Remarks on the Trial of Derek Chauvin
1. It is extremely rare for a cop to face murder charges.
a. From 2005-2019 (a 14 year period) 104 cops were charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty killings. 1 We can estimate that in that same period of time, cops murdered at least 14,000 people and the true number is likely much higher. 2 During that period of time 0.7% of cops faced charges for murdering people. Of those who faced charges, only 35 were convicted of any crime and only 4 were convicted of murder.
2. It is hard to imagine this trial happening without the preceding uprisings.
a. Although moving backward through history and claiming that something had to have been is a very questionable methodology (post hoc ergo propter hoc), based on the above statistics it is safe to suggest that some very special circumstances led to the outcome of Derek Chauvin’s public prosecution.
b. Nonetheless, many recent uprisings have not precipitated legal victories. Sometimes, as in the case of the murder of Michael Brown, they have not even led to indictments.
3. This is not just any trial, this is a public spectacle.
a. If we are to properly analyze this trial, we have to notice that, unlike the millions of legal proceedings that occur each year in this country, this is a high profile public trial with perhaps tens of millions of viewers. It belongs in a series that could include the Dreyfus Affair, the Nuremberg trials, the Eichmann trial, the OJ Simpson trial and the George Zimmerman trial.
b. In addition to the legal implications, we must also consider the trial’s impact on those who are watching from home. The legal and the spectacular impacts of the trial will be separate variables which must be analyzed in turn.
4. The prosecution is lying; Chauvin is not a bad cop.
a. The lead prosecutor, Jerry Blackwell, seeks to convince the jury that Derek Chauvin is unique. He wants the jury to believe that in murdering George Floyd, Chauvin demonstrated a special disregard for human life. We know that this is a lie.
b. Millions of people across the country who have experience with law enforcement behavior in impoverished urban areas know that whatever was special about the murder of George Floyd, it is not that there was a cop who did not care about hurting people. The scars on our bodies and the people missing from our lives prove that this is a lie.
5. According to current American jurisprudence, Chauvin may be innocent.
a. The reigning legal precedent for police use of force cases is Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). In this case, the US Supreme Court established what is known as the “objective reasonableness standard,” which asserts that the guilt or innocence of an officer hinges on the question: "given the facts known at the time, would a similarly trained and experienced officer respond in a similar fashion?”
b. If the legal standard for police violence is the violence of other police, we find ourselves in a juridical trap in which the question of right and wrong is entirely self-referential.
c. Therefore, in order to find Chauvin legally guilty, prosecutors must lie and say that a similarly trained and experienced officer would have acted differently.
d. Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, introduced the concept “lawful but awful” during a witness cross-examination, stating, “the general concept is that sometimes the use of force, it looks really bad, right, and sometimes it may be so, it may be caught on video, right, and it looks bad, right?...But, it is still lawful.” [Emphasis added].
e. This concept narrates the slippage between that which is legal and that which is right.
6. A situation in which the law does not conform to the notions of right and wrong held by a substantive portion of the population is a situation that is ripe for activity outside the law.
7. The uprisings proclaimed the police guilty; the Chauvin trial is attempting to prove their innocence.
a. In order to assert Chauvin’s uniqueness, the prosecution has brought ten cops to the stand to testify against him. These cops are flexing their well-worn perjury skills in an attempt to convince the jury that they believe what Chauvin did was unique and that it was wrong. They must know it was not unique and most of them probably do not believe it was wrong.
b. Despite this, their individual motivations likely differ. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has testified against another officer in the past and, before he was Chief, sued the department for racial discrimination. He is likely a reformer who genuinely believes policing can be less brutal than it is. In contrast, Lt. Richard Zimmerman, a 35-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department who took the stand appears to be the standard cynic who is happy to lie whenever necessary to keep his favorite gang in power.
8. It is a mistake to assume that the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), much less American policing in general, is a united force.
a. Like all large institutions, the MPD is rife with internal conflicts, factionalism and political rivalries. For example, Chief Arradondo has publicly withdrawn from negotiations with the police union and has stated publicly that if the Minneapolis police union and its head, Bob Kroll, do not get on “the right side of history” they will “be left behind.”
b. Researching, articulating and exploiting these fissures should play an important part in any protracted effort to erode the power of the police.
