Racial Case Trials Marked the US in 2021

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If last year saw a new wave of anti-racism demonstrations in response to episodes of extreme violence against black people, such as the murder of George Floyd, 2021 was marked by a series of trials in some of the cases that fueled the indignation of protesters in the United States. .

Chief among them was the one who sentenced Derek Chauvin, a former police officer filmed by witnesses with his knee on Floyd’s neck, to 22 and a half years in prison.

Although it has been celebrated by activists such as those in the Black Lives Matter movement, the decision to be obvious does not represent the end of racism or police violence that, statistically, affects black men and women more often in the United States.

For Bennett Capers, director of the Center for Race, Law and Justice at Fordham University in New York, there are at least two elements that stand out in the balance of cases involving racial issues: prosecutors are more willing to file suit against police officers and the public is more willing to hold violent agents accountable.

“In a way, the Floyd murder and the protests that followed acted as an ‘education’ for most Americans, who had no idea how pervasive police violence against black people is,” he says.

In cases where the court’s decision was not exactly what anti-racist activists expected —such as that of Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager cleared by the jury after killing two men and wounding a third during a protest in Kenosha—, the professor says that there can be collective gains in terms of public debate.

“Even in the absence of structural changes, cultural change can happen. A few years ago, few Americans had heard of qualified immunity. Now it’s become part of the conversation.”

The mechanism is a kind of excluding illegality that, in practice, prevents police officers from being held criminally responsible for possible excessive use of force and violations of constitutional rights. Bills are pending in the US to end immunity, but it remains in effect.

Other structural changes ended up bumping into the country’s deeply divided legislature. An example of this was the “George Floyd Law on Policing Justice”: passed by the House in March, it stalled in the Senate in September, with a lack of consensus between Democrats and Republicans, and remains stuck.

Among other measures, the bill provides for a ban on strangulation in police actions, an end to security warrants that allow agents to enter places unannounced —as in the action that killed Breonna Taylor— and the creation of a national registry of misconduct policeman.

While assertive in pointing out flaws in the American judicial system and highlighting the weight that the disclosure of these cases exerted on public opinion, Capers is cautious when asked about the society’s preparation to deal with racial issues. “Time will tell. In the US, racial advances are usually followed by a retreat. So we’ll see,” he says.

George Floyd

Killed in Minneapolis in May 2020, aged 46, Floyd has become a symbol of the new wave of protests against racism and police violence in the US. Derek Chauvin, the agent caught pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck despite warnings that the man could not breathe, was found guilty of the crime in April 2021 and two months later sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison for three different types of murder.

On the 15th, Chauvin returned to court and pleaded guilty to the charge of violating Floyd’s constitutional rights. Prosecutors asked the court to sentence him to 25 years in prison, along with the previous sentence — that is, his sentence could be extended to two and a half years.

The admission of guilt prevented a retrial on the federal crime that, according to jurists consulted by the US press, could lead to Chauvin’s life sentence. Currently, the ex-policeman is imprisoned in an individual cell, measuring nine square meters, from which he is allowed to leave for an hour a day.

​Ahmaud Arbery

In February 2020, at age 25, Arbery was exercising by running in a mostly white neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia. He was killed by a shotgun blast fired by a resident chasing him along with his father and a neighbor.

The three white men claimed that, upon seeing a black man running, they assumed he was a criminal. Although the case was made public, the three were only criminally charged when a video recording the entire action was released.

In late November, Gregory McMichael, 65, his son Travis, 35, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, were convicted by a jury in Arbery’s death. The sentences are expected to be announced on Jan. 7 and could lead to life in prison. In February, a new trial will decide whether the three are guilty of hate crimes — prosecutors say the defendants targeted Arbery because he was black.

Kyle Rittenhouse

Rittenhouse, 18, has responded to charges of, among other crimes, murder and attempted murder for shooting Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz — the first two died from their injuries.

Claiming to have acted in self-defense, he was acquitted in November. The case differs from the others because the three shot — who could not be called victims during the trial — were white. The action came, however, during a protest against racism and police violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Jacob Blake

In August 2020, aged 29, Blake was shot four times in the back by a white police officer during an approach to Kenosha, also recorded on video. Police said two officers were at the scene in response to a domestic incident call.

Blake survived the shooting, but was admitted in critical condition, was handcuffed to a hospital bed, and paralyzed from the waist down. According to investigators, he was armed with a knife, which would have prompted the police to shoot.

In October of this year, the US Department of Justice decided not to charge the agent for the shootings at Blake because it considered that the “evidence obtained is insufficient to prove that the officer intentionally used excessive force.”

Daunte Wright

Wright, aged 20, was killed in April after being shot by a policewoman who claimed to have fired her firearm by mistake — she says she intended to fire a stun gun. The episode took place in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, about 12 miles from where George Floyd was murdered.

In the action video, filmed by the camera attached to the agents’ uniforms, a voice can be heard, attributed to the now ex-policeman Kimberly Potter, shouting “taser, taser”, the name given to a stun gun used to immobilize fleeing people. In another part of the video, after the shooting, you hear the same policewoman saying: “Holy shit. I shot him.” According to the agent’s defense, she got confused and used the lethal ammunition weapon.

Last week, Potter was convicted of manslaughter, a crime that can carry up to 15 years in prison. The announcement of the sentence is scheduled for February 18th.

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