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Observations of an Expat: The Trial

By Tom Arms

Derek Chauvin, three other police officers, the rest of American policemen, law enforcement generally, the legal system, racism and racial justice are on trial in a Minneapolis courtroom.

First, the sketchy facts of the case. African-American George Floyd was arrested after allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Officer George Chauvin held him to the ground by pressing his knee against his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. By the time the ambulance arrived, George Floyd was dead.

Chauvin is charged with manslaughter, second-degree murder and third-degree murder. He faces the possibility of 40 years in prison.

George Floyd’s last words—“I can’t breathe”—sparked the worst race riots in American history and spilt over into 69 countries around the world. “Black Lives Matter” became the chant of an estimated 26 million protesters across the US. Ninety-three per cent were classified as peaceful. But the ones that weren’t caused an estimated $2 billion in damage.

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The Black Lives Matter riots were seen by African-Americans as the culmination of centuries of brutal, legalised racism by American law enforcement. It started with slavery and extended through the Jim Crow era of indiscriminate lynchings and continued past the civil rights era.

African-Americans have fought back. The 4 April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr by Earl Ray sparked off what was dubbed the “Holy Week Riots” in 110 American cities. In 1992 four Los Angeles policemen were acquitted overusing “excessive force” in the beating of African-American Rodney King. The riots that followed left 2,383 arrested, 12,000 injured and 63 dead as well as causing $1billion worth of damage.

The fatal shooting of 18-year Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson in October 2014 led to years of simmering and at times explosive violence in Ferguson, Missouri, mainly because Wilson never stood trial. The Ferguson Riots saw the emergence of the right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers who maintained rooftop patrols during the disturbances. A Department of Justice investigation determined that the local police force had engaged in systematic misconduct against the local African-American community.

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The motto of American police is “To Serve and Protect.” African-Americans ask: to serve and protect whom? They don’t believe it is them. George Floyd was one of 765 Americans killed as a result of police action 2020. Twenty-eight per cent of them were Black. African-Americans comprised 14 per cent of the total US population.

Being killed by a policeman is the sixth most likely cause of death for African-American men. One-third of American jailbirds are Black. By the way, America makes up five per cent of the world population and 21 per cent of the world prison population.

Another disturbing trend is growing links between White supremacist militias and the police and military. There are estimated to be over 70 active militia groups in the US. The FBI has reported that the greatest threat to American security and democratic values is from the far right. Of the more than 400 people arrested as a result of the Capitol Hill Riots 50 were connected to the military and law enforcement, and the most serious charges are being levelled at that group.

One of the reasons for Black anger is that the police are largely protected from prosecution by something called “Qualified Immunity”. Under this 1871 law, the prosecution has to prove a link between the crime on trial and a clear precedent. As each case is different, it is almost impossible to draw a connection that satisfies the courts. As a result, between 2005 and 2020, only five policemen were convicted of murder.

The identities of the 12 jurors and two alternates in the Chauvin/Floyd case are secret. They are hidden from public view and sequestered every night at an undisclosed location. Judge Peter Cahill has a police guard. They are targets of both White Supremacists and Black activists and rest assured the trial’s outcome will leave one of these two groups dissatisfied, with predictable results.

World Review

Georgia’s Republicans may have shot themselves in the foot. The White-dominated local party dominates the state legislature and was shocked by Trump’s loss of Georgia and the Senate victory of two Black Democrats. Something had to be done. So they passed legislation to make it more difficult to vote by post; gave the legislation greater control over the conduct of elections; banned the provision of food and water to those standing in long queues to cast their ballots; reduced the number of drop-off ballot boxes and demanded strict ID requirements for all voters. All of these are aimed at making it harder for African-American voters who vote overwhelmingly for liberal-minded Democrats. But have they gone too far? The measures are clearly designed to reduce the Black vote. Could it instead galvanise it? The 2020 elections were a record turnout—67.7 per cent of registered voters cast their ballots, the highest figure in more than 100 years. The reason was – still is—that America is divided and politicised like never before. The Democrats hated Trump and the conservative Republicans responded in equal measure in their feelings for Joe Biden and co. Attempts to restrict the Democratic vote could very well have the effect of encouraging Democratic activists to try harder at the mid-term elections in 2022 and the presidential vote in 2024. We proved in 2020 that we could break the Republican lock, the activists can argue. We have them on the run. Sort out your id cards and bring thermos flasks and sandwiches to the voting queues. We can do it again.

