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Nicolais: Justice was too late for George Floyd, but we can seek broader justice

The deaths of Floyd and Elijah McClain underscore the need for difficult and lasting change in law enforcement

What began with three tragic words — “I can’t breathe” — ended with three more.

Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

Last week a Minnesota jury confirmed what anyone who watched video of George Floyd’s life slipping away already knew. Former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd in callous, cold blood.

The jury found Chauvin guilty on all three charges brought against him: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Nearly a year of collective angst and anxiety culminated in a moment of cries and tears and chants and relief across the country.

Mario Nicolais

After the initial wave of emotional relief washed away, more nuanced reactions took root. I found myself particularly drawn to the mantra that Chauvin’s conviction meant accountability, not justice.

There can never be justice for a man who lost his life in such unspeakable circumstances.

Floyd is dead. Neither Chauvin’s conviction nor his sentence will change that immutable fact. Floyd’s brothers will never speak to him again, and his daughter will grow up without her father’s presence. 

But there can be a broader justice. One that requires significant reform and difficult change throughout various systems. Sparking that reform will likely be the enduring legacy left by Floyd.

Specifically, there are at least two separate but interwoven systems that must be addressed. Both systemic racial disparity and law enforcement reliance on use of force require immediate and conscious revision.

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Systemic inequality, particularly for Black Americans, has been centuries in the making and is pervasive across the country. Structures and institutions developed during periods of racial bias have carried through years and decades building and creating their own nefarious momentum. 

The result grinds down entire groups of people. Individual members may break through, but there is little change for communities as a whole.

Like any large, complex system, there is no single answer, no silver bullet, no snap of the fingers that will miraculously unravel the circumstance. Instead, individual and generational education coupled with a multitude of public and private policies must be implemented.

Concurrently, it should be evident that law enforcement have become too enamored with the use of force — particularly deadly force — in carrying out their duties. Every year since 2015, police have shot and killed roughly 1,000 people across the country. The 2021 pace is only slightly lower.

Of that number, 402 were unarmed when killed.

When I watch Chauvin press his knee into Floyd’s neck or officers tossing water and encouragement from heavily armored vehicles to armed vigilantes including Kyle Rittenhouse, I am struck by the machismo and ready aggression evident in the scenes. 

Such expectant aggression too often finds an outlet in minority communities. And that is where the overlap between these problems becomes most evident.

While white Americans represent the greatest raw number of people shot and killed by police, either armed or unarmed, the rate is far lower than minority groups. That is the most salient point. 

Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be shot and killed by police than white Americans. 

Those numbers hold for unarmed victims as well. Approximately 5.8% of white people killed by police do not have a weapon. In contrast, more than 9% of Black people killed by law enforcement are unarmed. There is no explanation for this disparity except pure, unmitigated racial bias.

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Of course, Floyd is not counted in these numbers. He was killed, but he was not shot. Neither was Elijah McClain. Violence perpetrated against Black members of our community by law enforcement is far deeper and wider than when a trigger gets pulled.

Changing that reality, facing hard truths to bring difficult and lasting change, is the only justice that can be derived in the wake of deaths such as Floyd’s or McClain’s. The arc to obtain it may be long, but it is precisely the justice they deserve.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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