Op-Ed: Is Justice for George Floyd Possible?

Netra Rastogi, Senior Editor

The murder of George Floyd energized a new wave of protests and advocacy during Summer 2020 as new groups started to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement. While the movement has led a variety of campaigns since 2013, Floyd’s death was one of several particularly significant events that contributed to the increased participation in the movement.

On May 25, 2020, Floyd was killed while in police custody after being accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kept his knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for approximately eight minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd laid handcuffed on the ground, repeatedly exclaiming “I can’t breathe.” Despite these pleas, video footage shows that Chavin did not release his knee. According to court documents, even after Floyd’s pulse was lost, Chauvin continued to suppress his airway.

Floyd’s life was seemingly worth no more than $20.

Chauvin was promptly fired from the Minneapolis Police Department and has now been convicted of three criminal charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. A charge of second-degree murder holds that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death; third-degree murder necesitates actions that are excessively dangerous to others; and second-degree manslaughter is an act of negligence. Prior to Floyd’s death, Chauvin already had 18 complaints filed against him with the Minneapolis Police Department. While the details of these complaints are not publicly available, many people have testified to Chauvin’s aggressive tendencies

Cases like this one, in which a civilian—often a Black man—is killed in police custody, raise the issue of how much power police officers have and whether or not they abuse that power. Even if Floyd truly used a fake $20 bill, the use of force was clearly unwarranted. While police officers are permitted to use deadly force under certain conditions, the video evidence shows that such force was unnecessary and excessive. The only thing Chauvin was threatened by was Floyd’s blackness. After all, how can Americans preach the standard of “innocent until proven guilty” when police officers are allowed to interpret and enact the law on their own without repercussions?

Floyd is not the first life lost to police brutality, but his name continues to make headlines as his death is one of the few instances that actually made it to trial. Ultimately, Americans tend to offer extreme deference to police actions in the field, so it’s rare for those officers to face criminal charges.

At what point do we stop giving police officers the benefit of the doubt and start viewing these deaths as preventable?

What makes Floyd’s death different is that Chauvin’s actions were caught on camera, allowing millions of people to watch as he deliberately kept Floyd under his knee.

Now that the verdict has been decided, many Americans and activists around the world must question if a guilty verdict is truly justice. The answer may depend on how we define justice.

Jordyn Perry (Class of 2022), the Community Education Co-Chair for the Vanderbilt Prison Project, explained that it may be too late for true justice. Perry explains that “at the end of the day someone’s life was still taken.” No amount of money or punishment is sufficient justice for the loss of life. Recognizing this, Perry explains that she “would like to see a guilty verdict, even though that’s not comparable.” 

Dr. Sandra Barnes, Professor in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and Divinity School, understands why some, like Perry, may not see an opportunity for true justice in this case. However, she states that “social justice literature suggests that a guilty verdict for murder could provide the Floyd family with some modicum of closure and peace knowing that the legal system has made the ex-police officer take responsibility for his actions. A guilty verdict would also illustrate to members of the broader society that it is possible for systemic injustice to be addressed – even if it is done one case at a time. Such a message would be crucial to the Black community and its allies.”

Perhaps the only justice possible is ensuring that no more Black lives are lost to police brutality. Floyd’s life can never be returned, and the pain his loved ones have suffered will not end with this trial. Still, this guilty verdict could ensure that there is one fewer aggressive cop on the streets. Further, this case could serve as a warning to police officers around the country that cases of police brutality will finally be viewed as criminal.

For Vanderbilt students who are personally impacted by Floyd’s death and the ongoing trial, consider involvement with the Vanderbilt Prison Project. This student organization strives to improve the criminal justice system through activism, service, and education. The work of this organization and the ongoing trial both exemplify the fact that while no individual can single-handedly end mass incarceration or police brutality, advocating for even one person caught in the system is a step in the right direction. In the case against Chauvin, a guilty verdict could mean fewer lives lost to police brutality or greater accountability for police in the future.

In the time it took for this case to be decided, another Black man has already been killed by police in the same city. Daunte White was shot and killed at only 20 years old when a police officer supposedly mistook her gun for her taser. The altercation began because White had been driving a vehicle with an expired license plate. His name now joins the list of Black Americans killed by police.