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A year ago this week, 46-year-old George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis as then–police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. While bystanders begged Chauvin to get up, a teenage girl walking by had the presence of mind to video what was happening. Thanks to that young woman, Darnella Frazier, we all could hear Floyd telling Chauvin: “I can’t breathe.”
Floyd’s murder sparked more than 4700 protests across the nation. They popularized both the idea that policing must be reformed and the concept that American systems, starting with law enforcement and moving to include housing, healthcare, education, and so on, are racially biased. In the past fourteen months, support for the Black Lives Matter movement among white people has jumped 5%, fueled mostly by younger people.
And yet, the rate of deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials has not changed, and Black people are still three times more likely than white people to die at the hands of law enforcement, even though whites are more likely to be unarmed.
In April, a jury convicted Chauvin of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He will be sentenced in June.
After the jury convicted Chauvin, President Joe Biden promised Floyd’s family that he would deliver a police reform bill. This week, he and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Floyd’s family privately in the Oval Office for more than an hour, but the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has not become law. The act bars the use of chokeholds and makes it easier to prosecute police officers. But lawmakers have been unable to compromise over so-called “qualified immunity,” a federal doctrine established in 1967 by the Supreme Court that protects officials—including law enforcement officers—from personal liability for much of their behaviour while they execute their professional duties. Members of both parties, though, say a deal on the measure is in sight.
Justice, it seems, moves slowly.
This week we also learned that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. has called together a special grand jury to hear a number of cases, including whether to indict former President Trump, other people in charge of running his company, or the Trump Organization itself. Vance began to investigate in 2018 after Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to making hush-money payments for Trump and to lying to Congress.
Vance surely believes there is evidence of a crime: let’s call it fraud. Allegedly, the Trump Organization manipulated the value of real estate to make it seem more valuable when trying to get loans against it, and less valuable when listing it for tax valuations. Investigators are also looking at compensation for Trump Organization executives.
That a grand jury is considering whether a former president committed a crime is unprecedented in American history.
The former president also responded today to a lawsuit filed by Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) who, in March, filed a lawsuit against Trump; Donald Trump, Jr.; Alabama Representative Mo Brooks; and Trump’s former lawyer Rudy Giuliani for inciting the insurrection of January 6. Trump’s lawyers asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that the president has “absolute immunity conveyed on the President by the Constitution as a key principle of separation of powers.”
The memo is the usual political attack we have come to expect from Trump, but it’s interesting: his claim that he enjoys absolute immunity leaves the rest of the defendants–including one of his own children–out in the cold.
On January 22, just two days after President Biden took office, Lincoln Project founder George Conway published a piece in the Washington Post noting that Trump’s frantic efforts to stay in office might well have stemmed from “a desperate fear of criminal indictment.” Trump needed the protection of the presidency to avoid the fallout from his connections with Russia; the Ukraine scandal; and bank, insurance, and tax fraud. Conway noted that refusing to prosecute ex-presidents would undermine the rule of law because it would place them above the law: they could do whatever they wished as president—including trying to overthrow our democracy—knowing they would never answer for it.
Trump, of course, has refused to admit he lost the 2020 election. This week, he issued a statement suggesting that all potential prosecution of him would be political, saying that he was “far in the lead for the Republican Presidential Primary and the General Election in 2024.”
Trump’s memo also suggested he had a First Amendment right to say whatever he wished about the 2020 election, but in January, criminal law professor Joseph Kennedy of the University of North Carolina School of Law pointed out that while Trump’s speech might have been protected, he had a legal duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, a duty that meant he should have immediately told his supporters to stop what they were doing on January 6. His supporters breached the Capitol shortly after 2:00 p.m., and he did not ask them to leave until 4:17, in a video that was itself incendiary.
Meanwhile, the “audit” of 2020 ballots in Maricopa County hit another pothole when the Pennsylvania-based technology company in charge of running the recount refused to renew its contract, which expired on May 14, the day the process was supposed to be done. Wake Technology Services Inc. was subcontracting under Cyber Ninjas. A different technology company has taken over from Wake TSI.
The Nevada Republican Party has its own troubles. It recently censured Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, charging that she had failed “to investigate election fraud” in the 2020 election. Recently, one of the people who claimed to have voted for that censure said on a podcast that he is a member of the far-right Proud Boys. He said he and about 30 of his friends had been urged by state Republican leaders to step into the political fray on the side of the former president and were, he claimed, the deciding votes on the censure. Republicans in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and in Washoe County, which includes Reno, are now trying to clean the Proud Boys and their ilk out of the party, while Trump loyalists are now trying to purge the party of anti-Trump people.
As of this week, 50% of adult Americans are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and on May 24th, the seven-day average of new cases was the lowest it has been at any point since last June. But those numbers are driven by the vaccinated part of the population. Among those who are unvaccinated, the rate of disease and death is estimated to be as high as it was in late January.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.