The Guardian • Issue #1958

Chauvin murder trial

Racial violence is not just a US issue

The defence rested this week in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest in May 2020, resulting in Floyd’s death. Floyd was arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. On Thursday, Chauvin refused to testify in his own defence, and the defence rested their case. The jury returned a verdict after just ten hours of deliberation on Tuesday – guilty on all charges.

George Floyd’s death sparked mass protests against ongoing police brutality and racial injustice in the United States. The brutal arrest and killing were captured by a bystander in a video that has been so widely circulated many are wondering aloud why there needed to be a murder trial for a murder which everybody saw. The movement quickly spread worldwide, including to Australia, where hundreds gathered around the country to march in Indigenous-led actions against ongoing violence against Indigenous Australians. One of the key issues here was ongoing deaths in custody. This week marked the 30th Anniversary of the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Since the report was issued in 1991, more than 470 Indigenous Australians have died in custody.

The mainstream Australian media is becoming increasingly US-centric. Whether or not this is a deliberate attempt to divert attention from our own national issues, this has been the unfortunate result. Chauvin’s trial has been reported on by almost every major news network in the country. Because this issue is so central in our national consciousness, it is important that we now focus on the links between what is happening this week in the United States and what happens here in Australia every day.

For every op-ed asking “could it happen here?” the answer is resounding, and it is obvious: Indigenous activists have been consistently mobilising to drive the point home that not only can it happen here, it does – every day. Systemic violence towards black and brown people is not unique to the United States but is central to the logic of industrial capitalism. Racist rhetoric teaches white people to fear the non-white other while obscuring the reality that our oppressors are not racial minorities but the bourgeoisie, whose accumulation of wealth and constant drive for endless growth crush the working class under their oppressive weight.

In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin argued that at the turn of the twentieth century capitalism had “grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries.” Capitalism depends for its profits and growth on a class of people whose labour can be cheaply exploited. But we can sometimes forget in our analysis that this class has historically not exclusively been the white working class who can demand from the state certain conditions on their labour. More often, the brunt of capitalist exploitation has fallen on racial minorities, whom the white working class has been taught to fear.

In a “postcolonial” world, the exploitation of labour has been pushed offshore to the countries of the global south. Big corporations in the wealthy developed nations of the world outsource their production to developing countries where labour costs are much cheaper, increasing their profit margin. And yet, the colonial legacy of violence remains. The “financial strangulation” which Lenin referred to is maintained by overt force against the colonised. Frantz Fanon put it most eloquently in The Wretched of the Earth when he said, “In the colonial countries, on the contrary, the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force.”

Racial minorities, we’re taught, are fundamentally different to “us,” and therefore, the state which upholds “our” values do not have to listen to them. They can be exploited, killed, brutalised, and oppressed without consequence.

We see the consequences of this racialised violence in the fact that Indigenous Australians, who make up just three per cent of our population, represent fourteen per cent of the prison population. We see it in the fact that over 470 lives have been lost in custody and countless others destroyed, all in the shadow of a Royal Commission into deaths in custody. We see it in the United States where hundreds of African-American people, particularly young men, are killed at the hands of the police, but where their killers are almost never brought to justice.

The reasons why a state might choose to hold a four-week murder trial for a murder that was so widely publicised is just as telling as the reasons why a state might not bring a case to trial at all. It has been said that this particular trial was a strategic attempt to keep up the appearance that the state is taking action on this issue and to offset simmering tensions in the community. If this is the case, we mustn’t be fooled. Much more work is needed, especially at home in Australia, to bring real and lasting change on the issue of racial justice.

A trial or an inquest, as is held when a person dies in custody, is held up as a tool of justice, but Gomeroi legal scholar Alison Whittaker argues that they can also be sites of “administrative violence.” Families of the deceased are often sidelined in the process – they cannot represent or advocate for their loved one in the same way that a legal representative might. They do not have a sense of autonomous control over the direction of the proceedings.

Although the coroner is supposed to be independent, an inquest into a death in custody is essentially an instance of the state investigating and reflecting on its own processes. There is no room in this analysis for the kinds of justice families are often looking for. Indeed, the report of the Royal Commission found that inquests “merely reflected the inadequacies of perfunctory police investigations and did little more than formalise the conclusions of police investigators.”

This silencing is strongly felt by families, both inside the courtroom and outside of it, whose loved ones have been killed at the hands of the police. In June last year, George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, unable to find justice from his own government, called on the UN to intercede on his brother’s behalf. “When people try to raise their voices to protest the treatment of black people in America, they are silenced.” This is what it took to bring International attention to the issue and to generate the pressure to bring this case to trial.

As we mark the passing of the 30th Anniversary of the Deaths in Custody Report this week, and as we watch the trial of George Floyd’s killer draw to a close, we recognise that these are not isolated incidents. They are not unique within the countries where they happen and they are not unique to the countries where they happen. Racist violence is a product of the imperialist expansion of capitalism and it is baked into the culture of colonial nations. One guilty verdict does not put an end to the struggle – it only marks the beginning.

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