The US State Department regularly produces country reports for Congress. This is because Congress decides whether a state should be given Most Favoured Nation trading status, have sanctions slapped on them, or something in between. The country report makes recommendations and Congress usually follows them. This week—in response to Beijing’s Hong Kong crackdown– the State Department advised Congress to finish the job started by Donald Trump and end Hong Kong’s preferential trading status. Not good news for Hong Kong and China. For a start, the Hong Kong dollar is tied to the US dollar. That is likely to end. Hong Kong also has its own visa arrangements with the US (and other countries) which makes it easier for the Chinese to travel to and from America for study and business. That is expected to cease. Tariffs on Hong Kong goods will go up, especially those re-exported from Mainland China. Controls on technology exports to China will be extended to Hong Kong. University contacts will be reduced. However, there will be a beneficiary. Singapore has for decades offered itself as an alternative Far Eastern base. It is looking even more attractive.

France will go into its third national coronavirus lockdown this Sunday. Schools and non-essential shops will shut. Travel will be restricted and the number of ICU beds will increase from 7,665 to 10,000. Meanwhile, Europe’s on-off relations with the Astra Zeneca vaccine continues. This week it was suspended in 15 EU countries and Canada. The vaccine is suspected to be responsible for a series of blood clots in patients under 50. The WHO and the European Medical Agency continue to claim it is safe. In the meantime, more than 20 heads of government and international organisations have called for an international treaty on pandemic preparedness. But they have failed to answer the key question of “How?” This deficiency may be one of the reasons why the US refused to sign the final communique. Another could be fear that their powerful pharmaceutical companies may have to relinquish lucrative patent control and that they may have to internationalise their Centre for Disease Control. Russia and China were also conspicuously absent from the list of communique signatories. The Chinese nonappearance may be related to their horror of transparency. This was pointed out as a problem by a WHO team investigating the causes of the current pandemic. The good news for the Chinese was that the investigators dismissed Trump’s conspiracy theory that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory.

One of the diplomatic tactics for dealing with China is to compartmentalise issues. Taiwan, South China Sea, human rights, Hong Kong, etcetera are in the “we gotta be tough” category. Dealing with the pandemic and climate change is in the “let’s do a deal” category. The hope is that by doing a deal in one area, diplomats can create a climate of trust which can have a positive impact on the “gotta be tough” category. Well, this week Beijing toughened its stance on the pandemic. It has done the same on climate change. It was scheduled to attend this week’s key preparatory meeting for the November COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow. It pulled out at the last minute. The fact is that Chinese President Xi Jinping reckons he has the West on the ropes and is in no mood for compromise anywhere.

The Myanmar military government offered a unilateral ceasefire this week. But not to the street protesters. In fact, the number of deaths is now hovering around 600 marks. No, the unilateral ceasefire is being offered to tribal secessionist rebels who have been fighting the central government for decades. The military has offered them a ceasefire because it does not want to fight on multiple fronts. And there are a lot of alternative fronts. Myanmar is plagued with 135 ethnic groups who have spawned ten currently active rebel armies. Aung San Suu Kyi’s semi-democratic government had limited success in negotiating ceasefires. But the rebels have taken advantage of the turmoil in the streets of Yangon to step up their activities. In the past two weeks the Kachin Independence Army attacked a police station and their Karen counterparts seized an army outpost. The rebel groups have also offered their support to the street protesters, including the provision of arms. In the meantime, Myanmar refugees are flooding across the borders into India, Bangladesh and Thailand. At the UN, efforts to secure Security Council-backed sanctions are blocked by a Sino-Russian veto, and Russia is emerging as the generals’ chief ally and arms supplier. The US and UK are leading efforts to organise a non-UN sanctions regime.

This week saw the British press report on Downing Street’s new media centre. The focus was on the $3 million dollar price tag, Tory blue décor and oak panelling. They missed a story. The media centre is an unwelcome constitutional development as it provides a tool for the prime minister to bypass parliament. Under the British political system (and the many countries who use its political template) parliament is supreme. Executive power is held by a constitutional monarch (or president in most countries) who vests those powers in the leader of the political party which commands a majority in parliament. That leader—or prime minister— makes a decision and proposes legislation which is then put to parliament who have the responsibility of scrutinising the government’s actions and approving or rejecting them. A key part of the process is that it is parliament who is first officially informed of government actions—not the general public via a televised media centre. This way parliament acts as a check on the government. It is no surprise that the media centre is the brainchild of eminence grise Dominic Cummings who made no secret of his disdain for the principles of parliamentary scrutiny and sovereignty. It is a disdain which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly demonstrated that he shares.

Swiss women this week had only one thing to say to Swiss men—“knickers”. After years of campaigning the female members of the Swiss citizen, the army won the right to exchange the men’s underwear they have been forced to wear for undergarments that take account of their curvier figures. Swiss men have never been known for their embrace of feminism. The land of bankers and cuckoo clocks was almost the last Western country to give women the vote—in 1971. “Their brains are too small,” explained one politician. One European country remains the last bastion of male electoral dominance—the Vatican.

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