9. The most honest way of responding to the charges would be for Chauvin to use the “Eichmann Defense.”
a. In May, 1960, Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina by the Israeli Mossad and transported to Jerusalem to stand trial for crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. Eichmann did not deny his role in the Nazi genocide (although he did emphasize that he never actually killed anyone), but instead claimed to have been acting in accordance with the legal framework to which he was subject—the will of the Führer. As such, Eichmann claimed he was in no way special but was simply carrying out orders as any functionary of any government would.
b. Derek Chauvin’s actions, both on the day that he murdered George Floyd and on the many days and years before that, in which he beat and brutalized Minneapolis residents, were entirely in line with the norms of American policing and the legal standards those norms are used to calibrate.
c. In April 2020, Tucson police murdered Carlos Ingram-Lopez in a manner entirely similar to Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd—by kneeling on him in the prone position for an extended period of time. The officers involved in the murder resigned but were not charged with any crime. The Tucson Police Chief who covered up the deaths for months was recently nominated by the Biden administration to head up Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
d. To each of the charges against him, Eichmann pleaded “not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” According to Eichmann’s attorney, Eichmann felt “guilty before God, not before the law.” Chauvin, who finds himself in a similar legal situation, pleaded “not guilty” to the charges against him. We do not know yet how he feels about his position before God.
10. The evidence that this trial is a case of “selective prosecution” is abundant. The defense’s unwillingness to use that legal argument is telling.
a. In Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886), the Supreme Court stated, “[t]hough the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances, material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution.” 118 U.S. at 373-74.
b. Chauvin’s defense attorneys, if they were honest, would argue this by demonstrating before the jury the faces of the thousands of people murdered and maimed by the police—including by the very police who now testified to his position as an outlier—as well as the evidence of the total lack of a prosecutorial response to those murders.
c. To do so would be to put American policing on trial in the defense of Derek Chauvin. This is one of many ways the Chauvin trial would look different if this country were actually ready to confront the brutality of its past.
11. The uprisings, protests, lobbying and legal action addressing police violence in the years since the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014 have not at all reduced the number of people murdered by the police.
a. According to multiple projects dedicated to tracking police murder and accountability 3, the number of people murdered by police has remained steady from 2013-2020 despite the huge blowback against police violence in that time. The cops can’t stop won’t stop murdering people.
b. The continued inability or unwillingness of the police to subdue their violence in response to pushback could create a situation in which they are increasingly isolated from the rest of society.
c. Although this may make police weaker in one sense, it comes at the cost of tens or hundreds of thousands of, as George Jackson put it, “poor, butchered half-lives.”
12. The trial has created a national stage upon which nine passersby who watched George Floyd die could record their testimonies into the historical record before millions of viewers.
a. Instead of remaining an anonymous angry mob, the trial has created an opportunity for that mob to crystallize into individuals. Each of them have proven themselves to be courageous, thoughtful, conscious, loving and deeply moral actors who fought for the life of a stranger despite great odds.
b. Despite all of the many ways the brave people of Ferguson communicated with the world in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, they were not given a comparable opportunity to carefully and fully record their stories of the event in a way that could be documented and that could be broadcast to the world.
13. The “thin blue line” is a potent concept that forms the foundational theoretical justification for the police.
a. In a June 2020 interview on 60 Minutes, Minneapolis Police Chief Arrodondo gave a seemingly heartfelt indictment of American policing that brought tears to many liberal eyes. Amidst the orgy of heart-wrenching sentimentality, Arrodondo said this: “Each and every day I hear from community members who rely upon us, who are saying that we cannot afford to take away a public safety mechanism when we still have a lawless society. Now, they also say we need good policing. We know it's broken. We need to make changes” [emphasis added].
b. It is an extremely popular notion that the police are a small group of people who are preventing society from descending into chaos (a “thin blue line” between order and chaos).
c. The unstated premise of this argument is that most people hide base and cruel tendencies beneath a veneer of politeness. It is an argument about human nature.
d. This could be described as a distrust of “normal people.” It is a belief held across the political spectrum.
e. Challenging this premise with both action and discourse is one key to unravelling the power of the police. Any effort to link up with others to solve problems directly, without the mediation of managers and elites, gives us the opportunity to experiment with tangible alternatives to policing.
14. Derek Chauvin is neither a sadist nor a sociopath, but a perfectly normal man who is nonetheless, like Arendt said of Eichmann, “perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong.”
To paraphrase the wisdom of James Baldwin: there is nothing inside of Derek Chauvin that is not also inside of each of us.
Ryan Fatica is a researcher and editor at Perilous Chronicle
Image: Stephanie Lecocq
1. Bowling Green State University’s Police Integrity Research Group Publication On-Duty Shootings: Police Officers Charged with Murder or Manslaughter, 2005-2019. Online. ↰
2. “Mapping Police Violence,” an online data-oriented research project, which tracks not just police shootings, but other police murders. The project estimates that they capture 92% of all police murders. See also the Washington Post’s “Police Shooting Database,” which only tracks those shot by police. As a conservative estimate, we can assume police in the US kill 1,000 per year. ↰
3. See the projects cited in notes 1 and 2 in above.↰