Derek Chauvin’s defense lawyers tried two fundamental tactics for getting Chauvin acquitted for murdering George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The first was an argument that Floyd did not die from Chauvin choking him to death, but actually died from carbon dioxide poisoning or a discredited nonsense illness known as “excited delirium,” which is not recognized by the World Health Organization or the American Medical Association.
The lawyers also attempted to argue that Floyd, a man who was in completely adequate health, was so frail as to have died, spontaneously and coincidentally, from unrelated health problems exactly in the period of time where Chauvin had his knee on his neck. This argument obviously fell flat, especially considering the litany of expert witnesses the prosecution called in to annihilate the position.
But underneath the surface arguments, Chauvin’s lawyers really relied on a whole different argument: Derek Chauvin was doing exactly what he was trained to do. The argument was reminiscent of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazi war criminals tried to get out of sentencing at the Hague because they were “just following orders.” Some commentators considered this a damning indictment of the police, and agreed that Chauvin was acting typically of police guidelines. The Minneapolis Police Department did not agree, and a number of the defense’s expert witnesses argued that Chauvin had not followed protocols.
This move — trying to deny responsibility for an individual’s action by pointing up at the system — is a storied defense of atrocities in the history of neoliberal politics. Leftist writer Mark Fischer noted this phenomena in his 2010 book “Capitalist Realism,” wherein he observed individuals will be defended from responsibility by pointing up at the system, and the system will be defended by pointing down at “a few bad apples,” imagining the terrors committed in the system’s name to be as a result of a few “pathological individuals” rather than any fault of the system itself.
Fundamentally, this is allowed to continue in part due to our existing legal structure. A criminal trial for Chauvin doesn’t have the authority to change police guidelines, so only personal responsibility is considered. Similarly, the news pundits, politicians and police unions fielding the “bad apples” argument have nothing to do with Chauvin’s defense; they are invested in the perpetuation of the system alone.
I, as a random college student, do not have a solution to this problem. I believe that both are at fault — the system as it rests and Chauvin specifically. The fundamental philosophical question of how to deal with personal responsibility has been left unanswered in neoliberal society, so the separation of dealing with the individual and system allows accountability and justice to be indefinitely delayed. The defense attorneys repeatedly chanted that this is the trial of Derek Chauvin and not of American policing at large. Maybe we should have stopped to consider: why not?
Logan Graham ’22 is from Warrenville, IL.
His major is philosophy.