Protests and the Search for Justice

June 15, 2020 Updated: June 15, 2020


Like everyone everywhere, I looked on in horror, even though it was a replay and I knew how it would come out. George Floyd was in the custody of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. He was handcuffed, pinned face-down on the street, and he repeatedly called out, “I can’t breathe.”

People from the sidewalk pleaded with the officers to let Floyd up but to no avail. When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs did not even take the time to check Floyd’s vital statistics or try to revive him. They loaded him in and headed off toward Hennepin County Medical Center. Within minutes, the ambulance called in, reporting that Floyd was entering cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead in the emergency room, less than an hour after he had been released from under officer Chauvin’s knee.

Everyone who watches the video is emotionally impacted. You can’t help but be. It’s horrible. Adding the racial element to the event even makes it worse. Floyd was black; Chauvin is white. Most people believe that things would have transpired differently if their races were different. Thus, this tragedy became the centerpiece of a movement to protest both police brutality and racism in general.

The earliest protests were “statements” designed to draw attention to this specific event and make sure that Floyd had not died in vain. People wanted to express their outrage, and they had every justification to do so. At some point, however, everyone knew about the event and had seen the video. There was still justification (and perhaps need) for statements of unity and opposition to racism. I even took part in a unity walk, but the original justification—drawing attention to Floyd’s death—had passed.

Even at the beginning, many protests turned destructive in the evening. People were assaulted, cars were burned, and stores were looted. Cities responded by imposing curfews, but they were often ignored, and the violence got worse.

Based on the latest reports, at least 17 people have been killed in the violence, hundreds of millions of dollars of damage has been done, and more than 700 police officers have been injured. Those numbers have been growing each night.

It’s only fair to observe that much of the mayhem was created by people who were doing more than protesting racism. A significant number seemed to be seeking anarchy, social revolution, and a fundamental restructuring of the American society. The two principal objectives relate to police policies and historical figures who can be tied to racism. Thus, defacing, toppling, and destroying statues and memorials became a part of many protests.

According to The Guardian, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said that Minneapolis and St. Paul were “under assault” from anarchists and elements of domestic terrorism. He estimated that up to 80 percent of those looting and setting fires were from places outside of the area and that they had different objectives than the local protesters. Their motivation was not about the death of George Floyd. It was “about attacking civil society, instilling fear and disrupting our great city.”

Some changes to society, including many that are being advocated by the protesters, can and should take place. To be legitimate, however, they need to be accomplished through the democratic process. The U.S. Constitution puts most policing authority at the local level for that precise reason: It’s easier to control matters at the local level. City hall may be hard to fight, but it’s much easier than Washington, D.C. If something is wrong with police policies, citizens can contact local officials to demand a change. If those officials cannot or will not make the necessary changes, the citizens can vote in new people who will.

The same goes for statues and monuments. Public art reflects history, but it also defines and speaks for the local community. People in that community (whatever its size might be) have the right to put it up or take it down, but the decision must be made through the democratic process. If the people want to remove a statue, they or their representatives will vote to do so. That is how democracy works.

Vandalism against statues, memorials, or government buildings is not justifiable. Essentially, it’s theft from the local community. It’s the work of bullies, and bullies should not be rewarded. They should not be allowed to make public decisions for the entire community. They should especially not be permitted to destroy statues. After all, these are pieces of art. Destroying them is somewhat akin to burning books.

The “Justice for Floyd” protesters have come to resemble the angry mobs found in William Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Given their way, I do not think that they would wait for Chauvin’s criminal trial before executing the sentence. (One night I saw a protester vowing that the protests would not end until there were convictions; arrest and charges were not enough.)

In terms of his treatment, Chauvin was immediately fired from the police force. Soon thereafter he was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Then his wife filed for divorce. Within a week, the charges were expanded to include second-degree murder. He has remained in custody the whole time. Three other officers at the scene were also charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. That’s actually very quick for our judicial system. The wheels of justice move slowly, and they operate that way for a reason.

No one wants to hear it, but the real question in this case is not justice for Floyd but justice for Chauvin. The United States promises all defendants a fair trial, benefit of counsel, the presumption of innocence, an impartial jury, and due process. How can the judicial system deliver on that promise to Chauvin? I challenged my criminal procedure students with that question last week. How would they represent him? Could they? How would the court ever find unbiased jurors? It’s very difficult.

A lawyer I used to work with in Chicago specialized in criminal cases. He used to say, “Everyone says no one is above the law, but they need to remember that no one is below the law.” The legal system must now provide a fair trial for Chauvin. That is how Floyd will receive his justice. A jury needs to consider all of the evidence and render a verdict. We all think we know what the result will be, but trials sometimes surprise us.

The protests have given good people many things to think about. Changes to the rules regarding restraining suspects and the execution of search warrants have already garnered fairly widespread support. Communities are also re-thinking some monuments and statutes. The bullies, however, have also forced their cause in some areas with brute force and intimidation. Those wins will be short-lived, and they will breed resistance. Following them is not the American way, and it’s not a good way.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.