Are We Nearing the End of Impunity for Taking Black Lives?

Angelica Wales, University of Kent

As one of the most powerful nations, America is always found to uphold the principle of equality, freedom, and justice. According to The Declaration of Independence, Americans will state they “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal.”[1] Throughout history, however, they have failed to keep this idea. From the beginning of slavery to “achieving” its abolition, the inequality between White and African Americans continues to be prevalent. Mostly, African Americans are targeted by the injustices in the country. The criminal justice system fails to protect and to respect the lives of African Americans.[2] This was seen on multiple incidents, including the death of a man in Minneapolis.

On 25th of May, George Floyd was arrested by the Minneapolis police officers after a store employee reported him for paying with a counterfeit bill. Derek Chauvin, one of the police officers, restrained Floyd by placing his knee between his head and neck. Despite Floyd stating that he could not breathe and pleaded for the officer to stop, Chauvin continued to suppress his breathing for eight minutes and forty-six seconds that resulted to Floyd’s death.[3] The action of the police officers towards Floyd sparked anger across the nation which resulted to unjustifiable protests and riots to fight against the prejudice towards African Americans who were unreasonably killed mostly by a white police officers.

Unfortunately, African Americans do not receive the justice they deserve due to the impunity law that protect the actions of police officers. Despite the severity of their actions, the Fourth Amendment under the United States’ constitution is the shield that ensures police officers who have severely injured or even killed African Americans and other minorities, will not be punished.[4] As a result of this injustice, America’s path towards freedom and inequality is far from clear and evident.

The death of George Floyd sparked outrage not only in the United States but also worldwide. George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed African American, had decided to move to Minneapolis after being released from prison.[5] However, the ambition of beginning a new life had diminished after becoming a victim of police violence. After being reported due to the counterfeit bill, two police officers had arrived to confront Floyd. One of the police officers took his gun out and ordered Floyd to show his hands,[6] which the prosecutors found uncalled for. The conflict had immensely emerged when the police officers decided to put Floyd in the police car.[7] Moments later, Chauvin and other police officers had arrived in the scene to put Floyd inside of the car. While doing so, Chauvin pulled Floyd that resulted in Floyd falling onto the ground. It is then he placed his “left knee between his head and neck” that quickly shortened his breathing.[8]

As a result, Floyd died while being restrained by police officers. The loss of his life portrayed the horrific inequality towards African Americans by those who are meant to respect and to protect human rights. The failure of not focusing more on injustice towards African American followed by racial profiling led to the destructions of multiple communities in America. According to the statistics from 2013, the majority of African Americans are either “being shot and/or killed by police officers” compared to their White counterparts. Yet, most of the incidents were ignored or overlooked until justice fails to play its part.[9]

Such events should not be common. It must have been eradicated after years of civil rights movements for African Americans. However, there is a huge factor that contributes to the ignorance of the criminal justice system towards the actions of the police officers. A weapon that not only disregards the cries of the victims but also shields police officers who are responsible for such oppression.

Effects of the Impunity Law

According to the Fourth Amendment, every citizen has the right to be protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the police officers.[10] However, the law does not give a clear and distinct meaning of “unreasonable.” This gives power to police officers to arrest anyone they find “suspicious” (like wearing a black hoodie on the scene) while knowing that they could easily escape any punishments.[11] As a result, any actions by police officers will not be taken seriously despite violating any human rights, since they have immunity from the system.[12]

While ensuring that the police officers failed to violate the Fourth Amendment, the courts do not include the racial factors and “fear influences police-civilian interactions.”[13] Instead, the judges will only look at the number of police officers involved, the instances in which the weapons were used, and the attitude of police officers towards the individual. Moreover, they would examine if any reasonable person had the freedom to oblige or not, as well as the ability to stop the situation. None of these includes the “racial dynamics of the interaction” which results in broadening racial prejudice.[14] Such racial injustice and inequality are prominently remembered through the cases of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown.

Freddie Gray, an African American, died while being under the hands of the six police officials due to spinal cord injury. The police officials held Gray, while one of them bent his legs backward and placed his knee on his neck.[15] The prosecutor stated that the death of Gray involved the “police mistreatment” towards African-Americans.[16] Moreover, Gray lived at Sandtown-Winchester, which is a “high crime area” and filled with other minorities. Due to its poor condition, the area is seen as a separation of minorities from the majority.[17]

The Supreme Court failed to clarify the significant laws and policies that surround the area, which gives the police officials more authority to “stop and detain anyone who flees in a high crime area” with more force and power. Although the police officials severely violated Gray’s civil rights, the charges for two police officers were dropped and the three police officials were found not guilty due to “insufficient evidence” and unclear definitions of surrounding laws.[18] Furthermore, the case of Michael Brown sparked outrage throughout the nation. Brown, an “unarmed nineteen-year-old” African American, was shot by a white police officer who left his body in the street for a few hours. Unfortunately, the jury found the police officer not guilty of his crime.[19]

These cases portray the continuous growth of racial violence between White police officials and African Americans. Due to the law that continues to shield those who are responsible for the lives of the oppressed as well as, the racial bias in the system, justice will not be achieved.

The Divided Nation

History repeats itself. Since 1954, civil rights movements strongly emerged for African Americans to state their voices against racial injustice in the country and to fight for human rights. [20]  Along with these movements, there is a demonstration of civil unrest between the citizens and police officials.[21] As a result, the nation becomes divided—those who are meant to portray fair justice abuse their power and become the enemy of society. Thus, the cycle to fight against racial injustice continues.

