On Monday, 25th May, a man died: 46-year-old Afro-American, now sadly known to world news as George Floyd practised as a security control officer (in jargon a ‘bouncer’) in a restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He died suffocating at the hands of the police during his arrest due to a payment that he allegedly made with a false check. This sad episode – had a greater media resonance than similar episodes because it was documented by passers-by on the street – is matched by the equally sad episodes to which the American news has, to our misfortune, become accustomed to.
As a matter of fact, the common trait is the evidence of disproportion of force used by the police that systematically strike Afro-Americans. In fact, in many United States cities, every encounter with the police risks becoming something unjustifiably violent, especially if the person dealing with the officers is of African race.
These actions were plausibly carried out for the pleasure of exalting the ego of those who know they can do so with the blessing of a silent accomplice system.
The unequal treatment is not only found in relationships with the police forces but is extended to the general legal treatment of Afro-Americans and leads to what is called institutionalized racism. Afro-Americans, in fact, receive on average harsher sentences for the same crime and the crimes committed against them are generally considered less serious.
In this regard, the Marshall Project – a non-profit journalism organization that focuses on criminal justice issues in the United States – has analysed attempts to reform the police force in Minnesota (a white majority state). According to this analysis, the reasons for the recurrence of violence are both due to the failure of removing from their duty those who are already guilty of abuse, and the lack of clear criteria for the use of force. Derek Chauvin, held responsible for kneeling George Floyd’s neck down to the ground until he was brutally suffocated, had already been subject of complaints in the past but was kept on duty nevertheless.
The need for a reform of the Minneapolis police force was already clear in 2012 when Jenée Harteau, the first woman to serve as Chief of Police, promised immediately to make changes to the system after her designation: in fact, circumstances in which officers authorized to kill a suspect had been reduced and in 2016 the regulation on the general use of force was also rewritten, focusing on the sanctity of life; and later introducing new rules that allowed to intervene and stop a colleague about to commit an abuse.
While some aspects were improved, others were dangerously neglected: in fact today, departmental regulations state that an officer is still allowed to suffocate a suspect until they lose consciousness, if the officer believes they are actively resisting. There is therefore a formal acceptance of the possibility of death when caused by what is defined as a legitimate use of force by the police.
What is certain is that the actions of Derek Chauvin and of the other 3 officers, guilty for not having stopped the most unspeakable act, reprehensible mainly out of ferocity and cruelty, did not constitute in a legitimate use of force and fell on a man who accepted his arrest in a cooperative manner and without resistance.
These actions were plausibly carried out for the pleasure of exalting the ego of those who know they can do so with the blessing of a silent accomplice system, and by doing so, violating the sacredness of life, consecrated in the departmental regulations.
We heard 6-year-old Gianna Floyd exclaim “My daddy changed the world!”, and it looks like the little one was right. Floyd’s death has generated a shock wave that has unexpectedly invaded the entire planet: for days implacable crowds forget for a few hours the rules of social distancing and march in the streets demanding rights and justice for black people. Among them, the Black Lives Matter movement has acquired an important authority. Since 2013 in fact, it has been fighting against the insesibility that surrounds this type of violence. As a further source of fuel to be added to the fire of disorder and violence in the fight against civil rights, there are not only protests for the considerable inconvenience caused by the ongoing viral pandemic – to which the U.S. government is evidently unable to answer suitably – but also a President who chooses to move away from his institutional role, preferring to hide in a bunker in an unknown location where he defends himself from the surrounding turmoil, and enjoys the appropriate tranquillity to tweet rambling messages that seem to want to foment further conflict rather than play a peace-making role.
Apart from these last aspects, which help outline a situation overseas that is far from reassuring, it is good to take an additional circumstance into account when we talk about violence in the USA. It is in fact necessary, today more than ever, to take a stand on the issue of racism on all levels and to strongly support a reform of the regulations so that there are no more victims – black nor white nor ethnic – of police forces operating in opposition to what should be their primary role: guaranteeing the safety of citizens.
On the other hand, a further aspect must be taken into consideration which does not justify, but perhaps allows us to examine from another perspective why agents react in a systematically violent manner, even in the absence of a prior assessment of the real need to act violently in the present situation – the Floyd case, however, which is not comprehensible or justifiable from any perspective – is not included in this analysis. This aspect can be seen in the large quantity of weapons present in the United States and in the ease with which it is possible to obtain one. A report by the Congressional Research Service shows that there are more weapons than people in the US, with around 357 million weapons in circulation against a population of only 318.9 million people. The proportion can be better understood considering that here resides 4.4% of the Earth’s population, which at the same time makes up 42% of the world’s armed civilians, and it is therefore not surprising that the U.S. holds the record for the highest number of gunshot murders. Weapons are also easily obtainable: in most parts of the United States anyone over 21 can buy a gun, while those over 18 years of age can buy a rifle or a smooth-bore rifle; it is sufficient to show an identity card to the seller who will simply record the data and associate the weapon with its owner.
Given these premises, it is easy to see how the police forces are aware that there is a high probability of interacting with armed subjects during service, and that this can prove to be extremely dangerous by fomenting tension and feeding a not inconsiderable survival instinct even in those who wear the uniform. The purchase and sale of weapons carried out in such a reckless way goes from being a source of protection for the citizen, to a source of unmanageable tensions that can cause the death of innocent people.
In the light of this, it would therefore be wise to encourage a review of the Second Amendment of the American Constitution, which provides for the right of citizens to possess weapons as a guarantee of state security. This Amendment, which is particularly dear to the arms lobby, including the National Rifle Association, which supported Trump’s White House race, dates back to 15 December 1791, when firearms capable of firing 100 rounds per minute were not yet foreseeable. This legislative foothold is therefore clearly anachronistic: the security of a State is not achieved through the concession of the possibility for anyone to possess a weapon, because this type of management today can only cause unrest, damage and, above all, death. Finally, the hope of change in this sense should not be plausibly placed in those who have been made deaf and blind to the good by the economic or political gain from the sale of arms, but in the citizens, who with their vote can choose to be governed by those who protect and defend their lives also through the revision of the laws that allow this kind of buying and selling.
Jamiles Lartey e Simone Weichselbaum, Perché è così difficile riformare la polizia statunitense?, in The Marshall Project. Tradotto per Internazionale da Andrea Sparacino. Reperibile al sito https://www.internazionale.it/notizie/jamiles-lartey/2020/06/01/riforme-polizia-stati-uniti