George Floyd’s death at the hands of police last year set off months of mass protests across the United States and the world, as people demanded an end to racial injustice and police violence against Black people.
Now, as the trial of the former officer charged in Floyd’s death begins on Monday, experts say the proceedings mark an “historic” moment that will speak volumes about systemic racism, policing and the justice system in the US.
“It’s a seminal moment,” Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, said about the trial of Derek Chauvin.
“The stakes are extremely high,” Henderson added. “This will symbolise to the country, to Black Americans, how far we’ve come – if we’re able to hold police accountable.”
Floyd died on May 25 after Chauvin held his knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in broad daylight.
“I can’t breathe, man. Please,” Floyd, who was handcuffed and held face-down on the pavement, can be heard saying in a bystander video shot at the scene that was widely shared. The 46-year-old also repeatedly cried out for his mother.
“I can’t breathe,” Floyd said, again. “Please, the knee in my neck – I can’t breathe.”
‘Akin to a lynching’
Floyd’s last words became a rallying cry for protesters who marched in cities and towns across the US and worldwide under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement that was spawned after several high-profile killings of Black people in the US in recent years.
“The [Floyd] video itself was to so many such a clear act of disregard and dehumanisation of the life of a Black person that came on the heels of dozens, if not hundreds, of these kinds of vile videos,” said Nikki Jones, professor of African American studies at University of California-Berkeley.
“What Derek Chauvin did … was so outside the box of the bounds of any professional conduct, demonstrated almost a sadistic disregard for human life,” said Jones, likening it to “that same disregard for human life that was on display in lynching photos”.
“I think it was a historic moment and it will be a historic trial.”
Burden of proof
Chauvin faces second-degree manslaughter and second-degree unintentional murder charges, as well as a third-degree murder charge that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison reinstated earlier this month due to “the gravity of the allegations” against the former officer.
Chauvin’s defence team has argued Floyd died of a drug overdose and underlying heart condition, not the ex-officer’s actions, according to US media reports.
Three other officers who were with Chauvin at the time of Floyd’s death will appear in court in August to face lesser charges. All four were fired by the city’s police force after the incident.
Kami Chavis, law professor and director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University, said officers are rarely held accountable for use of force in the US, as the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
Last year, 1,127 people were killed by police across the country, including 80 who were unarmed, according to a research project called Mapping Police Violence. An overwhelming majority of people (96 percent) were killed in police shootings, the group reported, but officers were charged with a crime in only 16 percent of all cases.
Another 2019 report from Bowling Green State University found that 104 non-federal law enforcement officers were charged with murder or manslaughter over an on-duty shooting between 2005 and June 25, 2019, across the US, but only 35 had been convicted of a crime.
“We have been here far too many times as a people, watching as the fate of an officer with blood on his hands is decided,” Patrisse Cullors, co-founder and executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF), said in a statement on Friday ahead of the Chauvin trial.
“Though history has failed Black communities time and again in these types of trials, Black people remain steadfast in demanding justice that will heal and liberate us and eradicate white supremacy,” said Cullors, adding that “bigotry, white supremacy, and complacency are also on trial” in Chauvin’s case.
What is justice?
According to a Washington Post database, there have been 6,139 fatal police shootings across the US since January 1, 2015 – including 213 so far this year.
While Black people account for less than 13 percent of the population, they are disproportionately harmed: Black people are killed by police at a rate of 35 per million, compared with 14 per million for white people, the newspaper reported.
Black men have a one in 1,000 chance of being killed by police in their lifetime, according to a report from 2019. Black people also were more than three times more likely to be involved in fatal police shootings between 2015-2020 than white people, another recent report found, prompting researchers to declare that, “fatal police shootings are a public health emergency”.
Just days after Floyd’s death, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet underscored the importance of convicting police officers for using excessive force: “Procedures must change, prevention systems must be put in place, and above all police officers who resort to excessive use of force, should be charged and convicted for the crimes committed.”
Chavis said, “There’s a lot riding” on Chauvin’s trial “when we think about the value of human life, period – but certainly of Black lives.”
“It may seem that policing is on trial here and to a large extent, what happens in this case will be signalling to police officers what they can do, what they can get away with,” Chavis added, “but it’s really important to remember that it’s really Derek Chauvin and his actions on that day … that are at issue.”
Jones, at University of California-Berkeley, said some may argue the legal system is incapable of delivering justice in Floyd’s case, even if the jury finds Chauvin guilty, “in part because [a guilty verdict] won’t fundamentally transform the system”.
But “if the family defines justice as a guilty verdict, then if that is not delivered, it will certainly seem unjust – yet perhaps not surprising,” she said, also pointing to the fact that police officers are seldom held accountable.
“If the law is fundamental to democratic institutions and we all saw what we saw and there is no culpability found and criminal liability found, what does justice mean in a democratic institution in a multiracial democracy?” Jones asked, about the questions underlying the Chauvin trial.
“I think that’s what’s at stake on the global stage: an understanding of, what is America, and what does it mean?”