“I Can’t Breathe”: Enough is Enough

Source: Richard T Song Taatarii, Star Tribune, AP

Minneapolis is literally on fire since George Floyd, 46, became the latest in a long line of black men and women to die in police custody. Derek Chauvin was called to the scene because Floyd was accused of writing a bad cheque; the scene climaxed with Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, brutally suffocating him in broad daylight.

Video footage captured Floyd’s murder, restaurant surveillance footage discounted the claim he was resisting arrest, and outrage has exploded across the state, country, and globe. Within 24 hours protests and looting in Minneapolis, coupled with social media uproar, has electrified the world.

President Trump wasted no time in announcing via Twitter that he would send in the National Guard if the Mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, did not take the lead:

However, the Mayor has outlined his support for Floyd and has called for the offending officers to be arrested:

The protests continue, becoming ever more violent, including the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd precinct being set on fire. More buildings have been set ablaze, there are currently 40 demonstrators under arrest, and one person has been shot. Teargas has been used by the police and the refusal of Target to hand out milk to help the affected protesters has led to its stores being looted across the state.

A state of emergency has been declared across Minnesota state, and protests have spread to New York City, Denver, Los Angeles and other US cities. As this story is being written, a CNN crew have been placed under arrest for reporting the protests, issuing an apology from the Governor of Minneapolis.

Source: S. Maturen, Getty Images

I can’t breathe’ is the chant cascading across the cities, and not for the first time. The history of police brutality in America is shocking: in 2019, more than 1000 people died due to police brutality – there were only 27 days in 2019 when the police did not kill someone. In 2014, Eric Garner was murdered in exactly the same way as Floyd, saying the same final words, in New York City. In 2014, no-one was arrested or indicted for Garner’s murder, but today, the four policemen responsible for Floyd’s have been fired, and there are calls across the city for them to face criminal punishment.

In the last few hours, protesters’ voices have been heard: Chauvin has been charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter, which in Minnesota is punishable up to 20 years imprisonment. The investigation is ongoing; Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County Attorney, added: “we have never charged a case in that kind of time-frame, and we can only charge a case when sufficient admissible evidence to prove the case beyond any reasonable doubt as of right we have it”. However, the other policemen at the crime scene are yet to face punishment, and there are many unhappy with Chavin’s charge criticising it for being too little too late.

The US has far more incidents of killing due to police brutality than the rest of the Western world. Mass shootings have killed 339 people since 2015, but police shootings over the same time span have killed 4,355 people. Black people represent 13% of America’s population, but 31% of the victims of police. In 2014, the UN Committee against Torture condemned this brutality and highlighted the:

“frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals”

Associate Professor of Criminology, Lorie Fridell, explains the issue of implicit biases affecting our perception of threat; in studies, even Black and Latino officers were more likely to shoot an unarmed black man than an unarmed white one. The main reason for this bias development is:

“in our country, people of colour are disproportionately represented amongst the people who commit street crime”

This is one reason black people have faced far more police brutality than white people. One of the positives of this finding is that it progresses past the regressive tactic of blaming individual behaviour for these events, not that offenders should not be individually punished, but the problem is far wider and systemic than being a ‘few bad apples’.

Treating the issue as systemic allows us to see the other issues caused by the bias. For example, when we look at the racial and ethnic makeup of US prisons it is substantially different from the demographics of the country as a whole: In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. Assuming that this is because there is more crime in black communities than white ignores the real issue. And as we learn every time a black person is murdered by the force that should protect them, just because a system functions it does not mean it is functionally correctly or sustainably.

The imprisonment rate for ethnic minorities is declining; one reason is organisations such as the Innocence Project:

“The Innocence Project’s mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment”

The organisation uses DNA to exonerate innocent inmates; 47% of freed innocent people in the US are black. Looking at the cases, there is shockingly little evidence for the majority of the initial convictions, and it would be absolutely fair to say that there is explicit and systemic racial discrimination at play:

  • African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers;
  • The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22% more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants;
  • A black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict. The major cause for this huge racial disparity appears to be the high danger of mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims in violent crimes with black assailants.

• The issue of racial discrimination is not applicable to the criminal justice system only. It leaks through into every facet of daily life – where is it coming from?

• How can it be stopped?

Further Reading

Michigan Law School, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States

The Guardian, George Floyd protests: what we know so far

Clara Browne-Amorim
Francesca Mele
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