Hanging Chauvin for our sins

Police officer Derek Chauvin spent nearly nine minutes strangling a man to death in broad daylight in front of what he knew were witnesses and cameras. George Floyd, his victim, begged for his life. Passersby pleaded. That would be very difficult for a human to do. That’s psychotic territory.

Nearly the entire society is angry with Chauvin. He will likely die in prison.

But I am not sure that we can entirely blame him. With more depth perception into his behavior, we can come to an even more disturbing conclusion.

Chauvin was not likely an extraordinarily bad human. I doubt he woke that morning intending to murder someone. He would have also denied being racist like many of us do.

What would enable him to slowly murder another human?

Chauvin’s body language during the murder was interesting. His face was somewhat calm and almost annoyed. His hand was steady on his thigh. This was not the look of a crazed killer violating an important rule. It was the demeanor of a man who was entitled to do what he did. Another day another dollar.

Like everyone, Chauvin has developed a version of himself from the perspective of others. We got inside of him. He was enforcing the law and subduing a criminal. He was doing things that we wanted him to do and were unable to do ourselves. He was doing our dirty work. This sense of the society inside of him overpowered the few desperate voices from concerned citizens on the sidewalk as it overpowered Floyd’s own voice.

This is how culture works. If there is good versus evil in our culture, there will be good versus evil in our individuals. If force triumphs over persuasion in our culture, force triumphs over persuasion on our streets.

Chauvin may be normal. We may be the problem.

Some will defend our culture by wishing Chauvin hell. They might like to see him buzz in old sparky. They might like to tar and feather him and push him off a high cliff. But this has the effect of packaging our problems into a neat bundle and throwing them away. We would be hanging Chauvin for our sins. It would be easy and gratifying and would require no further reflection.

Chauvin killed Floyd weeks ago and Chauvin was charged with murder. Why are they still protesting?

Most protestors are of a different mind. They don’t defend culture, they seek to change it. I have not seen a single protestor’s sign that mentions Chauvin. Many protestors want to go deeper and discuss “the system.”

For defenders of the culture, Chauvin is an embarrassment. For protestors, Chauvin is almost irrelevant. He would be replaced by another potential killer no matter how hard we marched him from camp. The protestors’ messages are complicated and they are aimed at all of us. Minus the charred ruins of a Minneapolis police department building, it may only appear that protests are fully directed at the police because the police are the ones facing the protestors.

For the most part, the protests are not anti-police, nor are they anti-white. They are pro-system improvement. Social psychologist Joshua Correll and others studied gun violence by using a simulator. They found that police officers were less likely to shoot a black suspect than ordinary citizens. If the police inquired with jogger Ahmaud Arbery or walker Trayvon Martin before the private citizens arrived, those men would probably still be alive. Behind the police may be a system of killer citizens pushing cops to do their dirty work. Chauvin may have simply been dumber and weaker than most cops.

Police work is complex like no other job. Officers must be psychologists, sociologists, lawyers, nurses, parents, social workers and occasionally thugs. They need the mental bandwidth, critical thinking and deep moral gyroscope to juggle all of these roles. An enormous history of racial oppression and violent culture pushed on Chauvin’s knee. Like many of us, he was obviously not up to the task of thinking about what he was doing.

Protests work. It is the only thing that will. Notice that the “normal society” is only thinking of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery now because the protests are still going on. Otherwise, we’d forget about them and continue with normal. And normal is not always good.

Greg Walker is a professor of sociology at Lock Haven University.


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