Yesterday was a day of horrifying contrasts in emotion in the USA. The different extremes were about the same issue; police brutality.
Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is notorious worldwide for kneeling on the throat of George Floyd and asphyxiating him in May last year. Yesterday a court found him guilty of murder at the end of his (bizarrely) long trial.
No closing-of-ranks for once
Unusually in an instance of police brutality against a black man, the Minneapolis Police did not hesitate to act. They disowned Chauvin, dismissed him and three of his colleagues from the force, and pressed charges of murder.
When Judge Peter Cahill announced the verdict, it triggered scenes of celebration and tears of relief all over the USA, and beyond. A moment of triumph, when the Black Lives Matter movement at last made real headway in the struggle against the disease of racist policing?
Conviction and new murder simultaneously
Sadly, events elsewhere in the USA would prove this a bitter delusion. A day for celebration in the struggle for fair treatment of ethnic minorities instead became a day that reinforced the usual despair. For in Columbus, around the time Cahill read out the Chauvin verdict, Ohio police gunned down a black teenage girl. Four shots. She died instantly.
The girl’s name was Ma’khia Bryant. She was armed with a knife, but the USA believes in the right to bear arms in self-defence, right? Miss Bryant had in fact called the police herself. She was scared a gang of other girls were about to mug her. Sure enough, some kind of fight had broken out by the time the police arrived on the scene.
As only ever seems to happen with black victims, the police assumed Miss Bryant was behaving in a violent manner. A 15 year old girl. On her own. Armed only with a knife. And she had called the police in herself. It is possible that she was using the knife against her assailants when the police arrived. But even so, shooting her FOUR times does sound a ridiculous way of ‘de-escalating’.
The Mayor of Columbus, Andrew Ginther, did not help matters when he tweeted an announcement of Miss Bryant’s killing. He referred to a girl of 15 as “a young woman,” and discussed details in such broad, roundabout terms that cause of death sounded like a mystery.
One step forward, two steps back
There is body-cam footage of the incident, and so now it seems the USA will go through the same absurdly over-long process of trying to prove that a murder should be considered murder.
If Miss Bryant’s story sounds familiar, it is because this particular pattern occurs frequently. With a lot of police officers, and certainly not only in the USA, there seems a terrifying common assumption. They see a black person and assume, even if they are behaving themselves, they are simply criminals taking a day off. Only in December, for instance, Ohio police shot dead a black man, Casey Goodson, for “brandishing a gun.” It turned out that he was holding a sandwich.
Different colours, different rules
When white people are carrying guns in danger situations, the response is frequently different. Remember Patrick Crusius two years ago in El Paso? He carried out a white nationalist gun massacre that took 23 lives. The police arrested him only when he surrendered to them.
Or how about Kyle Rittenhouse last year? He used a rifle to kill two people and injure a third during protests over the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin. Not only was Rittenhouse not shot by police officers, he was not even arrested. The police let him walk away from the scene unchecked, even as he arrogantly brandished his rifle at his hip. Ironically, the protests had been over the police shooting the unarmed Blake – another black man – seven times in the back. (This brings an altogether terrifying new meaning to the term “Blake’s 7,” yes?) Rittenhouse has still not stood trial, although it must be emphasised that the delay is mainly because of the pandemic.
But this inconsistency is the clinching evidence of what we know easily, but struggle to prove. Racism in the police force is driving officers to react much more violently in situations involving black people.
Cultural level change needed
This is a fundamental cultural problem. Gun violence in the USA in general is a cultural problem too, one of aggressive paranoia. It leads gun advocates to believe that the USA must let the tragedy of gun violence continue unabated, in order to hold off an imagined, speculative tragedy of ‘Government oppression’ in an unspecified future.
Chauvin’s conviction cannot begin to resolve either that paranoia or the crude racism. They run far deeper than the prejudices and institutional arrogance of one ex-policeman.
There is still, alas, a very long way to go.
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