George Floyd: Democracy, Police, and Black American Resistance

When police brutality ends a life and protests follow, the biggest question is, what is the relationship between the promise of democracy, historically disadvantaged communities and law enforcement. There is a need to examine the underlying biases and ideas that shape how minority groups are governed, policed and perceived. George Floyd's murder, following protests, and response of the administration have a lot to offer in this regard.

I can’t breathe.

Three words spoken by 46-year-old George Floyd while desperately trying to hold onto thin air for his life have echoes that reverberate through the history of brutality against African American men and women at the hands of Caucasian police officers. One man’s final words, a plea for air, have stoked fires that have scorched the highest seats in the White House. Floyd’s tragic death due to extra-legal police brutality has stoked memories of similar cases before him. Notably, Eric Garner (died in 2014 of chokehold by a police officer, uttering the same last words) and Sgt James Brown1 (died in 2012 due to police officers swarming on him while in police custody, uttering the same three words). These add to the long list of many other names who have been lost to extra-legal police brutality. What is unmistakable in all three cases is the racial character of crime and the denial of first aid and of any wrongdoing. 

The last words of Garner and Floyd, “I Can’t Breathe,” have become a euphemism to highlight how suffocating the racial bias of the establishment and state has become for the African American community. An unfavourable racial bias against African American population in everything from schools, universities, jobs, housing to access to health and medical facilities, banking, incarceration and even voting can easily be established empirically. Much of this has been repeatedly studied for decades with consistent outcomes. The point being that the broad picture is not changing. The United States (US), 245 years after its independence, is still struggling to become an authentic democracy. And 401 years after the first group of men and women, from what is now the nation of Angola, arrived as slaves, it is still the African American labouring to make the US truly democratic.

Floyd’s murder, the following protests, state crackdown and the conviction of Derek Chauvin (police officer accused of Floyd’s murder) must be carefully examined to see what we need to understand.

The Caucasian-coloured Glasses 

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, slavery in the US was abolished. However, the 155 years of being colour-blind have not helped the deeply entrenched racial biases and prejudices that still shape the institutions of the state, judiciary, media, medicine and civil society. Slavery might have been abolished, racism might have been outlawed, but the institutions and structures that represent the US have yet to remove the Caucasian-coloured glasses through which their land appears free. That is, the structural character and assumptions of the establishment is Caucasian, by default. It retains its understanding of White people’s superiority and an uncritical respect for everything white. This is evident in the discourse about migrants that dominates the narrative in the US both in positive and negative spaces. The Donald Trump administration made it brazenly obvious by stating that there are desirable migrants and migrants from “shithole countries.” In this narrative, some migrants (Caucasian) are good; they discipline the native savages and build the country and other migrants (Black Americans, other non-White ethnicities/nationalities) are a liability and need to be disciplined to channel their labour in the service of the nation. 
The narrative of migrants in the US is one chain link away from the disciplinary power, and as Foucault tells us, docile bodies are the basic unit of disciplinary power. Slavery and racism heavily depended on control and discipline of the most extreme kind to produce “docile slaves,” as is evident from writings, most notably of bell hooks and W E B Du Bois. It is this disciplinary power to produce “docile” Black Americans2 that the state institutionalises in the form of law and order, judiciary and police force (Stevenson 2019).

It is essential, in light of Floyd’s extra-legal murder, to highlight the uncanny similarity between the ideas about slave bodies in the 17th–18th century and “criminals” today. Both are seen as “things, not humans.” There is a denial of any kind of personhood in both cases, which makes for a natural congruence and superimposition of the two. Bell hooks talks about the presumed threat of resistance and retaliation by the African male slave which seems identical to the perceived, ill-founded threat from Black men that has been used to justify the use of disproportionate force by the police. 

Federal government’s response strengthens this idea. The administration has had a different response to those protesting against a pandemic-induced lockdown and BLM (Black Lives Matter) protestors. The latter have been termed “thugs” (Rothman 2020) and “anarchists” (McGreal et al 2020). The former President’s tweets conflate protestors and looters into one (in effect, conflating resistance and criminality). This discriminatory attitude of the state is reflected in the actions of the Minnesota police who had, only days before Floyd’s killing, refused to employ force against armed White protestors who had gathered outside the state capital building demanding an end to lockdown. In selective use of force against both Floyd (unarmed) and the BLM protestors protesting his killing (mostly peaceful), Minnesota police represent the decentralised capillary power of both the state and the society at large (Foucault 1977: 213). 

What Floyd’s Murder Tells Us 

No doubt the extra-legal murder of Sgt Brown, Garner, and Floyd represent a criminal form of racial discrimination inherent to law enforcement agencies. There is a marked difference between the two, namely of having established criminality. There is a critical point that needs attention with regards to repeated instances of Black Americans being shot at or subjected to disproportionate use of force resulting in death over suspicion, in public spaces. There is no denying that Black Americans are facing a horrifying ordeal while serving prison sentences, what I am suggesting is that instances such as Floyd highlight a related but very different problem.   

