An element of all criminal trials is about protecting each member of the body politic. In the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition upon which U.S. law is built, the sovereign was responsible for protecting all subjects, and the loss of any subject was a loss for every person in the body politic.
While the family of George Floyd has a personal connection to seeing justice done, every American has a vested interest in seeing justice done. The crime against George Floyd was a crime against the body politic, was a crime against me, as a U.S. citizen.
In 1776, when the United States declared themselves into existence, 20 to 25 per cent of the people living in the 13 states were slaves who were not members of the body politic, but property. They did not have the protection of the sovereign. A violation of their bodies, whether beatings, rape, murder, starvation, maiming, sale, family separation, etc., was not a crime against the body politic.
Not until after the Civil War, with the succession of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, were the vast majority of Black people freed from slavery, recognized as having U.S. citizenship, and recognized as having the same civil rights as all Americans.
Implicit in those amendments is the principle that they became citizens of the body politic and with it the obligation of all of us to protect their place in it. Yet, many of us in the US who are white have never accepted that when a Black person is killed in a criminal action, it is an attack on the body politic, an attack on every member of the body politic.
The commentary surrounding the criminal trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s death is almost entirely about justice for Floyd’s family. In similar cases in the past, there is often false equivalency between the individual who died and the individual charged, and a sense that the jury is weighing the two.
But that is not all that is stake. George Floyd’s death is a crime against him, a crime against his family, AND a crime against each one of us who lost a member of the body politic when he died.
The American people have a hard time accepting that the untoward death of a Black person is a crime against the sovereign people of the US, because Black people have seldom, if ever, been fully accepted as part of “We the People of the United States.”
The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution states that “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The people are sovereign, and as a member of those sovereign people, the death of George Floyd was a crime against each and every member of the sovereign people of the United States, and a crime in which each and every one of us has a vested interest and a responsibility.
The failure to recognize that George Floyd’s death as a crime against the body politic, a crime against each and every one of us, and to name it as such in the commentary reflects how deeply racist the United States still is.
Elizabeth Mancke is a U.S. citizen and permanent resident of Canada based in Fredericton where she is Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Studies at the University of New Brunswick.