On 20 April, sacked Minneapolis police officer Derek Michael Chauvin was unanimously found guilty on three counts of illegally taking the life of George Floyd. The proven charges were: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
The fact that a police officer in the USA was even charged with the murder of an unarmed black man was unusual enough, but for him to have been found guilty is something most Americans, especially black Americans, thought they would never see.
On the day that the verdict was delivered, three black people were shot by police in separate American states (20-year-old Duante Wright in Minneapolis, 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, and 15-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio), as if to send a clear message that there will be no overall change in policing policies across America and that the trials of murderer Chauvin and his three accomplices are just a one-off – a sop to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters in America and beyond that maybe the Minneapolis police went a ‘bit too far’ on this occasion.
We would be very happy to be proved wrong when we make this point, but dividing the working class along racial, religious, sex and national lines is so important for the rulers of the USA that we think it unlikely that any great change will come from this one legal decision, however groundbreaking it may seem.
The official narrative will be that Chauvin was just one ‘bad apple’ but, as someone once said: “Bad apples very often come from rotten trees”! Chauvin doesn’t seem to have had any particular problems in his early life; it was only when he was put in uniform – ie, onto the ‘rotten tree’ – that he seems himself to have turned rotten, believing, not without good reason, that he could now break a few laws without any serious comeback so long as he could claim to be ‘doing his job’ and that any victim of his law-breaking was working class or, preferably, black working class.
Before murdering George Floyd, Chauvin had been involved in three police shootings, one of which was fatal. He had 18 complaints on his official record, two of which had resulted in disciplinary action, including with official letters of reprimand.
People celebrated as the ‘guilty on all counts’ verdict was declared outside the Hennepin county government centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, cheering and chanting “George Floyd” and “All three counts”. Their amazement, joy and hope for the future was relayed to and shared by very many across America – and, indeed, the world.
The list of complaints and reprimands on Chauvin’s record is not, unfortunately, unusual, since US police officers seem to understand very well that their role is to keep the majority in line for the sake of the rich minority within capitalist society. In general, they do not (will still not) spare the rod – or the bullets.
Just to make sure that people saw him as something ‘different’ from his predecessor, US president Joe Biden spoke immediately in agreement with the verdict at the Cross Hall of the White House – hoping, perhaps, that people would forget the high number of race murders carried out by the US police while Barack Obama was in the presidential office and he himself was the vice-president! Needless to say, Obama joined Biden in mouthing weasel words of support for the verdict.
Chauvin’s sentencing could take another couple of months, while the three other officers who are charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin in Mr Floyd’s murder will stand trial in August. Chauvin is appealing against the verdict, and so this affair will run for some time yet.
In the months that followed the murder and the huge BLM demonstrations that the murder sparked, numerous US states and cities were actually driven to restrict the use of force by their police and to revamp their disciplinary procedures, but that obviously was not meant to be a permanent state of affairs. The rulers of the United States understand that if the sentences handed out to Chauvin and his aides to murder had been farcical, or if an appeal was to overturn the guilty verdict, then those huge demonstrations would return to the streets and they would need dealing with.
However, if the sentencing is deemed by US police officers to be too ‘harsh’ then the loyalty of those uniform-wearing thugs who protect the powerful, the ultra-wealthy and their state, could be called into question and become somewhat fragile, to say the least. The main enemy of working people around the world seems to be facing a bit of a quandary in its own back yard. Sadly, on its own, this legal victory, and the bit of a quandary in which it places US imperialism, will change very little.
We have to understand at this point the role that the media play in ‘keeping workers in line’ and covering for the police. It is a fact that, from the start of the Chauvin trial up to the verdict, more than 60 people have been killed by police in the United States. Over 1,000 people are killed by police there every year. These facts are findable, but they are not constantly on front pages and TV news screens.
Meanwhile in Britain, where the Black Lives Matter response to George Floyd’s murder also struck a chord, a serving police sergeant has been acquitted of sharing a grossly offensive image online. The image was a meme depicting a dying George Floyd but with his murderer removed and replaced by an enlarged image of a black man’s genitalia crushing his neck.
The officer in question, Sergeant Geraint Jones, told the judge that he didn’t mean to cause offence by sending the meme to a closed WhatsApp group of mainly police officers, by whom it was generally accepted and was greeted by two group members with laughing emojis. One member, however, complained about the image, causing the matter to be referred to Devon and Cornwall Police’s professional standards department.
Sgt Jones, who has served with Torquay police for 23 years, deleted the meme and apologised for sending it. After an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, he was charged under the Communications Act 2003. In court, he managed to persuade District Judge Jo Matson that it was ‘just a joke’.
The district judge said: “Although I, and the majority of people, would find the image Mr Jones sent disgusting and grossly offensive, particularly given the timing of when it was sent and from a serving police officer to other police officers, and although I have found the image to be grossly offensive to the black and minority ethnic community, I find that the prosecution have not proved beyond reasonable doubt the mental element required for a conviction for this offence.”
He added, for good measure: “I accept that Mr Jones was not aware of, or recognised the risk, at the time, that the image was liable to cause gross offence to those to whom it relates, and I accept he was not aware of, or recognised, the risk that it may create fear or apprehension in any reasonable member of the public who were to read or see it.”
He followed this twaddle with: “I therefore find Mr Jones not guilty of this offence and dismiss the charge against him.”
This incident shows quite clearly that here, just as in the USA, there is a culture of dehumanising the victims of police violence. We can only imagine what those police officers would have thought if they had been sent a picture of a dying police officer turned into a ‘joke’, and we don’t suppose the district judge would have been so understanding if such a meme had been shared by a member of the public.
There is a class war going on in all imperialist and capitalist countries, and the police are not neutral or disinterested bystanders: they are on one side and one side only; they represent and defend the ruling class and will continue to do so while capitalism remains the political system under which we live.