2 June 2020

The anatomy of a race riot


There is no shortage of social media imagery to frame the convulsion of large sections of US society after the death in police custody of George Floyd. Minneapolis burning, the leader of the free world being hustled into the secure basement of a besieged White House, the viral video of three generations of African-Americans anguished and despairing of what they see as a never-ending cycle of oppression and rage. Take your pick.

But it all boils down to jut nine minutes of what US prosecutors will surely call the ‘depraved indifference’ to the plight of one black man, restrained in handcuffs, face down in the road, as officers crowded around him. It comes back to the chillingly blank expression on the face of the officer, who it now seems clear, crushed his helpless captive’s airway and carried on kneeling on his neck for almost three minutes after he was completely unresponsive.

How is it possible this apparent moral degeneration, this wanton disregard, accelerated into some of the biggest race riots in America since the 1960s?

The use of violence by agents of the state is frequently commented upon by people who have neither experienced force nor ever used it. Violence is usually messy, often frightening and, unless spontaneous, is rarely equitable. When using force, those licenced by the state to do so don’t fight fair. Why would they? Police officers the world over do not consent to be assaulted as a condition of their employment. So they are trained and equipped to use force to quickly and safely subdue any assailant. The legal statute that gives this effect in the state of Minnesota is admirably concise, ‘reasonable force may be used upon or toward the person of another without the other’s consent’. 

So was there anything reasonable in the way that George Floyd was treated? Given his horrible fate, the question seems almost absurd, if not completely offensive. 

But the events leading to his death, pieced together in a detailed reconstruction by the Washington Post, are disconcertingly mundane and unremarkable. His initial arrest outside a restaurant for allegedly using counterfeit currency to buy food from a restaurant was routine for the policing environment. By routine, I mean responding police officers approached his car from the rear with their weapons drawn.

The subsequent events show a quickly restrained suspect refusing to comply with officers to be placed in the back of the police car. 

By the time George Floyd had become unconscious after pleading for his life, at least four officers surrounded him. Mr Floyd was going nowhere. He was face down on the ground, hands still cuffed at the rear as they had been from the start of his encounter with MPD. By any objective measurement, reason and humanity had left the scene.

Given all these facts, what was going on in the mind of the officer whose actions almost certainly killed Mr Floyd? Of course, we can only speculate while he prepares for the fair trial to which he is entitled. But I think it’s probably lazy – and no part of any defence, we can be sure – to suggest these were the actions of ‘just another racist cop’.

Ken Pennington, a retired police commander from Northern Ireland who lectures internationally on policing and public order, suggests that stress, adrenaline and panic may have played a role here. The officer in question, simply, devastatingly, lost all of the fine motor skills and cognitive reasoning in the heat of the moment and became literally locked, blinded and deafened into an ultimately lethal course of action where dominance is the goal. Could one case of tunnel vision really have caused the tsunami of outrage that is now overwhelming large parts of the country?

Even if this were true, how is it possible that the officers surrounding him took no action to stop Derek Chauvin’s grossly disproportionate assault on his helpless prisoner? 

It’s worth mentioning here that in the UK, police, prison and other warranted officers could not justifiably and would not operationally have used the same degree of force in the same way against a detained person. Indeed, officers are specifically taught the dangers of ‘positional asphyxiation’ when restraining someone.

The knee on the neck tactic is specifically outlawed because of the huge risks attached. It’s grimly ironic that the death of Mr Floyd on camera is now likely to become an international object lesson for law enforcement students in how to kill someone while restraining them.

The onlooking officers now fired and charged with complicity in Mr Floyd’s death must explain why they stood by in a clearly contained situation, listening to a citizen they are obliged to protect calling for his mother and crying repeatedly “I can’t breathe”.

Bystander apathy, that psychological impairment of individuals to offer help to a victim when others are present, certainly didn’t apply to the civilians on the street who forcefully pointed out that Mr Floyd was unresponsive during the nearly three minutes Chauvin’s knee remained pushed into his neck. It goes without saying that we pay and honour police officers precisely not to be impotent in the face of injustice and that moral imperative must apply to their own colleagues as much as the citizens they are sworn to protect.

The truth is that a teachable moment on positional asphyxia might have meant Mr Floyd would still be alive. Something as simple as an officer telling a colleague to ease off when it must have been plain his prisoner wasn’t feigning distress could have snuffed out this latest manifestation of American carnage.

The easy targets are often not the right ones. A police force, in the US or elsewhere, is not an intrinsically racist institution set apart from society – however much it suits the juvenile worldview of Antifa activists gleefully exploiting America’s grief and confusion. It is a product of society.

But in Minneapolis, very few officers live in the communities they police. Fewer than average numbers of the force look like the people they interact with on a daily basis. Very real threats posed by the availability of firearms means the tactics and equipment of the police is more shock and awe and less neighbourhood engagement. This has spilled over into the policing of subsequent nationwide protests where counterproductive shows of force and a dearth of authentic community engagement has disfigured the performance of some (but not all) law enforcement responses.

The way out of this will be an acknowledgement that a country which produces police officers who, using an example from just last year, parade a black suspect through the streets of a Texan town tethered by a rope to mounted officers, needs direct and sustained federal intervention to fundamentally re-evaluate the relationship between minority communities and law enforcement.

Meanwhile, in the far-right online chatrooms, armchair fascists talk about mobilising for a race war. If you think this sounds fanciful, ask yourself: when was the last time you saw a video of a white suspect being killed by the police?

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Ian Acheson is a visiting professor at the University of Staffordshire school of law, policing and forensics. 

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.