The following is a translation of an article by our colleague Veronika Cukrov, Master of Laws and PhD candidate, which was originally published in Svet Kapitala: https://svetkapitala.delo.si/mnenja/veronika-cukrov-druga-ameriska-drzavljanska-vojna/
SECOND AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
If we listen to the message of the current protests, they seem to focus on the death of George Floyd, an African-American who was strangled to death by Officer Chauvin during police detention. Despite this horrific event, the answer to the question of why this very event drove the US into a civil war is not so simple.
Statistical anomaly or established practice?
The statistical website mappingpoliceviolence.com reports that black people accounted for 24 percent of police killings in 2019, with black people accounting for only 13 percent of the total population; black people are thus above-averagely represented as victims of police violence, which is supposed to confirm the thesis of institutionalized violence. Also, black people are said to be 1.3 times more often unarmed than other races; 99 percent of the cases of people killed by the police did not end in a police officer’s accusation, let alone a conviction.
In 2019 alone, U.S. police killed 1,099 people, a problem that has been dragging on not just for years, but for decades. For example, a comprehensive U.S. Department of Justice report on the use of force in the police, published in 2001, found that as early as 1999, approximately 422,000 people aged 16 and over had contact with police in which force or threat of force was used.
Despite these extensive statistics, protesters only shout Floyd’s name, and not just because the event was filmed by several eyewitness cameras, cameras from neighbouring stores and broadcast on social networks (which we have already experienced several times).
Floyd’s murder is shocking primarily because it portrays violence as a conscious, ongoing, and organized decision; four (i.e. all present) police officers were more or less actively involved in the more than 9-minute strangulation of the “suspect” (who allegedly bought cigarettes with a counterfeit banknote, which was not proven), despite 16 (!) intermitten statements by Floyd that he cannot breathe, and despite the constant requests of eyewitnesses that the police check his pulse and stop choking him.
After a long strangulation, the seemingly completely unaffected police officers, together with the rescuers, loaded Floyd’s immobile body on a stretcher and drove away as if it were something most mundane.
Pressing the trigger of a gun (which is the result of most deceased victims of police violence) is an instantaneous, often even subconscious decision, which can be much easier to defend than a justified or at least justifiable move, and that is why firearms are so dangerous.
Strangling an individual for 9 minutes is something completely different. The involvement of all police officers present in Floyd’s murder (two of the police officers involved had previously been involved in several cases of violence, including cases of shooting at unarmed minorities) is what is most frightening in Floyd’s case; in the United States it is very popular to point out that police violence is a pair of bad eggs among police officers, and not a systemically widespread practice that would be approved within the police.
The mere fact that Chauvin and Thao (two police officers in Floyd’s case) kept their jobs after previous cases of violence, and that all police officers on the scene, in an almost “zombie” trance, took part in the murder, seems to the protesters proof of the thesis that violence is woven into the very structure of the American police system.
This case, of course, reminded Americans of many past notorious cases of police violence; from the case of Tamir Rice, a child who played with a toy in the shape of a gun and was shot without even being asked to drop the toy; through cases of black people holding Skittles candies (which would be perceived by the police as a gun); to individuals who went running (which the police perceived as threatening to do); or persons wearing a hood (very suspicious acts themselves!); and all the way to the case of Sandra Bland, a black woman who ended up in custody immediately for a traffic offence and allegedly hanged herself there a few days later.
After Floyd’s assassination, the American public no longer perceived these cases as sporadic or localized deviations, but as an expression of the organized practice of the entire police force.
A similar excuse for the described actions of the police officers, such as the one regarding the “pair of rotten eggs among the police officers”, is also the excuse that the police officers were simply afraid; in a country with a widespread practice of carrying weapons, this is a fairly acceptable reason, with current protests unfortunately further increasing the sale of firearms to private individuals.
With the “fear” of the police, it was always possible to “justify” at least part of the killings and to some extent calm the majority of the public. That is no longer enough now; Floyd posed no threat to anyone – not to third parties, not to the police. He did not physically resist detention, and if anyone was afraid, it was only him. None of the other officers also demanded that Officer Chauvin remove his knee from Floyd’s neck; one police officer only harassed an eyewitness to stop recording their conduct.
What the other side says
Statistics undoubtedly show that black people are more frequent victims of violence in the U.S., but there are still plenty of cases of whites being killed by the police entirely through no fault of their own. Personally, I think this is a problem of too strong a repressive apparatus, which, due to the personal beliefs of individual police officers, more often manifests itself against black people; at its core, therefore, it is primarily a systemic problem of excessive police repression and not necessarily a systemic problem of racism, even though the protests focused entirely on the latter.
There are even Americans who advocate the fact that the police are more likely to intimidate and carry out illicit practices on black people; namely, they support the practice of racial profiling with an emphasis on the crime control model. As black people are more likely to be perpetrators of certain crimes, it allegedly makes sense for the police to behave “preventively” and more severely towards them on the basis of these statistics.
Trump likes to say that Floyd’s death was not “in vain” as the perpetrators will be punished; the protesters, on the other hand, argue that such a death is nevertheless in vain, and that even a fair trial cannot justify it. At the same time, Trump himself is fomenting unrest by urging police and the military to be relentless in fighting riots, which only adds to the protesters’ claim that the United States is an inherently brutal country.
How about possible solutions?
Many proposals have been made in the past to prevent police brutality. One of the proposed and already used solutions are body cameras on police officers; these are supposed to make sure that police officers commit fewer offences as they know their actions are being recorded. These cameras have been in use in the U.S. for quite a few years and interestingly, they were also worn by police officers in the George Floyd case, however, this did not deter them from brutal treatment.
Undoubtedly, part of the problem stems from the general police powers, which, however, originate from the sphere of law itself, especially from case law. The Terry stop or Stop and Frisk doctrine, for example, allows the police to detain a person on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity. It is a very low standard of suspicion, much lower than that required for arrest or detention.
This doctrine allows the police to forcibly detain an individual who has most likely done nothing, and in the meantime, the police know how to do many things with him. “Terry stop” originates from a decision of the Supreme Court from 1968 (Terry v. Ohio); in this case, police suspected a pair of African-Americans of committing a robbery, investigated them solely for this purpose, and found some weapons in the process, and this resulted in their prison sentences. The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 that the conduct of the police was appropriate.
Undoubtedly, the very change of such legal rules, from the powers of the police to the justified reasons for detention, could change the statistics of police violence.
As a lawyer, I must, in principle, condemn any violence, and there has been a great deal of this in these protests, both by the authorities and by the protesters. Some of the protesters are advocating violence against police officers and the destruction of private property as they see the current riots as another French revolution and thus legitimize their violence.
To some extent, I understand this, as it is difficult to achieve anything in the American democratic process; the very idea of a two-party presidential system means that protesters in the upcoming election have a choice between Trump, whom he called “thugs” (a highly racially reprehensible term), and Biden, who told his black interviewee last week that “if he doesn’t vote for him, he’s not black.”
The situation saddens me, but at the same time it is a very logical conclusion to half-past American history. And although one side emphasizes only the brutality of the repressive police apparatus and the other only the damage done by the protesters, above all I hope to find a connecting figure who manages to end the violence on both sides.
The fact is that if the rule of law fails at the level of police violence, it will undoubtedly also fail in its efforts for peaceful democratic processes.