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OP-ED: A turning point for the US?

  • Published at 01:21 am April 26th, 2021
black lives matter protest
REUTERS

Will the conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd change anything?

Most Americans and many around the world were glued to the TV watching the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin who was charged with the murder of George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota. The verdict was swift. Chauvin was found guilty and now faces a lengthy prison term.

Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief. Acquittal for Chauvin might have triggered nationwide violent protests. To many, this verdict suggested that getting justice is finally possible for black people. 

Some declared that the Chauvin trial was a turning point. Rogue white policemen will be punished from now on.

Though rare, white policemen have been punished for such crimes before. Former police officer Michael Slager is serving a 20-year prison sentence in South Carolina for a similar crime; in 2015, he shot Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in the back, killing him. In almost all cases where white policemen go to jail, powerful video evidence exposes falsehoods in police reports. 

In the Chauvin case the police reported that Floyd died in the hospital, not in police custody. 

Not that the existence of incriminating videos proves guilt. In 2014, Eric Garner, another unarmed Black man, was choked to death by a Daniel Pantaleo, a white police officer, in New York. A video of the incident taken by Ramsey Orta showed Garner screaming “I can’t breathe,” much like Floyd. 

The medical examiner concluded that Garner’s death was a homicide. Officer Pantaleo was fired, but never charged. On the other hand, Ramsey Orta, who took the video, was harassed by the police and later imprisoned for four years on drug related charges.

Chauvin’s conviction was the result of a 10-minute video taken by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier who took a clear, up-close video of the Chauvin-Floyd encounter from the beginning to the death of Floyd. Without the courageous act of this minor, there would have been no indictments.

In 2016, Philando Castile, a black man, was shot and killed by Jeronimo Yanez, a white police officer, in Minnesota. Castile had informed Yanez that he had a gun which he was licensed to carry. 

Yanez shot Castile as he reached for his wallet; he said later that he thought Castile was reaching for his gun. 

However, Castile’s girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were in the car with him; it is extremely unlikely that he would have reached for a gun under such circumstances. The incident was recorded on police dashcam. Yanez was charged but was found innocent by a jury.  

Since 2016, however, Minnesota has undergone some profound changes.

The elected attorney general of Minnesota, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the state, is Keith Ellision, a black Muslim. Ellison charged Chauvin with unintentional second-degree murder. 

These charges avoided cross examination on the issue of whether Chauvin is racist. Racism is very difficult to prove in court. The charges framed by Ellison were based on the Darnella video; prosecuting attorneys told jurors to believe their eyes.

When Ellison was elected to Congress some years ago, he used the Qur’an and not the Bible in his swearing in. He defused any chance of controversy by using a copy of the Qur’an that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, the AGs in most states are not as pragmatic.

The new police chief of Minneapolis, Medaria Arradondo, is a highly qualified black man. He immediately fired the four officers involved in the Floyd incident, making it clear that he was taking it very seriously.

And finally, Minnesota, where the vast majority is white with a long tradition of being liberal Democrat, was the ideal place for this lawsuit. Minnesota voted against Trump and elected Ilhan Omar to Congress. Omar is a Democrat, a Muslim immigrant from Somalia, and a mother of three.

People ask if the Chauvin trial is a one off – unfortunately, it is.

The only changes brought about by the Chauvin trial are the exact opposite of what was expected.

In 34 states, Republican legislatures are pushing for measures which will make it easier to jail protestors. 

In Florida, the governor has already signed such measures into law. If Chauvin had been acquitted, anyone protesting the acquittal in Florida would have been jailed until they appeared in court to get bail.  

These laws coupled with voter suppression efforts in most states do not bode well for racial harmony and justice in the US.

Kazi Shahid Hasan was educated at Buet and Boston University and has spent 40 years as a Wall Street analyst.

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