Did the police officers involved in the murder of George Floyd have a feeling that as policemen they could torture people- especially black Americans- with impunity?
Did Derek Chauvin, the white policeman of Minneapolis, press his knee on the black American George Floyd's neck for a total of eight minutes and 46 seconds out of racial hatred or due to his ruthless disposition? The use of chokeholds and neck restraints is banned by most police departments in the US. Police officers are allowed to use it only in the case of active resistance from a suspect. But in order to avoid death or serious injury the hold and restraint cannot be maintained more than a few seconds. Floyd was handcuffed and four officers made him lie face down on the pavement. Therefore, it was absolutely unnecessary as well as ruthless to kneel on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
During the incident, the indifferent and unsympathetic expressions on the faces of Chauvin and another officer Tou Thao were incredibly shocking. Floyd said several times that he could not breathe. Yet, Chauvin was merciless. Thao stood beside them calmly and sometimes walked in a relaxed manner. He showed no intention to restrain Chauvin. Instead, he found it more important to tell the angry bystanders to stay away. It was absolutely outrageous for people responsible for preventing crime to show such sheer lack of empathy and compassion. Did they have a feeling that as policemen they could torture people especially black Americans with impunity and that's why they remained unperturbed even after seeing that they were being filmed?
Well-known African-American film director Spike Lee's 1989 feature Do the Right Thing includes a sequence where some white policemen are seen trying to detain a black young man named Radio Raheem in an African-American area in Brooklyn, New York. One of the officers places Radio Raheem in a chokehold. He keeps applying pressure on Raheem's throat with his iron baton even when Raheem stops resisting. When the chokehold is released, Raheem's lifeless body falls on the ground. The officers depart the place soon with the dead body. The camera slowly pans from right to left showing the stupefied faces of the black Americans standing in their own neighborhood.
One by one they say ― "It's murder. They did it again, just like Michael Stewart… murder. Eleanor Bumpers... murder. It isn't safe in our own neighborhood… never was, never will be." Then, an elderly black American says, "It's as plain as day. They didn't have to kill the boy." Whenever I think of a white policeman's use of a banned chokehold in real life on black American Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York (in 2014) and Chauvin's use of knee-to-neck restraint on George Floyd which resulted in their deaths, I also feel like that fictional movie character that the policemen did not have to kill them. Unfortunately, in the US on various occasions the black Americans have been subjected to excessive and unreasonable force when they were being arrested by the policemen. The autopsies of Arthur Miller and Michael Stewart, two African-American men who died in 1978 and 1983 respectively shortly afterwards their arrests, revealed that both of them had either been choked or strangled.
In an interview Spike Lee said, "The eight cops that murdered Michael Stewart ― that's where we got that Radio Raheem stuff. That is the Michael Stewart chokehold. Except we didn't have his eyeballs pop out of his head like Michael Stewart's did." In that interview Lee also said about the rape of a black woman in America, "This woman was found raped and murdered in a park. No mention of it ― you didn't see nothing ― no headlines in the Post, Newsday, Time, New York Times, or New York Daily News. That's a devaluation of a black life. It's like black life doesn't mean anything, doesn't count for anything." After the killing of several black Americans for many years, does the tragic death of George Floyd not serve to justify that dialogue of Do the Right Thing that even the black Americans' own neighborhood was never safe for them and never will be? Condemnations of violence against black Americans were made via various cultural means. But the continuation of such violence suggests that still many people in the US choose to close their eyes to this social problem.
Grand juries in different counties of America, the US Department of Justice, and certain district attorney's offices declined to prosecute police officers who were involved in the killing of black Americans such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, and Stephon Clark. All of them were killed from 2014 to 2018. A few of the officers were sacked. But when Daniel Pantaleo, a white policeman only lost his job for putting Eric Garner in a prohibited chokehold that caused the black person's death, can we say that the punishment fits the crime? I think such situations explain why an officer like Chauvin did not hesitate to be ruthless with a black American. It is also revealed that in his 18 years' service with the Minneapolis Police Department, 17 complaints were lodged against Chauvin. Still, he was working as a senior police officer. Can the political leaders and influential people of the judicial system in the US feel happy with their attempts to extend the rule of law? Should not they feel ashamed of the situation that the whole world witnesses that police brutality towards African-American people continues to exist in America?
African-American leader Malcolm X once said, "I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need." When a movement named 'Black Lives Matter' has to be initiated in the US and when in 2020 once again a dying black American subjected to police brutality says 'I can't breathe' as another African-American Eric Garner did in 2014, we wonder how the powerful sections of America perceived the notion of justice over the years. In the 1967-film The Night of the Generals one character says, "Justice is blind. Justice cannot see the red stripe or the gold braid, but justice can sometimes hear the cry of a murdered woman." And after the murder of George Floyd, in a CBC News report, the commentator said, "The pain is fresh but the sad circumstance is bitterly familiar. From Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri to Eric Garner on Staten Island to the protests in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray nothing seems to ever change for black Americans." Therefore, it should not seem surprising if such questions are raised: Is justice not blind in the US? Or, can justice see black and white in that country?
Recently, US President Donald Trump urged governors across America not to be weak and to dominate people taking part in the movement triggered by the murder of George Floyd. The President was unable to think like Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo who retorted: "This is not about dominating. It's about winning hearts and minds." Surely, as Malcolm X pointed out, there are good people and bad people in America. If Americans are to feel proud of their society they must ensure the triumph of sanity over senselessness, kindness over cruelty, and the good over the ugly.
The author is Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.