I am looking at my facebook feed, full of images of riots in the US, and recalling “Do you hear the people sing?” from Les Miserables. Les Miserables is set in part against the background of the Paris riots of 1832, which were a failed revolution. The song is wonderfully stirring… and the end point is that almost all of those involved in the riots (and manning the barricades) die. The riots were unsuccessful, were overwhelmed by the use of the army, and produced a backlash of repression for some years.
That said, there were not one but two revolutions in 1848; the first was unsuccessful but destabilised the government, the second set up a republic (the “second republic”, the first republic having been the result of the more famous 1789 revolution). In elections for a president following that, Louis Napoleon (grandson of Napoleon I) was elected on a landslide as a populist candidate, and three years later, faced by a term limit and the end of his presidency as a result, staged a coup d’état and declared himself Emperor as Napoleon III. He lasted until an ill-advised war against Prussia in 1870, attempting to prevent German unification; the Germans took him prisoner and Paris declared a third republic. That held until World War II, and in a way during the war in Vichy France (the Southern part of France which was a puppet state of Hitler’s Germany).
In 1946, after German occupation during World War II, the fourth republic was declared (the third being completely discredited by capitulation and the Vichy régime), but this was short-lived and was reconstituted into the fifth republic in 1958. That was a presidential republic originally modelled around Charles De Gaulle (as a strong populist leader again), and that survives to the present day.
Keen observers will notice that this history includes at least five revolutions and two coups d’état (Louis Napoleon and De Gaulle). Most of the revolutions involved significant loss of life, and the 1789 one was particularly bloody.
I am not a great fan of revolutions… people get killed (and I’m not cut out to be a fighter, have huge reservations about any use of violence, feeling slightly guilty in not going completely nonviolent as I’m sure Jesus commanded, and would probably be among the first dead if I involved myself in one) and, as the French experience shows, they rarely result in something significantly better than what preceded them, at least in the short term. The French just kept on doing it…
It is therefore with much sadness that I notice people from both the left and the right (and including the current US president) talking of revolutions with a kind of glee, and the clear fact that agitators from both left and right (but predominantly from the right) are frequently turning peaceful demonstrations into riots; the police response in many places is draconian, meeting peaceful protestors with life-threatening force. I have been encouraged, however, by several videos of police chiefs and whole police departments joining protestors rather than gassing them, baton charging them and shooting them with rubber bullets. My own view from seeing the UK police handling protestors is that it is absolutely fatal for the police to be the first users of force; that is calculated to make a riot out of a protest, though agitators can also achieve that.
Let me turn to the root cause of this unrest, the murder of George Floyd. I have viewed several piece of video of this, amounting in total to rather more than the eight minutes and 46 seconds during which a policeman knelt on Floyd’s neck. I have been distressed and outraged by some facebook contacts who have attempted to justify the police actions here, and I am writing as a retired lawyer, albeit not an American lawyer. Yes, I appreciate that the law differs between the two countries (for instance, we don’t have degrees of murder or manslaughter here) but the basics of the two systems stem from the same root, and the principles are generally very similar except when the Constitution comes into play.
So, firstly, the alleged offence was paying with a counterfeit note. I’ve done that myself, innocently, and the result was that I took back the dud note (in order to complain to my bank, from whose cash machine it had come – no joy there, though) and paid with another note. I note that the owners of the store he paid in have said that they thought he probably didn’t know it was counterfeit. Is this, I ask myself, a serious enough allegation to warrant multiple armed police officers manhandling someone? I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was. I am, inter alia, very keen on the principle of “innocent until proved guilty” which applies in both systems, at least notionally. So, from my point of view, Floyd was presumed to be innocent.
Then came allegations that he was a “known criminal”. Again, having a criminal record does not negate the “innocent until proved guilty” principle. It’s irrelevant, just mud-slinging (and in the UK, is something which cannot be brought up in court until someone is found guilty of the offence currently alleged). I could mention that other reports indicate that Floyd was a well-respected youth worker with local churches, which is not exactly the “known criminal” profile. That, too, looks to me like a piece of mudslinging, and one irrelevant to the circumstances in any event.
The original Medical Examiner’s report came close to making my blood boil. Indeed, I remarked to an American friend shortly before the result of the second post mortem became known that I’d gladly come out of retirement and travel to the States for the opportunity to cross-examine the ME. It reads to my eye (and I am very used to reading such documents) like an attempt to find any possible way in which the death could be de-linked from the police actions without actually adverting to the fact that Floyd had had his neck knelt on by a fairly substantial policeman (and other parts of him knelt on by two others) which, medically, is something which is extremely dangerous. Indeed, in my country there is some unfortunate case law arising from the restraint of a prisoner in a police station in which he was similarly compressed and died – and that prisoner, who was white, was a paranoid schizophrenic having a psychotic break, and thus particularly difficult to restrain or calm down. (Heads rolled as a result, and police procedures were changed). Floyd displayed absolutely no such signs of violent struggle, though I noted that my correspondent wanted to say that he had struggled…
It is significant to me that the whole time, Floyd was handcuffed, behind his back. He was therefore in no condition to offer very much threat to anyone. He sat quietly for some time on the ground in this condition.
Then came the allegation that he was refusing to get into a police car, and deliberately fell to the ground to avoid this. There is no sign in the video evidence that that was the case. However, there is witness testimony that he was complaining of having difficulty breathing before he fell to the ground. If, indeed, he did voluntarily end up on the ground rather than being thrust there by police officers, the logical conclusion would be that he was in medical distress, and indeed, there seems to be evidence that the ambulance was called before the episode of kneeling on his neck started. My acquaintance advances this as proving that he was already dying before that episode started… and words nearly fail me.
