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The George Floyd Murder Was First Degree

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

—Immanuel Kant

“Among the organizations joining arms for the protest are the Anti-War Committee, Black Lives Matter MN, CAIR-MN, CAIR-MN, Climate Justice Committee, Communities United Against Police Brutality, Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, Freedom Road Socialist Organization – Twin Cities, Good Trouble for Justice, MN Immigrant Rights Action Committee, MN Uprising Arrestee Support, MN Workers United, Native Lives Matter, On Site Public Media, Racial Justice Network, Students for Democratic Society at UMN, Twin Cities Coalition 4 Justice 4 Jamar, and Women Against Military Madness.” — Dana Thiede, discussing the planned protests at Derek Chauvin’s trial, beginning March 8th.

George Floyd’s family and attorney are pushing for a first-degree murder charge for Derek Chauvin. The difference between first and second-degree murder in the United States is premeditation. Brumley Law Firm wonders if 9 minutes of kneeling on someone’s neck could count as premeditated: “The argument could be made in this case that the defendant did premeditate the murder. Nearly nine minutes elapsed while the defendant knelt on the victim’s neck who repeatedly stated he couldn’t breathe and then became unresponsive. During this length of time the defendant had the opportunity to form the requisite intent to kill Mr. Floyd and then took time to consider his actions and then completed the act.”

Crucially the first-degree murder charge does not necessarily need proof of a plan, only the passage of time. Ben Crump, the family’s lead attorney contends: “For Chauvin to leave his knee on George’s neck despite warnings and evidence that his life was in danger — and to continue that course for many minutes — demands a first-degree murder charge.” For attorney Antonio Romanucci the degree of proof lies in the fact that they knew their actions might cause death: “They are criminally liable because they knew what they were doing could lead to death.”

Another factor to consider is that Chauvin did cross paths with Floyd is that they worked at the same nightclub in 2019. Although it remains unclear how well they knew each other, with Floyd being a bouncer for a year, and Chauvin was off-duty police for the club for 17 years. Based on the setup of Floyd being inside the club and Chauvin being outside, it doesn’t seem clear that any proof of personal hostility could have been a factor.

More relevant, although not necessarily in the actual court case, would be Chauvin’s record of force. Chauvin had 18 complaints against him, including of a man who said he couldn’t breathe during an interaction in May 2020. Chauvin had been involved in 3 shootings and killed one person on duty. The nightclub owner cited aggressive tactics by Chauvin. However, we have to complicate this personal narrative too. Chauvin received four medals from 2006-2009 for various incidents of confrontation.

Digging through the four times he was recognized we get a picture of American society more generally. While Chauvin was entangled in typically violent American situations one of the medals was for being part of a group that killed Wayne Reyes, who unlike Floyd, was threatening to kill the police. This to me is not a question of whether or not Chauvin faced real danger in his line of work, but more so what kind of “premeditated” incentives for violence our society creates. On the one hand, we give people medals for killing others, on the other hand, we want claim that the murder of George Floyd is not a general societal problem, but a case of a few bad apples.

It is here where I would argue that the expectations we have for our society are more problematic. We are conditioning ourselves to solve problems with violence by not only rewarding this behavior but by funding weapons, military and police rather than other socialist solutions around health, education, environment, etc. During a climate and energy crisis recently caused by capitalist privatization schemes, we chose to use violence to guard food rather than feed people. In this way our society premeditated this murder by demanding that rather than deal with inequality we rely on violence to cover up what we don’t want to see. Violence is the ultimate solution. Killing the poor also silences the poor.

In capitalism, nothing is supposed to be premeditated. Supposedly it is the free market that takes care of things on its own. We don’t need to do anything, we just need to work hard, be industrious, etc. and the free market will reward both parties because the free interaction within the market is mutually beneficial. However, this isn’t what is happening. Nothing is so neutral.

While we are supposed to beware of the planned premeditated Communist economy there also is a premeditated plan by the elites to subvert democracy. This is in order so ordinary people cannot summon a planned economy that will in turn give them freedom in the human sense of the word, rather than the market sense of the word.

Underlying this ideology of “no ideology at all” is a problematic relationship to time. There is no need, for capitalists, to plan for the future or account for the past. As long as the industries continue to grow, there are new financial opportunities, and new ecological and political crises to exploit. Time in the pandemic especially seems lost because space was taken away. Without the ability to move safely from place to place the past year seemed to be stuck in one place in time.

The global protest that erupted in response to the first-degree murder of George Floyd caused outrage because of this premedication. Over the course of 9 minutes even the cruelest of observers could feel the humanity of America, not just the breath of Mr. Floyd slipping away.

