plus that of 18 year old Michael Brown 3 weeks later gave the Black Lives Matter momentum. That movement was created following the acquittal of a white man for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin in Florida in February 2012. The white police officers involved in the cases of Garner and Brown were never even indicted.
Since then there have been countless other deaths, all with a similar subtext. Of course there was also the late Rodney King, again, a black man who was beaten to within an inch of his life by four police officers in LA in 1992. The beating left him with a fractured skull, numerous broken bones and teeth and permanent brain damage. The vicious attack was filmed and was shown around the globe despite being ‘pre-social media’. Of the four officers charged, three were acquitted and the jury failed to reach a verdict on the fourth. Within hours of the acquittals rioting started all across the city. The riots lasted almost a week and resulted in 63 deaths and almost 2,400 injuries.
Broadly speaking, African-Americans have never enjoyed anything like the same privileges as their white counterparts nor have they ever had a good relationship with law enforcement. They are regularly the target of police actions rather than the receivers of police protection.
However, in order to understand this systemic racism that appears embedded in US Police forces (and possibly in the psyche of much of the country as a whole) one first must reflect and consider the racial order in the US and the primary reason it exists in the first place – slavery.
The USA was founded upon the principle of reducing those of African descent to subhuman chattel slaves and much of the early American culture was spent reinforcing that ethos. On that basis it is inconceivable to imagine that the swell of the majority’s opinion on black people would suddenly alter when slavery was abolished by the creation of the 13th amendment to their constitution in 1865 – incidentally, that’s only 160 years ago.
Progressively since then black people and especially black men have been widely stereotyped and often portrayed as dangerous, violent and even malevolent. The widespread fear of being lynched was all about striking abject fear and terror into the hearts of those African-Americans by ‘keeping them in their place’ (not my phrase). This was all about showing them that white supremacy would work and made it clear that any ideologies of black freedom, whether it be political, economic or social, would simply not be tolerated or accepted. This form of intimidation and harassment had at its’ cornerstone the overt demonising and in many ways brutalising of black men, principally. This outrageous stereotype of seeing a black man as a threat is one that has simply not gone away. Therefore when a police officer stops a black person they (the Police) are more inclined to show aggression and hostility because of their own prejudices that are simply awaiting ignition.
America has formed a very disconcerting habit of somehow trying to explain a black death at the hands of police as ‘tragic’ but in some warped way ‘necessary’ to keep the public safe. It is a preposterous notion but one which much of that country seems to approve.
The gut-churning death of George Floyd has now forced everyone, globally, to take cognisance of behaviour that is simply habitual to many (including, of course, non-Americans and would certainly include many here in the UK) but is, simply, wrong. And on so many levels, too.
The situation has also been exacerbated by their President who has urged law enforcement officials to ‘dominate’ protesters and has called for a more forceful approach. As has already been pointed out in these posts, turning the Army on your own people is truly abhorrent.
There are deep deep scars right across America’s face. With the correct treatment and time, these will hopefully heal. But is there a genuine desire to change? With the repugnant behaviour of the four Minneapolis thugs being condemned globally, let’s hope so.
Maybe ‘George Floyd will change the world’.