If this were fiction, except for Dickens or Runyon, no one would get away with giving this guy that surname.
The term “chauvinism” is derived from Nicolas Chauvin, a French soldier of the Napoleonic era (mythical, by some accounts) whose messianic allegiance to the little corporal and blind belief in the glory of France was so extreme that he became synonymous with cult-like fanaticism.
By the dictionary definition, chauvinism has come to mean “the irrational belief in the superiority or dominance of one’s own group or people, who are seen as strong and virtuous, while others are considered weak or unworthy…..a form of extreme patriotism and nationalism, a fervent faith in national excellence and glory.”
The only name more fitting for the (former) Minneapolis police officer who calmly murdered George Floyd in public view, apparently unconcerned that he would face any consequences, would be if he were named Derek White-Supremacy.
In the Sixties and Seventies, “chauvinism” came to be associated almost exclusively with what was then called “women’s liberation” — what we now generally call feminism. In the vernacular of the time, a “male chauvinist” (“pig” was usually appended to the phrase) was what we now, gender-neutrally, call a sexist, but it was usually bandied about sneeringly by those very sexists, deriding the plight of half the planet, and unintentionally proving the feminists’ point. Even their most legitimate complaints were not taken seriously, so second class was the female of the species.
But chauvinism in the true sense of the word is the perfect description of the mentality of the dead-ender White nationalists, neo-Know Nothing Trump disciples, and reactionary John Birchers who are desperately trying to pull back the arc of history and hang onto a racist, 18th century vision of America.
And that is very much part of what was on trial in a Minneapolis courtroom over the past three weeks.
Paging Billy Wilder
The case against Derek Chauvin seemed open and shut, no? The prosecution laid it out forcefully, including a parade of witnesses who on the face of it might seem like they would defend him, but in fact did very much the opposite, and by virtue of that very credibility: the city’s chief of police, the precinct sergeant in charge that fateful day, the MPD’s use-of-force instructor, a lieutenant with 36 years on the job who said it was “totally unnecessary” for Chauvin to kneel on Mr. Floyd’s neck. They were buttressed by numerous others — including the 911 dispatcher who handled the initial call, an off-duty firefighter who witnessed the killing, the EMTs who treated Mr. Floyd on the scene — who further made the state’s case.
As expected, the defense tried to portray George Floyd as big and scary (and Black), and to insist — despite all the evidence to the contrary — that he was uncooperative and threatening to the cops such that they had to take such measures. Chauvin’s lawyers also tried to suggest that Mr. Floyd had drugs in his system that contributed to his death, even though the medical examiner who conducted his autopsy declared it a homicide and clearly stated that Chauvin’s “restraint of (Floyd’s) body and compression of his neck were the primary causes” of his death.
In other words, whatever other medical issues George Floyd may have had, he managed to live with them quite well until 150 pounds of police officer was pressed down on his throat.
The defense’s closing argument also struck this civilian as…..what’s the technical term? Oh yeah: lame. Focusing on a generic reminder that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and that the standard for conviction is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is not the play of a defense attorney with a rock solid case.
In short, I didn’t see how any reasonable person could look at the evidence and conclude that Derek Chauvin was not guilty……but I’ve been wrong before.
Rashomon in Minnesota
As more than one legal expert has pointed out, this case was more challenging for the prosecutors than it looked in that — as the defense reminded us — they had to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and get all twelve jurors to agree. Chauvin’s lawyers only had to generate a sliver of doubt in the mind of one juror.
More to the point, we know that White cops get off all the time when charged with criminal violence against Black citizens, even murder. It happened with Rodney King, it happened with Freddie Gray, it happened with Breonna Taylor….It’s happened over and over again.
News flash: White people in general get judged by a different standard. When Mr. Floyd was murdered last year, I wrote in these pages that I too had accidentally passed a counterfeit bill — a $10, in my case — at my local bodega not long before. The clerk informed me, “Hey man, this bill is bad,” I was very surprised, we had a good laugh, and I paid with some actual legal tender and went on my merry way.
No cops rolling up, no hands cuffed behind my back, no face down on the street, no knee on my neck, no murder.
Right up until the verdict was announced yesterday there was the very real possibility that the self-apparent slam dunkness of the case might prove a mirage. A goodly number of White people watching the trial couldn’t conceive of any possible way that Chauvin would get off, while plenty of Black people will tell you that they have seen this movie before. SNL parodied that disconnect with uncomfortable precision a few weeks ago.
As an acid test, this trial was OJ in reverse.
If had Chauvin walked, there was sure to be nationwide outrage pouring into the streets. Not just Minneapolis but almost every major US city seemed to be bracing for it. In the same way that George Floyd’s murder galvanized the global Black Lives Matter movement last June, an acquittal — or a hung jury, or a mistrial, or anything but the catharsis of full-blown accountability — surely would have re-opened that deep wound, reminding us how criminally inequitable and racist the American justice system is (“justice” in quotes), and America full stop.
Predictably, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.)’s remarks on that point ahead of the verdict were red meat for the right wing, which is as hyperalert to anything even vaguely implying violence from the left as it is somnolent over even overt calls for violence from the right. It has always been thus, but the right’s desperation to find an equivalence to Trump’s responsibility for January 6th only serves to highlight its hypocrisy. As The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes writes, “(Rep. Waters) makes a much more useful target than Biden, because it turns out that an old white man is far less scary than a black woman. The GOP is perfectly happy to make her the face of the opposition.”
But if a White cop can sadistically torture a non-violent and compliant Black citizen to death on the street in full view of multiple witnesses equipped with cameras and not be held accountable, how could anyone possibly say there isn’t wanton institutionalized racism in the American criminal justice system?
