OPINION: Will Derek Chauvin's conviction bring change in the UK?

Wednesday, 21 April 2021 09:36 GMT

A demonstrator holds up an image of George Floyd during a rally on the first day of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, on murder charges in the death of Floyd, in New York City, New York, U.S., March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is right that Derek Chauvin is held accountable, for George Floyd’s family and for the world to see. But it will take much deeper commitment and more sustained energy to dent the global scourge of systemic racism.

Lola-Rose Avery is a barrister specialising in family law

In less than a day of deliberations, a Minneapolis jury convicted Derek Chauvin on all charges over the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020.

That I, and many others across the world, seriously doubted that this would be the outcome as we anxiously waited for the verdict to be read, despite having watched how George Floyd died, is in itself a damning indictment on the system. 

It is right that Derek Chauvin is held accountable, for George Floyd’s family and for the world to see; too often this is not the case.

Guilty verdicts are justice on some level but reformation of systems like the one which empowered Derek Chauvin’s actions and which is mirrored here in Britain is truer justice.  

Protests against police killings have flared across the U.S. in recent days, from Minneapolis to Chicago but how will the verdict be received in the UK where the fight for racial equality continues? 

Here in the UK, sobering statistics published recently show that police brutality is by no means a uniquely American phenomenon. In the year to March 2020, Black people were five times more likely to have police use force against them than white people. 

In the same period, Black Britons were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, according to the government. 

Kevin Clarke, a relapsing paranoid schizophrenic, suffocated to death in London in 2018 when restrained by 9 police officers. Police body-cam footage shows him saying “I can’t breathe”.

An inquest found that the restraints “contributed” to his death, though similar charges were not brought. There has never been a conviction for death in police custody in the UK. 

The only justice that can be accepted is for police officers to not murder in the first place and for an end to racist policing and police brutality. Until that is achieved, the fight is sure to continue, both here and overseas - the verdict reaffirms its necessity. 

Will this outpouring of public pressure in the wake of Floyd’s death lead to concrete changes in police behaviour? And what about much-need changes to combat racism in the world of work? 

I am a barrister and I have watched as many in my profession have, following the Black Lives Matter movement, given the floor to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) colleagues to let them speak honestly about their race-related experiences in and out of work. 

I was invited to do the same last year and gave my input during various discussions. Colleagues shared accounts of everyday racism. Other colleagues listened. Some legal organisations pledged change. 

The U.S. protests have forced the legal profession to discuss representation and consider ways to increase the often-low numbers of Black people, which worsens at the most senior levels. 

Representation, of course, is only one part of the equality conversation. Another important, and less-discussed, issue is how Black lawyers are then treated. 

Black barrister Alexandra Wilson, who in September was mistaken for a defendant three times in one day, was praised and vilified on social media in September for speaking out about racism in British courts. 

The head of the courts service in England and Wales promised to investigate Wilson’s complaint but in December it was forced to apologise again after another black barrister, Luke Mclean, was mistaken for a defendant twice in one day. 

Being mistaken for anyone except a barrister is an experience I am familiar with. It’s happened to me even in spaces designated for advocates. 

Other Black barristers have been sharing similar experiences of discrimination for decades. 

These examples of so-called ‘casual’ or ‘everyday’ racism in 2020 are not grave or life-endangering but they do reveal preconceptions that run through a society still permeated by systemic racism. 

What progress on racial inequality has been made then? Tangible, systemic change cannot be made in a few months so it is too soon to say. 

I hope the rest of 2021 will bear some fruits of the concerted efforts made to fight racism around the world which exploded summer. But it is going to take much deeper commitment and more sustained energy to more visibly dent the scourge of systemic racism.

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