It is through this moment that we see modern technology and indeed modernity in general, act in contradiction. On the one hand global access to the video inspired global action, global change, global tragedy, global annihilation, global liberation. On the other hand intervention into the moment seemed impossible, most experienced it after it already happened, and those who weren’t there, were wondering, would we have done more than passively film it? The answer is probably not.

The martyrdom of Jesus had its cake and ate it too. Jesus died for our sins, saved us, but he also didn’t die, so he saved himself. George Floyd likewise inspired a movement, but where is his redemption? If he is not redeemed are we saved? Or do we stand guilty, perhaps not of first degree murder, but of complicity. Of premeditation.

Many Marxists may disagree with me here about premeditated murder and will helpfully push us into a structural conception. However it is also key to note that ideology shouldn’t be judged on its truth, but on the actions it produces. If we did not premeditate this murder then how can we stop the next one?

Steven Pinker’s idea about violence declining is based upon capitalism as this expression (albeit flawed) of mutual self-interest that respects laws, norms, etc. because of people needing each other to succeed economically. This is why I have to call out anyone who seeks so-called common interest. We cannot organize around commonalities. These break. We must become one by not only accepting difference but organizing around it.

Which brings me back to planned economies and Marxism. I don’t think we should fear returning to Marx. Here’s why. Many capitalists fear a planned economy that has goals besides making money. Money working for people rather than people working for money. Some people who aren’t capitalists fear Marxism too because of the notion of the planned economy not only taking away personal liberty but becoming so enamored with their plan that they will do anything to achieve it.

However this is not the modern threat, just the boogeyman. I sense an alternative narrative being built. I don’t think we should fear this alternative explanation. It is here again where I disagree with many Marxists I know who say Black Lives Matter is not Marxist, so there is no need to fear, no need to have any hope, etc. I say this last sentence as a sort of exposure of leftist ideology that both positions are maintained.

The belief that history is a sort of backdrop to economics is what I want to dispute. For one I don’t think it’s how the left actually functions. The left is enormously brave, confident and competent when it comes to changing history. The left knows how to intervene into economic determinism and does it every day. I just think we have lost hope.

I don’t think there is any reason to lose hope. I see so much hope. I’ve never been more optimistic. For me, Black Lives Matter is Marxist but with a fascinating modern twist. I think we have the central critique of policing being the critique precisely because it is avoiding a naive Marxist intervention of the past. If Marxism failed because of its use of violent state power then it is exactly the critique of violent state power that is most Marxist because it will lead to a successful Marxism.

To me this is why although he was a Christian American who preferred Hegel to Marx, it was Martin Luther King who gave us the way to the transition from capitalism to communism. Rather than attempt to industrialize faster than capitalism, King intervened with a Kantian categorical imperative of non-violence.

The transformation of society came through this concept: in every situation, one must act with the same moral law of non-violence. King didn’t care if you had a right to commit violence or not. He was against it. Rather than compete with capitalism in its goal of producing (violence upon the earth), King competed with capitalism on its ideological grounds of non-violence. It was in this way that King exposed capitalism as an ideology and made it vulnerable to being replaced by something real and planned.

Our society has in a way planned the murder of George Floyd through our own ideology, our own failure to structurally implement King’s categorical imperative. If Derek Chauvin is not charged with first degree murder then it shows that we still believe subjects under capitalism are acting spontaneously, reacting to propaganda mediating through the market, etc. To the contrary, Chauvin did indeed plan a murder. He had time to hear a man cry for his mother and cry for air. He had time to ask himself if this man was human if the man bled the same blood he bleeds, and he decided that this man was not human, or perhaps he had time to decide that he was not human and that Floyd was all too human.

Nevertheless, King’s categorical imperative of non-violence asks us not what is Marxist, but how Marxism must be done. The goal is not to become Marxist in this life, but to propel a society towards Marxism. How could Marxism become a universal law? Kant’s categorical imperative does not ask us to treat our neighbor how we would want to be treated. Rather Kant asks us to treat our neighbor as if the treatment of our neighbor is how everyone in society will treat everyone else.

The Other is not ourselves, the Other is universal. I am sensing a growing universal. I don’t deny an accumulation of capital, a monopoly on violence from the ruling class, a closing ecological window killing 200 species a day. The cost of a categorical imperative emerging is that many in the universal are no longer with us. However I see liberalism and leftism collapsing into one, and I am thrilled by this. We are not choosing between the ideas of Marx and the modern road through capitalism (something Marx himself insightfully saw).

We no longer believe capitalism gives us what we want. The plan of having no plan at all, of being free from obligation to the Other is no longer appealing. We want to be bound to the Other. We demand it. Without this we are left alone, unable to distinguish a man crying for his mother from a combat zone. The old guard hangs on, through the accumulation of wealth, the capture of the state, the enslavement of the citizen and the hoarding of resources. The old way of doing things is going away. The plan is to love each other. Call it premeditated love. Love, in the first degree.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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