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Chauvin verdict a wakeup call for medicine and public health

Denise Herd, Professor, Behavioral Sciences | April 21, 2021
Black Lives Matter activist Deray Mckesson is arrested by police in Louisiana.

Black Lives Matter activist Deray Mckesson is arrested in 2016 by police in Louisiana. (AP photo by Max Becherer)

The Chauvin verdict provides a much needed expression of hope and solace for the Floyd family and to the millions of black people for whom his death was a painful reminder of the collective vulnerability of being harmed by the police.

However, we as a nation have a long way to go before justice is achieved.

The verdict and the process that lead up to it have not changed police brutality and violence. Police killings of unarmed Black people have continued at a rapid pace since George Floyd was killed, and even throughout the trial. The long line of those suffering from these killings and violence before this trial — where the police were not held accountable for their actions — has not been addressed.

Policing is part of the fabric of society. And if white supremacy and systemic racism are core components of that fabric, these killings and the lack of accountability, will continue unabated.

As a public health professor, I am particularly disturbed that medical testimony was used by the defense to attempt to exonerate the police and blame George Floyd for his own death. This kind of testimony has been used repeatedly as we saw in the trial regarding Eric Garner’s death, by chokehold, to shield police officers from being accountable for murder.

Rep. Peter King from New York summarized the perspective of the defense’s case for exonerating the police officer who killed Eric Garner by stating, “If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this.”

One of the triumphs of the Chauvin trial was that the approach used in the Garner case — which could have served as a precedent to acquit Derek Chauvin — was soundly discredited. The Chauvin verdict should serve as a wakeup call to continue to disrupt the complicity of the medical profession with defense strategizes that limit police accountability for brutality and murder.

In a broader sense, the case also highlights the need to disrupt the systematic racism that creates the enormous health burdens on Black people, and other vulnerable populations, as well as the ideology of racial difference and inferiority that help sustain them.