As I said, you do not put prolonged pressure on someone’s neck or upper torso, as it is medically dangerous, even when they are not already in medical distress. It is either total idiocy, reckless disregard for the safety of the individual or malicious action to do that when they are already complaining of difficulty breathing, and having watched the video, I have no hesitation in saying that the policeman kneeling on Floyd’s neck was at the very least reckless and most probably malicious. It is also exactly NOT what the police, who have a duty of care to those they have arrested, should be doing – they should be caring for their prisoner.
And, in those circumstances, the burden of proof is very much on those alleging that the death did not result from an action which is calculated to produce asphyxia to demonstrate that Floyd would have died anyhow – and the ME’s report, though it tries to come up with reasons why that might be the case, falls a very long way short of that.
In UK law, we also have a principle commonly referred to as “eggshell skull”, which holds that if you punch someone on the head not intending to kill them, but they have an inherent skull weakness which means that your puch cracks their skull and they die, it is irrelevant that they had a weakness in the first place; it is sufficient that you intended to cause harm and death resulted. It appears that the US has this principle as well, based on the Wikipedia article I link. This, of course, would make it massively more difficult for a defence of the policeman to allege that Floyd would have died anyway.
As a result, I’ve commented that, were I advising the policeman, I would have no hesitation in advising him to plead guilty to a murder charge. It seems, having had a brief look at the Minnesota definition of third degree murder, that that might be as much as it is sensible to charge – my feeling would be that it would be worth pleading to to avoid the possibility of conviction on first degree murder, which I think is at least a possibility.
This kind of excusing away the crime and blackening the character of the victim seems to me to happen in every case where a black person in the States is killed by police. This particular case is unusual in that there is particularly good video evidence (and, incidentally, I would ask why the only police body camera from which footage has been shown is that of an unconnnected officer who didn’t have a particularly good view – why are there no body camera footages from the officers more closely associated?) The result is that I’ve been able to take my view with more evidence than I normally have – but the fact that this happens every time strongly indicates to me that it is, not to mince words, bullshit.
I go on to ask myself why it is that this happens so frequently in the US. My own country has not been immune to similar incidents, but in general, it seems to me that we listen and learn from them, at least to some extent and in recent years – as witness the case I mentioned above of the paranoid schizophrenic.
A large part of it seems to be in the general police mindset of “us -v- them”. Yes, we have that in the UK as well; I’ve not seen it so much in their treatment of racial minorities, because where I live there are vanishingly few people from racial minorities, except for Romanys. However, it is quite clear that our police adopt an “us -v- them” attitude in relation to poor people and in particular the homeless (yes, and Romanys). They are not “innocent until proved guilty”, they are guilty until proved innocent. By and large, however, the furthest the police here go is to be contemptuous of those groups.
My feed has also had video of various US policemen doing things which I regard as unconscionable – pulling down a mask in order to pepper spray someone who was not acting in any way aggressively, driving cars at groups of protestors, riding them down with police horses, charging them with riot shields and knocking them to the ground when, again, they were offering no threat to anyone, and firing paintballs at people on their own properties. Frequently in those clips I’ve seen expressions of contempt, but also of hate – and hate is an emotion which should not be felt by police. If someone feels hate for any group of people, they should not be police officers.
But not infrequently I’ve also seen fear on the faces of police. I have in mind there particularly one clip which shows a young black man kneeling with his hands behind his head facing away from a group of at least four white police officers about 20 feet away, all of whom are pointing guns at the black man, and all of whom are looking scared.
Come on, there are FOUR of you, you’re armed and have your weapons drawn on a young man who is obeying instructions, is unarmed and poses no threat. How on earth can you be scared in that situation? OK, I will grant that all the officers are women, and all of them are considerably physically smaller than the black guy. But scared? That is particularly worrying, because the only answer which rings true to me is that they feel so threatened by a black man who is a bit larger than them that they are not made to feel safe by numbers, and not even by having guns drawn.
OK, there is a possibility that they are just scared by the situation, scared that they have felt they needed to draw their guns and scared that they might use them. If so, I gently suggest that they are not competent to be allowed out on the streets with firearms…
Scared people make stupid decisions. As Frank Herbert wrote “fear is the mind-killer”.
Scared people with guns shoot people.
How is it, I ask myself, the case that one black man can scare four trained professional female officers even enough to make them want to draw weapons? Is it, perhaps, the case that in the States, white people are always aware that their mistreatment of black people for centuries has built up a reservoir of hatred which they feel might break through even in the case of black women and black children? Is it, I ask myself, a sign of a guilty conscience? A guilty conscience can also, via projection, result in contempt and even hate…
Now, I am looking at this from the other side of the Atlantic. I make no claim that we are perfect in our own race-relations, but I don’t see this kind of fear in British policemen.
What I do do is look at the catalogue of dead black people in the States of which George Floyd is only the most recent (or rather, the most recent to have hit the headlines) and feel some sadness that this is happening – STILL happening, but even more anger for those killed and those who have lost their relatives and friends. And that’s as a British white guy. If I were a white American, I would feel incandescently angry.
And if I were an American black guy, I would be having difficulty restraining an impulse to violence of my own.
Even though, as I said earlier, I am not cut out for violence.
I can therefore understand and sympathise with those who do riot (particularly in the face of repressive policing), and with the exception of the infiltrators who just want to destabilise things, I am unwilling to condemn them. But I’m very ready to condemn the officers who killed George Floyd.
I hear the people sing, and thought I’m neither black nor American, I feel I can do no other than sing along for a while. And may tomorrow come…