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The murder of George Floyd was just one instance in a string of many victims of police brutality. This one turned the eyes of many — more than ever before — to the U.S government as the time for change was overdue. It was a turning point in the history of our nation. As with many other major events, like the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, it gives us a chance to radically restructure fundamental parts of society, our government, and, in this case, our justice system. This article will not refer to decisions made by our justice system as correct in the way a legal decision implies (as “objectively correct” or “technically correct”). Most Americans believe that our criminal justice system is in need of reform and in the spirit of this fact, the idea of legality itself must be imperfect. This comes in the spirit of the very first qualification in our constitution: “in order to form a more perfect union.”
The fact that most Americans believe in criminal justice reform is split between 55% who believe the criminal justice system “has serious problems that need to be addressed immediately” and 36% who believe it “has some problems that need to be addressed eventually.” Given this undeniable majority, unabashed faith in our justice system could be described as chauvinism. Nowadays, chauvinism is often used as a shorthand for male chauvinism: the belief in the superiority of men over women. However, in its purest form, chauvinism is akin to ultranationalism or “excessive and unreasonable patriotism.” One could also describe this as the superiority of the government over people.
The original chauvinist was a possibly fictional French soldier, Nicolas Chauvin, in 1800s France. Nicolas had the term coined after him given his purported simpleminded devotion to and glorification of the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Recently, we heard the verdict in the trial of a different Chauvin: Derek Chauvin. This was a man who slowly murdered George Floyd in 9 minutes and 29 seconds on camera as a part of his supposed duty to protect society as a policeman. This single instance sparked a series of ongoing protests worldwide. Watching the video, it seems cruelly obvious just how unjust the situation occurring was. Underneath the knee over his neck, George Floyd pleaded for help and said the now tragically famous words “I can’t breathe.” All this for a possibly counterfeited $20 bill that he was detained for.
I mentioned at the beginning about not speaking to “objective” or “technical” correctness. Even before Derek Chauvin was convicted, it should have been clear to anyone that what Chauvin did was immoral and incorrect. I remember realizing at a certain point after George Floyd’s murder — when it became clear how unprecedented and important the protests had gotten — that this was a pivotal moment for civil rights in the United States. I realized that regardless of legal technicality, the moral truth was laid before us all: Chauvin must be brought to justice. If a global movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd could not get that single murderer in a police uniform behind bars, what could?
Chauvin became the manifestation of chauvinism. If Chauvin walked free, we would be stepping further down into a belief that legal technicality — the arbitrary words which define justice — was supreme above morality. The laws that define our government would be so clearly more important than the population they are enforced upon. Laws decide for us what is right and wrong. They are a mechanical code that must spit out “justice” in one way or another. If history teaches us anything, it’s that any good invention will and must be improved upon, or we’re stuck oiling a crumbling machine and enforcing broken laws upon a deteriorating society.
With Chauvin convicted of all three charges, we are given a choice. This conviction presents a new precedent for how we handle police brutality in this country. What is that new precedent? One of two things. One possibility is that we might now understand that if, for 9 minutes on video, a cop kneels on the neck of a man who cooperates and gasps for breath, that cop is subject to prison time. Another possibility is that this provides a precedent for improving our systems of law and order in this country. This second possibility would mean that we have a healthy discussion amidst our branches of government so that our criminal justice system can reflect realistic conceptions of morality. It may now be clear to police officers around the nation that they cannot hold their knee on a man’s neck for 9 minutes, but this is not enough. This must begin a precedent of accountability.
Action of some kind must happen when we see injustice, even if there is no technical legal precedent for it. This comes not just in the form of convictions, but the restructuring of our conception of policing and the reformation of our broader criminal justice system. As statistics pointed out before, 91% of Americans agree with progress in this respect. They only disagree about the degree of urgency we must approach it with, with a majority (55%) still believing the problems must be addressed immediately as opposed to eventually. The study these statistics come from is from 2017, so I assume that the majority has only grown given all we’ve seen in the past year.
We need to understand that people who poke holes in this verdict and don’t see it as a victory are chauvinists. Ben Shapiro, host of the most listened to right-wing podcast in the U.S: The Ben Shapiro Show, provides a wonderful example of this. The verdict was read at around 4pm CST, watched by some 18 million Americans on television and who knows how many more online. Just minutes after the verdict, Shapiro’s first tweet (his first public thought) came at 4:12pm, responding to a tweet quoting Don Lemon who stated “Justice has been served.” In response, Shapiro indignantly tweets “And we all know he would never have said this had the reverse verdict been reached.”
Implied in this tweet is the very issue we’ve talked about: a simpleminded devotion to the technicality of law, regardless of its outcome. Shapiro thinks it’s mockable that an individual’s moral compass might not align with the technicalities of the justice system, implying his unmoving devotion to the outcomes of a government agency. This is strange coming from a political commentator who describes himself as “generally libertarian in regards to the role of the government.” Even card-carrying Libertarian party member and former congressman Justin Amash responded to the tweet, reminding Shapiro “We all watched the video. This isn’t hard.”
In spite of this indignation (characteristic of Shapiro’s motto “facts don’t care about your feelings”), Shapiro’s tweet was ratioed, meaning a response criticizing his tweet received far more likes and retweets than Shapiro’s original tweet. Shapiro with his 3.4 million followers garnered 11k retweets and 15k likes for this tweet, but this was blown out of the water quite impressively. Leftist political commentator Hasan Piker, with 680k followers (little more than one fifth of Shapiro’s following), responded with a short condescending quip pointing out a flaw in the supposedly logic-loving Shapiro’s analysis. He tweeted “almost like there’s a difference between a murderer going free and not.” receiving 18k retweets and 180k likes, which ratioed Shapiro more than ten-fold.
Politicians and commentators like Shapiro need their word taken with great suspicion. An obsession with technicalities like this is just that–an obsession with technicalities. Morally-backwards ideologies will take any chance they get to wear pragmatic clothing. What figures like Shapiro want you to believe is that they are on a logic-based quest for truth, and that this quest (for what is, in reality, a very particular and arbitrary version of the truth) is how we achieve a just society. Any one of us could search the legal history of the U.S and we’ll never find a specific line stating that it’s unjust for a police officer to kneel on the neck of a cooperative man under suspicion for the use of a counterfeit $20 bill. We also will not find precedence that states it’s any less illegal for him to be murdered if he had non-lethal amounts of fentanyl in his system. These are all technicalities; George Floyd was securely detained and restrained, yet he still got murdered.
We’ll certainly find precedence for a whole lot of other things, like the ability to own another human as property, gendered restrictions on voting and a lot more. But luckily we made the decision as a society that these things were immoral even though our laws technically said otherwise.