In a blog post dated 2015,3 Steve Locke shares a personal encounter and argues that when a cop stops a Black American for questioning on suspicion, there are two stages, before you get into a police van and after you get into a police van. As he put it, a Black American, when they get into a police van, chances of them being accused of something they did not do rises exponentially. Not getting into the police car reduces one’s chances of being overpowered by a system that has a reputation of denying those it detains basic humanity, personhood, any kind of say or even visibility. In public spaces governed by civil society rules, we expect to be treated as persons/humans, as people with equal standing and as people who deserve to be heard.

The second stage is when a Black American is confronted by police in a public space with witnesses. In public space, police officers are obligated by law to follow protocols of civil space (routinely flouted in prisons, with low accountability). While being questioned by the police in public space, one still has their claim to bodily dignity and integrity. It is this bodily integrity and equal status and liberty that is routinely being violated on the ground of suspicion by the police when Black Americans are being stopped, frisked and murdered in cold blood by police officials in public space. These repeated incidents are geared at producing docile Black American bodies by instilling fear that moves beyond the prisons and police cars. It has parallels to the strategy bell hooks described Slavers’ adopted on slave ships to make African men docile and subservient before they arrived at their destination. Slavers would brutally murder one of the African men bought in the slave trade to instil fear and docility, among others. 

The public nature of police killings is meant to instil unreasonable fear and unquestioning subservience in Black American men and women when in public space. The strategy of producing docility has similarities with the myth of Greek warrior Achilles’ myrmidons, who would ensure a smooth rule by instilling a fear that anyone among the masses could be their next target. Curiously, it has time and again had the opposite effect, and for good. 

Protests and Looting

The protests that have followed the killing of Floyd have been met with excessive and almost criminal use of state apparatus to contain resistance. In a matter of days, the former President issued a threat of shooting the protestors and then deployed national guards to crack down on the protests in Minnesota. The narrative has shifted from being about resistance against racial profiling and police brutality, to rioting and looting (Bhanu Mehta 2020). Scholars are now debating the efficacy of violence in resistance and protest, with some arguing that rioting and looting have historically been legitimate forms of protest (Aizura 2020). Others have argued that rioters and protestors should not be conflated, claiming those are two separate groups. There is no empirical way to settle the question of whether or not these are the same people. The two options available right now in existing public discourse is that either rioting and looting are alright and a legitimate form of protests or that looters and rioters are different from the protestors. In the former, one seems to run the risk of being labelled rogue and counterproductive and a “savage” Black American(s) protesting, in the latter, one becomes a docile, Black American protestor. In both situations, one ends up reiterating the problematic racist discourse controlled by the White man narrative.

We are falling prey to arguing there is ideal subjecthood which the Black Americans must embody in order for the masses to support the cause. That BLM protests must stick to protocols of protests, Black American protestors must prove their docility, or risk losing public support. 

Let us unravel the relationship between rioting, looting and protests. When the heat on rioting and looting started to shift mass attention from the issue of police brutality to the threat of violence by Black protestors, Tamika Mallory, National Co-chair of Women’s March, made a speech, one that is remarkable for multiple reasons. In her speech, she said “America has looted black people … America looted the Native Americans, when they first came here; looting is what you do. We learned it from you. We learnt violence from you. If you want us to do better, then damn it, you do better” (Gaynor 2020). It is significant that she is both invoking history, situating the present acts in the history of slavery while simultaneously suggesting that the “looting” is multifaceted and still ongoing and can be and needs to be stopped.

The protests, almost always, bring together multiple issues against the common enemy, a diffused rage that emerges from multiple points of unrest and discontent. While these protests are against police brutality, the anger against systematic oppression and discrimination marginalising Black Americans by limiting their life choices and life chances cannot be forgotten. The anger is not just against the police but against an establishment that systematically traps a majority of the Black American population in poverty, debt, limited access to education, and employment. Looting is symptomatic of anger against this structural discrimination causing Black Americans to struggle more to achieve less. The anger recognises that the painful disparity experienced by Black Americans is built into the system. Their poverty is the necessary condition for the flourishing of predominantly White businesses. It is anger against artificially produced poverty that the Black Americans are condemned to. The rioting similarly is symptomatic of the distrust of law, state apparatus and state administration. Tamika is right; the establishment and system is looting systematically through normalised, continuous, everyday violence (protected by the law), while only when Black Americans do it these are read as violent incidents.  

The Civil Society

Civil society and the fractures of it is yet another interesting take that emerges from this whole incident. Civil society is not one amalgam, which Foucault, in his writing, cautions us about. It is the same civil society that is also one source of the capillary power that these police officers have, which justifies their actions, but today, it is the same privileged sections of civil society that are demanding answers. Incidents of White men and women acknowledging their undue racial privilege and using it to support and shield Black American protestors have been heartening to see. People collectively are refusing to accept that this is their nation. 

