A little over thirty years ago, America witnessed the disturbing video of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers after a police chase and ultimate arrest for driving under the influence and evading arrest. Those officers were tried in state court. Three were acquitted and one case ended in a hung jury. Two years later, the officers were later indicted and tried in federal court and only two were convicted. They were sentenced to thirty months in prison.
Now, just a little over thirty years later several similarities exist between the Rodney King events and the events involving George Floyd, whose death occurred on May 25, 2020 after a police encounter where Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee was placed into Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Although occurring before widespread use of cellphones like today when incidents go viral, the Rodney King events were recorded by a witness bystander, and the video was forwarded to media. Similarly, the George Floyd encounter and death was recorded by seventeen year old female witness.
This time, three decades later after numerous police incidents involving death or serious injury of African Americans and minorities throughout the country, things are seemingly different. There have been widespread protests, the BLM movement, and an acknowledgement across the community spectrum, from corporate America to the faith based community, national and local government, concerned citizens and even law enforcement officials about the vestiges of injustice that are prevalent in our Country still today, even after just over fifty three years, another King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., lost his life actively fighting against racial injustice in America.
The reality is that the current awareness of this trial of Derek Chauvin presents another profound examination and progress report for America’s value system and its perceptions on justice. On trial for second degree murder, third degree murder and second degree manslaughter, Chauvin’s trial centers around the interaction between Chauvin and Floyd and the justification for his knee being on Floyd’s (while handcuffed and laid flat) neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
Jurors will grapple with whether the cause of death was Floyd’s drug use, heart condition or even carbon monoxide from nearby police squad cars. They will also consider whether Chauvin’s actions were “objectively reasonable“ as an officer under those circumstances.
All Americans who may have paid attention to even a snippet of this video also serve as witnesses of whether there is just something wrong about this conduct on its face, notwithstanding police immunity or these other defenses that have been raised. In reality, as tragic as Mr. Floyd’s death was, the issues are larger than this particular trial. America’s justice system‘s report card is being written this week. We can only hope that the grading criteria for this report card is based on the law, is fair, decent, humane and based on those seemingly subjective words that end America’s Pledge of Allegiance: “Justice for All.” Many are watching to see whether the system will be graded on a curve or whether “justice for all” will mean just what it says.