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When should a man deserve to die?

When should a man deserve to die? Who should be the judge of that? What role should law enforcement play in that decision? We are thinking about the implications of these questions now as the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is under way. He was relieved of his duty following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man. Floyd succumbed after officer Chauvin arrogantly held his knee to Mr. Floyd’s neck for over 9 minutes, and would not remove it until he was pulled off by paramedics, according to a witness – long after Mr. Floyd had stopped breathing.

Was this extended lethal force warranted? Floyd was unarmed, was in obvious respiratory distress, was begging for his life while calling out for his dead mother. He was surrounded by officers. Was he a threat to them? Was the crowd? From testimonies so far, the people in the crowd who were pleading for Chauvin to stop felt threatened by the officers and their mace.

I’ve seen social media comments ranging across the moral and legal spectrum, from absolute support of Derek Chauvin and “blue lives matter” to absolute support behind the injustice meted out to George Floyd, and as a symbol of “black lives matter”. Cyberspace can be filled with opinions on the matter, but the fact is, we have a democratically developed legal system to make the decision, one that is supposed to be applied equally to all.

Whatever George Floyd was suspected of doing at the time of his arrest, which appears to be passing a counterfeit bill, it did not involve a death sentence. Had Floyd been unaware of the nature of the bill he was using; it follows that he would naturally be confused and upset by the police descending upon him.

The state of Minnesota does not even have the death penalty, it was abolished in 1911. The use of the death penalty has been a factor in the racial inequality issue. Virginia is just now the first southern state to abolish it, having been the first to execute a prisoner in 1608 and one of the most prolific in its use, Texas being the highest. Of the inmates executed in Virginia in the 20th century, 78% were black. A speaker at the Virginia bill signing said “capital punishment is a direct descendant of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow”. Capital punishment became a focus of concern spurred by the black lives protests and the last-minute execution spree of the Trump administration.

There are many examples of the unfairness of racism that can corrupt a legal system that was intended to be based on equality. How did our legal system treat Mr. Floyd? We don’t know because he never got his day in court. Officer Chauvin and the other officers around him arrested, charged, judged, and sentenced him all in the matter of minutes. Why is this a dangerous precedent? To allow law enforcement to make their own law is to surrender the protection of due process which our founders placed as a cornerstone of our rights as citizens. It invites anarchy, vigilantism, and ultimate dystopia. They also insured the right to protest, without which, Chauvin would not be being held accountable.

George Floyd was not a model citizen; he had an arrest record and he may have been under the influence of a drug (all the more reason to be mindful of his physical condition), but no one can judge another unless they are willing to walk in their shoes. He had a family, children, loved ones who cared about him. Did they deserve the punishment of losing their family member in that horrible way? All too many black families have suffered this way. How many of those judging him and other victims of police brutality- overzealous and too quick to react with force at best, racist at worst – would agree to put themselves in their place, to understand what it is like? The crowd that gathered knew what was happening was wrong. Children were in the crowd. How can we expect children to ever trust the police after seeing this?

All police cannot be blamed for those who use their position to wield power unfairly. Unfortunately, law enforcement is a line of work with great risks involved, as is our military. We can’t all know what the stress of the job is like but we should be able to expect them to act professionally, even to hold them to a higher standard. If we use George Floyd’s past as a measure of his punishment, we also should fairly take into account that Chauvin’s record shows a history of conduct complaints, he is no boy scout either.

In theory, law enforcement is a noble calling. They put their lives on the line to save others. They are the “good guys” protecting innocent citizens from the “bad guys”, keeping in mind that every citizen is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and sentenced or acquitted accordingly. “Good” or “bad” cannot be determined by one’s race.

Beyond the legal unfairness of what happened to George Floyd, is the moral inhumanity of it. Yesterday the Christian religion observed Good Friday, in remembrance of the crucifixion of Jesus. If Jesus taught anything, it was how to treat each other with respect and non-judgement. As he died on the cross, he forgave the two criminals crucified next to him. Ironically, he was the victim of an undeserved death sentence, brought about because he belonged to a group of people who were being looked down upon and subjugated. The inconsistencies between some Christians and the teachings of Christ are glaring and they are dismaying. I am not likening George Floyd to Jesus; I am comparing him to a sinner who Jesus would have treated mercifully.

It was reported that there was history between Floyd and Chauvin. All the more reason for accountability. A police officer must be able to keep their personal feelings and biases out of the performance of their duties. If an officer commits a crime when they are supposed to be preventing crime, they should answer for it the same as any other citizen. The badge doesn’t give them indiscriminate power over life and death, but their actions can determine that outcome. Mr. Chauvin is right now receiving his due process under the law. Mr. Floyd was denied that right.

Susan Bigler is a Sheridan resident.

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