Similar to George Floyd, Eric Garner was an African American who died due to suffocation under the arrest of police officers. He repeatedly stated that he could not breathe, yet the police officers ignored his pleading. Unfortunately, the police officers who were responsible for his death did not face any charges.[22]

The reoccurring events of police mistreatment towards African Americans without facing any consequences for violating human rights angers the nation. Many citizens of different races participate in protests and riots (even looting) to prevent the criminal justice system from turning a blind eye towards a lack of police accountability and to “racialize police violence.”[23] Rightful as it may sound, civil unrest results in “daily demonstrations and violent confrontations with highly armed local police.”[24]

These events lead to further arrest and loss of life due to the “excessive use of force by police.”[25] Besides, government interference to stop the civil rights demonstrations without giving a logical answer to achieving justice will only create inequality, which establishes a more difficult path towards equality and fairness.

Conclusion

Many citizens are tired of the failure of the criminal justice system to punish those who are responsible for the lives of many African Americans. Despite several events and movements, racial injustice continues to this day. The failure to change the views of the legal system towards African Americans and other minorities will only result in continuous racial injustice and chaos in society.

Like other African Americans who have lost their lives under police brutality,[26] George Floyd symbolizes the never-ending cycle of racial injustice, while the protection given by the law to the police officers remains unbroken. So long as these events occur, the fight for humanity and justice will never end unless their cries are heard. As for now, the nation will remain divided and the lives of African Americans will always have to be fought for.


Angelica Wales is a student at University of Kent. She can be reached here.  


Photo Credits: Tasos Katopodis/Plex

Notes:

[1] David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: Global History (Harvard University Press, 2007).

[2] American Civil Liberties Union, ‘Racial Justice’ (2020) <https://www.aclu.org/issues/racial-justice#whats-at-stake&gt; accessed 01 June 2020.

[3] Evan Hill, Ainara Tiefenthäler, Christiaan Triebert, Drew Jordan, Haley Willis and Robin Stein, ‘8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custory’ The New York Times (New York City, 31 May 2020).

[4] The Economist, ‘Qualified impunity: Why the prosecution of a Minneapolis police officer is such a rarity’ (London, 29 May 2020).

[5] Emily Mee, ‘Who was George Floyd? The ‘gentle giant’ who was trying to turn his life around’ The Sky News (London, 02 June 2020).

[6] Ibid.

[7] BBC News, ‘George Floyd: What happened in the final moments of his life’ (London, 30 May 2020).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Bernadette R. Hadden, Willie Tolliver, Fabienne Snowden, & Robyn Brown-Manning, ‘An authentic discourse: Recentring race and racism as factors that contribute to police violence against unarmed Black or African American men’ (2016) <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10911359.2015.1129252?casa_token=J8Z9gb_KHbcAAAAA%3APUQ0e_-58mbgNPe6bd9vCuTSXIg2pXXt1GGmMy7-D8rfJWj8XohBeKiW4UfdBl8a9RUUiOMJEKcGxQ&gt; accessed 02 June 2020.

[10] U.S. Const., amend. IV.  

[11] Janaé Bonsu, ‘Does the Fourth Amendment Really Protect People of Color?’ (2016) <https://ips-dc.org/fourth-amendment-really-protect-people-color/&gt; accessed 03 June 2020.

[12] Erwin Chemerinsky, Karen M. Blum ‘Fourth Amendment Stops, Arrests and Searches in the Context of Qualified Immunity’ (2012) 25 TLR 1.

[13] Lindsey Webb, ‘Legal Consciousness as Race Consciousness: Expansion of the Fourth Amendment Seizure Analysis Through Objective Knowledge of Police Impunity’ (2018) <https://scholarship.shu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1630&context=shlr&gt; accessed 03 June 2020.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Yvette N. Pappoe, ‘Remedying the Effects of Government-Sanctioned Segregation in a Post-Freddie Gray Baltimore’ (2016) 16 UMDLJ 115.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Department of Justice, ‘Federal Officials Decline Prosecution in the Death of Freddie Gray’ (2017) <https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/federal-officials-decline-prosecution-death-freddie-gray&gt; accessed 03 June 2020.

[19] Linda Sheryl Greene, ‘Before and After Michael Brown – Toward an End to Structural and Actual Violence’ (2015) 49 WUJLP 1.

[20] Borgna Brunner and Elissa Haney, ‘Civil Rights Timeline: Milestones in the modern civil rights movement’ (2007) <http://www.u.arizona.edu/~salvador/Spring%20thru%20February/Jim%20Crow/Civil%20Rights%20Movement%20Timeline.pdf&gt; accessed 04 June 2020.

[21] Ibid.

[22] The Eric Garner Case: Statewide Survey of New York Voters’ Response to Proposed Police Accountability Legislation’ (2017)<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01488376.2016.1239598&gt; accessed 04 June 2020.

[23] Yarimar Bonilla & Jonathan Rosa, ‘#Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States’ (2015) <https://blogs.umass.edu/jdrosa/files/2015/01/Bonilla-Rosa-2015-Ferguson.pdf&gt; accessed 04 June 2020.

[24] ibid.

[25] Mohamad Hamas Elmasry & Mohammed el-Nawawy, ‘Do Black Lives Matter? A content analysis of New York Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch coverage of Michael Brown protests’ (2016) <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17512786.2016.1208058?casa_token=LtqfZHLcdiMAAAAA:owky4ZoN7RFzlbGTaGdcR3XSjFgsAlK4G3UPEjrUxi8s_RuPc_X303j5xmKLD8q0rNa56v4zJWrgdQ&gt; accessed 04 June 2020.

[26] Victor Oguejiofor Okafor, Ph.D., ‘Trayvor Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner Et al.: A Survey of Emergent Grassroots Protests & Public Perceptions of Justice (2015) 7 TJPAS 43.

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