The protestors being termed either a “thug” or a “liberal hippie” depending on the colour of their skin have also highlighted how this decade is one of increasing incidents of state attacking its own people. All around the world, the incidents of an elected state administration attacking its own people, employing punitive, often fatal force, and a crackdown on dissent have become frequent. This raises questions on the contemporary role and relevance of the elected democratic state and its future

Tamika’s speech gives hope. She says Black Americans have been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. She suggests those most oppressed are labouring to make the state live up to its promise of freedom and democracy. She points out that “through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.” She calls Black Americans “perfecters of this democracy.”

Conviction and Implications

Derek Chauvin, a 19-year-old law enforcement veteran accused of Floyd’s murder, has been convicted on all three counts of second-degree manslaughter, second-degree murder and third-degree murder by the state of Minneapolis. As landmark as this judgment may be, considering how rare it is for a police officer to be convicted for their on-duty conduct, is this judgment doing what it must, setting a precedent for future trials and laying the foundation for social change? 

It is premature to speculate what the full extent of this judgment would be for police reforms, for future cases or the African American community, in general. However, one cannot ignore the framing of arguments, the tropes invoked in the trial and what that does towards changing or reaffirming the larger sociopolitical and legal situation of the community and its collective sense of systemic wrongs. 

From the defence’s side, the arguments invoked the beaten and expected tropes of the Black body as criminal and unruly, deserving of strict interventions. The defence justified Chauvin’s actions by emphasising that kneeling for 9 minutes 29 seconds on a handcuffed man in a prone position could not be the primary cause of death. The defence emphasised Floyd’s heart condition and the presence of restricted substances in his blood, suggesting that these combined have contributed to his demise. Poor health and use of restricted substances, two tropes often invoked in the context of African American community to covertly establish an inevitability of premature death. A move clearly meant to take away the onus of responsibility from Chauvin and back onto Floyd, suggesting he was not murdered but had partaken in his own death. 

The second thing is the arguments surrounding the bystanders who were critical in this trial since videos recorded on phones were evidence in this case. The perceived role of the larger African American community emerges from the implicit in the court arguments. The emphasis was on how the bystanders and their constant interjections urging Chauvin to step off Floyd’s neck worked to distract the officers from realising the full extent of the force and duration, again shifting the onus away from Chauvin, who by virtue of his training is equipped to handle high-stress situations effectively. Further, the motivations of those standing and capturing Floyd’s final moments were being questioned by the defence. The assumption being, the community must at all times act as fragmented and unorganised. This was also geared at warning those who seek to counter the narrative of the establishment through partaking in the documentation of the excesses would be considered complacent with the crime instead of being seen as whistle-blowers. The purpose of this move is to inspire fear and insecurity among the community at large to not intervene or try to hold the establishment accountable or organise in general against the establishment. The warning being that the act of recording could be turned around on the community itself as being complacent or even primarily responsible for the crime.

While regressive, these tropes were expected from the defence’ side since it represents the Caucasian-coloured glasses of the establishment. However, the approach that the prosecution assumed is troubling. The prosecution emphasised that this case should not be seen as geared towards a systemic reform but as an individual case of one bad apple. The prosecutor’s line of argument exonerated the establishment, stunting the possibility of registering this as a landmark judgment towards opening up the dialogue on racial injustices by law enforcement. Instead, the prosecution chose to present this case as asymptomatic and of larger systemic bias and an aberration to the otherwise problem-less law enforcement. This is the case of one rogue police officer while the larger police force is good, clarifying that this is not an “anti-police prosecution,” effectively dissociating from the larger protests that have raged through the US in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder. Such a line definitely stunts the impact of the win.   

Derek Chauvin has requested a retrial and a hearing to impeach the verdict accusing the jury of misconduct. He has argued that the jury was more diverse than Hennepin county itself. Support for it comes from media reports of one juror participating in a march to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr in Washington DC. The charge that the jury felt threatened and faced race-based pressure (Guardian 2021) suggests that the jury should have a very specific kind of rational thinking, one that embodies the race-blindness characteristic of Caucasian-coloured rationality that is not conscious of the historical weight of the crime, that is, how an incident/criminal act furthers historical wrongs or hurts a community that has been historically disadvantaged. The idea that juridical rationality must somehow be divorced from the social realities, reflecting an abstracted sense of value for decontextualised human life, should be critically revisited.  Social context does not reflect the ideals of all human life as equal nor should the law. The idea that judicial rationality can avoid reflecting social reality, being self-critical or seeking to correct historical wrongs in informing its sense of justice, needs to be revisited. The historical weight of crimes upon the specific community’s well-being should inform the sense of justice and rationality among the judiciary. To then revisit and define explicitly what justice, fairness and rationality mean and what are its inherent assumptions becomes extremely important for any country boasting of being a land of law.  

A shorter version of this article appeared on the blog "Cafe Dissensus Everyday."

Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Back to Top