The Power to Take Life | NASW Member Voices

Jun 13, 2023

By Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW

This year marks the second anniversary of the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

The former police officer responded to a call that a customer was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store. Chauvin subdued George Floyd and although he was lying prone and handcuffed in the street, Chauvin put his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck and kept it there for nine minutes despite Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe. Floyd died.

Because the incident was caught by the steady hand of a teenage videographer, Darnella Frazier, it was relived on a viral loop that led to millions of views and international mass protests against police brutality.

Chauvin became the first white Minnesota police officer to be convicted of murdering a Black person.

And with that, our system that allows the use of lethal force with impunity, especially against Black men, seemed to have been dealt a blow.

America has always given the power to kill randomly and with impunity to some. But it is impossible to build a just society when that same society supports terror. Between 2013 and 2021, domestic terrorism incidents increased by 357 percent and a little more than one-third were racially or ethnically motivated.

The only goal of terror is to increase the powerlessness of a targeted group. The Chauvin verdict came was a hopeful sign of system change.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the acquittal of George Zimmerman. 

He was the volunteer night watchman for a gated community in Florida that assumed the boy he saw walking in the rain with his hoodie up was the criminal responsible for a rash of burglaries in the complex.

Zimmerman, who was armed, followed Trayvon Martin. Martin, who was unnerved by the stranger, started to run. Zimmerman pursued and the two got into a fistfight. Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin, claimed self-defense and was eventually found not guilty.

Mass protests erupted upon hearing the verdict.

Outraged protestors especially targeted Florida’s draconian Stand Your Ground laws which moved the use of lethal force from the police into the civilian realm.

Dubbed the “shoot first, ask questions later” law, it allowed for people to use lethal force even if they could retreat.  The Southern Poverty Law Center, which said 27 states now have some version of the Stand Your Ground law, has argued these laws “disproportionately justify the use of violence by people who are white and male against people who are not.”

The most significant predictor of whether police will use excessive force is not his fear but the suspect’s behavior. If it is noncompliant, such as physical aggression or resisting arrest, it increases the likelihood deadly force will be employed.

About a month ago, Daniel Penny, a former U.S. Marine, was arrested for the death of Jordan Neely on a New York subway car.  Neely, a homeless mentally ill man, was acting aggressively towards others in the car and Penny put him in a fatal chokehold to protect himself and other passengers according to his attorney. Neely died as a result.

Predictably, protests have erupted across New York.

What’s different since the Chauvin conviction is the extent to which Penny — at first– had been hailed a hero. Fund raising for his defense fund totals almost $3 million.  Florida governor Ron DeSantis of Florida compared Penny to the Good Samaritan. Nikki Haley, a 2024 presidential candidate, stated that the Governor of New York should pardon Penny.    

A year ago, when Derek Chauvin received additional federal charges, Judge Paul Magnuson of U.S. District Court in St. Paul said, “I really don’t know why you did what you did, but to put your knee on another person’s neck until they expired is simply wrong, and for that conduct you must be substantially punished.”

Justice clearly is no longer turning a blind eye to cases like these. On June 14, Penny, who faces manslaughter charges for putting Neely in that fatal chokehold was indicted by a grand jury. If he is convicted, he will spend years in prison.

About the Author

Chad Lassiter

Chad Dion Lassiter is a nationally recognized expert in race relations. He has worked on race, peace, and poverty-related issues in the United States, Africa, Canada, Haiti, Israel, and Norway, and is frequently featured in the media providing commentary and solutions to racial issues. Lassiter is currently executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, where he has legislatively delegated authority to investigate filed complaints alleging the occurrence of unlawful discrimination in the areas of employment, housing and commercial property, education, and/or regarding public accommodations.

Although our system has repeatedly allowed the use of lethal force with impunity, especially against Black men, things are changing with the arrest of the latest perpetrator Jordan Neely.

Disclaimer: The National Association of Social Workers invites members to share their expertise and experiences through Member Voices. This blog was prepared by Chad Dion Lassiter in his personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the National Association of Social Workers.

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