The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was not just a case of excessive force or brutality. It was a murder, plain and simple. Police officer Derek Chauvin asphyxiated Floyd to death by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while three other officers watched and did nothing to stop him. Chauvin could see that his actions were being recorded by a bystander and did not seem to care. He looked blankly into the camera as Floyd died underneath him.
Floyd’s killing came right after Breonna Taylor was shot to death in Louisville by cops who had mistaken her apartment for someone else’s. Theirs are only the latest names to be added to a grim and ever-growing list of people of color killed by the police: Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald and Alton Sterling and Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and Philando Castile and Michael Brown and Amadou Diallo, and on and on. No other major country loses as many of its citizens to police violence as ours does.
This might have something to do with how we conceive of “policing” itself. There is, to begin with, the militarization of municipal police forces. During the George W. Bush administration, the Pentagon sent surplus battle-grade weapons and armor to police departments around the country. Though the Obama administration scaled back the program, President Trump ramped it up again in 2017. The provision of such military equipment, and the corresponding rise of combat-style tactical training, both reflects and reinforces the authoritarian tendencies of our police culture. The police like to present themselves as the “thin blue line” between law and disorder. Police unions maintain power by exploiting the fear this image is meant to evoke, warning of chaos and crime waves should any effort be made to implement reforms, and securing favorable contracts that shield them from scrutiny. In 1967 the Supreme Court ratified the dubious concept of “qualified immunity” for cops, which puts an added burden on those who accuse the police of misconduct. This is why so few police officers are arrested, prosecuted, or penalized for their actions, even when the evidence of wrongdoing is as clear as it is in the Floyd case. The four Minneapolis officers were quickly fired, but criminal charges weren’t filed until four days later, and then only against Chauvin for third-degree murder and manslaughter. Over his career, he’s had eighteen complaints filed against him. Fortunately, there is growing agreement among liberals and conservatives that the definition of qualified immunity needs to be drastically narrowed, and the Supreme Court in its next term is hearing a number of cases that could make it easier to prosecute police officers.