But some would have.
Now that Chauvin has been convicted on all three counts, including third degree murder, that same crowd of Republicans and others on the right will insist that that verdict itself is evidence that the system is fair and just, rather than a rarity. No doubt those same folks, in the privacy of their own homes, and within the safe circles of like-minded friends (and maybe even publicly, given how normalized open racism has become in the past five years) are even now shaking their heads and lamenting how this “good cop” got “railroaded” for “just doing his job,” a martyr to the “toxic spread” of “wokeness” in America.
And let’s not kid ourselves: the reactionary demographic that holds that view numbers in the millions. (I refer you to the popular vote count from last November.) They are watching TV right now and saying: “Chauvin is getting a bad rap. This Floyd motherfucker was a drug addict and he ‘looks like a criminal.’ Who are we to question the men and women of the Thin Blue Line who risk their lives to protect us and the life-and-death decisions they have to make?”
What they’re really saying, in their heart of hearts is: “N####r got what he deserved.”
That’s how far apart the two Americas are right now, and how far we have to go.
Police On My Back
I have the utmost respect for law enforcement officers, for how dangerous their job is, for the cloistered world they inhabit, and for the special challenges they face.
But that is not carte blanche, nor does it erase the effects of systemic racism within American law enforcement and the US criminal justice system. “Systemic racism” is a redundancy — like “tuna fish,” or “hot water heater” — but I’ll use it here for emphasis, and to stress that we’re talking about something beyond just personal prejudice.
This isn’t about individual officers. It’s about a system that is inarguably stacked against people of color, in lethal ways, from racial profiling on the streets, to traffic stops that routinely turn fatal, to arrest rates, plea bargains, prosecutorial decisions, sentencing, incarceration, parole, and all the rest.
A few aspects of that:
Generally speaking, a police officer’s word in court also counts more than an ordinary citizen by virtue of their specialized training and responsibilities.
OK. But by that same logic, the corollary is that police officers are supposed to be calmer, cooler, and more judicious under stress than us mere mortals. They’re supposed to know which hip their sidearm is on and which one their taser is, for example, even when they’re stressed, especially after 26 years on the force.
Then there is the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which holds that police generally can’t be held responsible for acts of violence committed in the course of their duties, even those acts that might seem outrageously excessive to the average person, unless they have violated “clearly established” constitutional rights. It’s a doctrine that provides police massive latitude to do as they please. It would be a mindset much easier to accept were there not a centuries-old, ongoing epidemic of police violence against people of color by American law enforcement, much of it actively homicidal. (The ACLU reports that Chauvin’s conviction is the first time in Minnesota history that a White police officer has been held accountable for killing a Black man.)
In the controversial 1989 Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, then-Chief Justice Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee and infamous “law-and-order” conservative, laid out the theory that when assessing what might seem like police brutality, “the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
How convenient for those who are happy to have the cops — especially White ones — make their own rules about when and how they can feel free to brutalize mere citizens — especially Black ones.
But even under that very lax standard, Derek Chauvin’s rationale for casually kneeling on a supine George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while he choked to death and pleaded that he could not breathe does not remotely fall in the category of a heat-of-battle kind of decision.
Of course we should be happy that the trial turned out this way, but is that not an incredibly low bar? Is it not tremendously sad that we had to hold our breath for accountability in such a clear-cut case of lethal police brutality? Not unlike last November‘s election, it is chilling that it was even this close. THIS is the evidence we intend to hold up to prove that we’re not a stone racist country?
How Do You Like Them Apples?
It’s taken almost exactly a year from the time of George Floyd’s murder last Memorial Day — the same day that a dog-strangling Amy Cooper called the cops on a birdwatching Christian Cooper in Central Park — for this case to come to trial. Which is fitting, since one of the big questions after last year’s mass outpouring of rage in the wake of that murder — the Awakening, as the filmmaker Peter Nicks calls it — was: “Will White people still care a year from now?”
Seems like they (we) do. Apparently ratings were way up for the news channels carrying the trial, outpacing even their nighttime primetime numbers. (Fox, naturally, did not really carry it at all.)
Chauvin’s guilty verdict is a start, but unless it is also the beginning of a broad and deep and substantive nationwide reform of policing and criminal justice, it will not be nearly enough. (The breach in the Blue Wall that we saw in the testimony of MPD officers is a huge step in the right direction.) To the extent that they acknowledge any wrongdoing at all by Derek Chauvin, reactionary forces in America will continue to claim that he is just one bad apple, when the evidence is clear that what we’re dealing with is an entire rotten orchard, poisoned at the root….the same way they wanted us to believe it was just one bad apple at Abu Ghraib (and not a institutionalized system of torture explicitly dictated from the highest possible level), or just a few bad apples storming the Capitol on January 6th (and not a pre-planned insurrection, also fomented at the highest possible level). Beginning to see a pattern?
George Floyd’s death marked a turning point in America’s long, slow, painfully overdue reckoning with its racist….Did you think I was gonna say “past”? Sadly, that’s the wrong tense. Let us hope that Chauvin’s triple conviction is a bellwether that we’re making progress, even if only in baby steps, and that chauvinism’s days are numbered.
But lest we forget, five short months after that murder, Trump and his 74 million voters (I’ll repeat that: 74 million, even after four years of proving every day what a monster he is) made it painfully clear that the White nationalist threat is alive and well in this country. We beat it down last November, just barely, with a slim majority, but it’s far from defeated.
Yesterday was another narrow victory in a campaign that still has a long, long way to go.
Photo: Hennepin County Jail/AFP/Getty Images