I just finished watching the godawful video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin keeping his knee on the neck of the dying George Floyd for more than nine minutes.
It is among the most powerful pieces of evidence I have ever seen — it indisputably shows Chauvin keeping his knee on Floyd’s neck as Floyd submissively lies hancuffed, telling Chauvin he can’t breathe and calling for his mother. Numerous observers at the scene keep demanding that Chauvin get his knee off Floyd’s neck as Floyd clearly slips into unconsciousness.
Floyd does not resist or fight back. He simply struggles to breathe.
There is no conceivable reason why Chauvin had to keep his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd posed absolutely no danger – certainly not after the first couple of minutes of complete submission. Chauvin was warned by bystanders that he was killing Floyd and that Floyd was unable to breathe. They begged him to get his knee off Floyd’s neck.
Some bystanders tried to get closer to Floyd but other police officers stood in the way and stopped them. The evidence of Chauvin’s moral culpability is overwhelming and beyond dispute. He deserves no pity or compassion.
But he does deserve justice. And so do we.
Chauvin’s legal guilt poses an entirely different series of questions: Did he intend to kill Floyd? Did he realize that death could have resulted from keeping his knee on Floyd’s neck? Was he reckless in not removing his knee? Would Floyd have died from Chauvin’s knee if not for the drugs in his system or a heart condition?
These and other questions will have to be decided by jurors, after hearing all of the evidence and arguments and being instructed by the trial judge. But the moral, political and ideological issues seem black and white: No police officer should ever do what Chauvin did to a man who was subdued, was lying on the ground, was unarmed and was surrounded by five armed officers. The tape, without more, compels that conclusion.
If the Minneapolis police guidelines allow such conduct, they must be changed. The video speaks louder than any effort to justify Chauvin’s actions.
Now let us imagine how different the situation would be if there had been no cellphone videos – if it had been the word of the police officers against those of the largely Black bystanders. Many such cases have occurred over the past several years. Some have been taped, others not. The recording in this case, and in others, has made all the difference.
As a civil libertarian, I realize that the pervasiveness of cellphone cameras is sometimes a double-edged sword. On the positive side, it documents police abuses and other evils that would otherwise be difficult to prove. On the negative side, the pervasiveness of these cameras threatens all of our privacy, if used promiscuously and without consent or knowledge.
In one sense, it’s meaningless to debate the pros and cons of any new technology, because no matter what we say, that tech will advance, improve and become increasingly interwoven with our lives. The law can do something, but not much, to control its misuse. We must acknowledge that with every technological innovation, we lose a little bit of privacy, autonomy and dignity. (Just ask Jeffrey Tobin.)
The bottom line is, we must learn to live with the new technology. The law will always be playing catch-up, but will never succeed in actually catching up with advancing technology.
The Chauvin case demonstrates the positive use of cellphone video cameras. The video of Chauvin refusing to lift his knee off the neck of the dying Floyd has changed the world. It will never be the same. And it should never be the same. What we see on that video is a vision of hell that cannot be allowed to become or remain the new normal, the old normal, or any version of normal.
So two cheers for video cameras.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of “Guilt by Accusation” and “The Case Against the Democratic House Impeaching Trump.”
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