The only culture permissible in a democracy is one that respects the rights of the citizenry
The death last year of an African American, George Floyd, in Minneapolis aroused global outrage. Beyond the open barbarism displayed by the convicted police officer, Derek Chauvin whose callous act led to the tragedy, the systemic racism that feeds police nastiness became the main issue. The protests and demonstrations that followed in many countries across the world drew attention to a long-standing blight in American society and history. It therefore came as no surprise that the prosecution and trial of Chauvin and his colleagues on that beat had the world fixated on America’s justice system.
At the end of an exhaustive trial with mountains of testimonies and evidence by multiple lawyers and specialists, the jury has delivered a verdict of guilty against Chauvin on all counts for second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Expectedly, the verdict has been greeted with a wave of approval in America and abroad. In praising the conviction of Chauvin, President Joe Biden described it as a ‘too rare’ step to deliver “basic accountability” for Black Americans who have been killed during interactions with the police. “It was a murder in full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see…This can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America,” said Biden in a national broadcast.
We agree with Biden that that the verdict has opened a window of positive possibilities. The African American community can at least embrace this verdict as an indication of the possibility of justice after over 400 years of injustice and racially induced police arbitrariness and bestiality. It offers the Biden administration a larger window to advance moves towards police and criminal justice reform. It is also a unique opportunity to reform the police and fast track the changes that will reduce the population of blacks driven into criminality by long term economic and social deprivations.
It may be a long road to the destination of racial fairness in America, but the Derek Chauvin verdict indicates the desirable direction. Most importantly, Chauvin’s conviction is a bold statement on the relationship between crime and punishment in a fairer America. The power of law enforcement can no longer provide an umbrella to protect plain villains from the repercussions of naked abuse of power to cheapen human life mostly based on race. Most significantly, Floyd’s death and the conviction of his killer have provided America with an overdue opportunity to revise its values and exorcise its collective psyche of the evil of systemic racism in its law enforcement and criminal justice system.
Sadly, what could be taken as our own George Floyd moment did not end with a similar outcome. While the public outrage against the excesses of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) personnel also went globally viral last year, it has not become the tipping point in a tradition of police abuse and brutality that has been with us for decades. As usual, committees were established in many states and there were some public hearings but given our experience as a nation, nothing will come out of those efforts.
As we have repeatedly stated on this page, what we deal with in Nigeria is a tradition of citizen abuses that has become part of our police culture. That culture owes its origins to a colonial mindset of an occupation force which is alienated from the public it is meant to protect. Yet, the only culture permissible in a democracy is one that respects the freedom and rights of the citizenry. That was the point made with the conviction of Chauvin in the United States: Police badge is not a license to kill.