Eight minutes and forty-six seconds. That was how long it took for George Floyd to die at the hands of the Minnesotan police officer Derek Chauvin. With his neck crushed beneath Chauvin’s knee, Floyd begged his killer to stop. ‘I can’t breathe’, he said. ‘Don’t kill me.’ Chauvin ignored him. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds later, when Chauvin finally lifted his knee, it was too late. George Floyd had suffocated to death.
It is in times like these, in the aftermath of Minneapolis, that I feel ashamed to be a conservative. We conservatives are supposed to be champions of the sacred and inviolable rights of the individual. So where were we when the family of George Floyd mourned? What comfort have we given them? What have we offered apart from a scattering of tepid condolences? We have blinded ourselves to injustice, and deafened ourselves so that we would not hear the cries of the grieving. It is time we make amends.
Indeed, the American police, as it stands now, is marred by arbitrary excesses and violent abuses of power. Such a compromised force is inimical to the conservative vision. If we truly want a limited government which abides by the rule of law, we must reform the police force and repair the social contract between the individual and the State. First, we must expunge all traces of racism from the police. Second, we must curtail police power by stripping away the legal shield of qualified immunity. If we fail to restore the covenant of trust between the rulers and the ruled, we will find ourselves in a permanent state of bellum omnium contra omnes. Such is the state of Minneapolis today.
There is no doubt in my mind that the police forces of the United States are institutionally racist. To be clear, this does not mean that all police officers are racist. Indeed, I believe that the majority of American police officers are fair, honourable individuals who serve their country with pride. But nonetheless, the way the system works leads to stark racial disparities when it comes to enforcing the law. African-Americans suffer as a result. Compared to whites, they are almost twice as likely to be pulled over at traffic stops by police . They also die more often in police custody: in Texas, they make up 29% of deaths in custody, despite comprising less than 12% of the total population. And a 2015 study shows that unarmed black Americans are 3.49 times more likely to be gunned down than unarmed white Americans.
With such a gulf in outcomes, it is normal for African-Americans to distrust the police. But without trust, the law loses its legitimacy and with it, its power. After all, ‘Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done’. We must therefore overhaul police training and bridge the gap between law enforcement and racial minorities. America cannot survive another Minneapolis.
We must also abandon the doctrine of ‘qualified immunity’ for good. Even though it does not apply in the specific case of George Floyd, it is nonetheless a cornerstone of police brutality. Qualified immunity means that government officials, unless they have violated ‘clearly established’ constitutional rights, cannot be sued for what they do on duty.
In practice, qualified immunity makes it nearly impossible to call the police to account. To prove that the police have violated ‘clearly established’ rights, one must rely on previous cases where the courts ruled against the police under similar circumstances. Without case precedent, it would be almost impossible to successfully sue the police for abuse of power. Consequently, most Section 1983 lawsuits (which allows for civil actions in response to deprivation of rights) fail.
Qualified immunity therefore provides carte blanche for police to trample on the rights of ordinary Americans. In fact, as the Cato Institute noted, it actually creates a perverse standard by making the worst infractions hard to punish (as there will be no similar court precedents). It also encourages police officers to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. After all, even if they make a mistake, they still wouldn’t get sued.
We cannot expect black Americans—or any American for that matter—to restrict themselves to what is legal when the law itself is stacked against them. The prevalence of racially-motivated police brutality means that it is the State which first broke the covenant of trust. This gives those who are oppressed by the police the right of rebellion. Locke puts it best: ‘whenever the Legislators endeavour…to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence.’ Violence against the apparatus of the State is therefore justified. To be clear, this only applies to violence against state-owned property which is directly used for law enforcement. Violence against actual police officers can only ever be justified in self-defence.
It is also crucial that we do not unquestioningly condemn all protesters as ‘rioters’. First, we must realise that the vast majority of protesters started out as peaceful. Only a minority of protesters resorted to violent actions, and in most cases they were responding to police escalation (videos show police pepper spraying onlookers and arresting journalists). But even if the protesters were violent, we must distinguish between legitimate violence and illegitimate violence. Within a state of justified rebellion, targeted and specific violence against the symbols of State power is justified; wanton violence against private individuals is not. This is why I condemn looting and the arson of private property, but not the burning of Minneapolis’ 3rd Police Precinct.
Finally, it would be a mistake to fetishize the idea of the ‘good, non-violent’ protester. If we would only support social movements which are made up of moral paragons, we would end up supporting nothing at all. Rather than mindlessly condemning the violence at Minneapolis, we should aim to distinguish between the protesters who are fighting against State oppression and the jackals who are using the protests as a cover for their own depravity.
Until political authorities take concrete steps to remedy these injustices, the protests will continue. The Minnesotan government should set up an independent inquiry to look into police brutality across the state of Minnesota. They should call for good-faith dialogue with the protesters. And they should rein in the riot police to avoid a state of all-out war. Only then, after implementing these measures, would the State be justified in reasserting its legitimacy and clamping down on the violence.
If Justice is absent, then the purpose of ‘law and order’ becomes null and void. Unjust laws are merely diktats; the order they produce secures nothing but tyranny. To my fellow conservatives: if we are to uphold freedom and justice, then we must stand with the protesters of Minneapolis.