Skip to main content

Editorial: George Floyd's Death Shows Need for Change

Over the course of the past five years, I have spent countless hours writing and arguing in support of a limited government, one with the narrow mission of protecting life, liberty, and property. Law enforcement, so my thinking went, is essential to this undertaking, and I have been hesitant to challenge abuses of power by the police. Even amid a sequence of law-enforcement malfeasance in seemingly-disparate American geographic regions, I ignored widespread protestations of police brutality, excused their actions without studying them, and trained my eye toward misconduct in Venezuela and Hong Kong.

In other words, the question of whether law enforcement is properly oriented never entered my mind. My assumption was that police officers always aim to protect life, liberty, and property, and that misconduct is the situational and oftentimes forgivable consequence of overzealousness in implementing the law.

George Floyd (N.Y. Times)

However, the death of George Floyd at least partially vindicates the grievances against American law enforcement that have accumulated since the 1991 beating of Rodney King, if not earlier. Floyd, accused of counterfeiting by a grocery-store employee, was arrested by the Minneapolis police. He was bound to the ground by Officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd's neck for eight minutes even as Floyd -- unable to breathe -- begged for relief. This technique is a violation of police protocol, but the ghastly scene unfolded amidst no protest from the three officers accompanying Chauvin.

The police department initially maintained that Floyd resisted arrest. As National Review reports, this contention has been proven incorrect:

Floyd can be seen walking alongside the arresting officers as they lead him away from a vehicle. They appear to order him to sit on the ground, and he complies. The officers then help him stand and walk him over to a cruiser, at which point he appears to collapse before being pinned down.

Though my inclinations are sympathetic toward the police, the evidentiary record leaves little room for debate or attempts at justification. Floyd's death was the result of arbitrary and improper police conduct. Supporters of limited government, who are usually proponents of constitutional restraints against state power, should be especially vocal in making this pronouncement.

Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a document that is the token of the realm for supporters of limited government, offers the following words:

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

All three clauses of Amendment Fourteen, Section One have value amid the present turbulence. The first clause uses the word "enforce," demonstrating that the amendment covers both the creation and the implementation of law. The second clause bars states from engaging in arbitrary governance which deprives people of life, liberty, and property, a point made by George Will in The Conservative Sensibility. The third clause bans the creation of separate laws for separate groups of people.

The killing of George Floyd is an affront to both the word and the spirit of the Fourteenth Amendment. He was deprived of his ultimate value -- life -- without a semblance of due process, in an abusive arrest perhaps motivated by race (Floyd is African-American). He was completely and totally denied of the "privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States": The Constitution precludes the execution of Americans who have not been convicted by a jury, let alone charged with a crime. Such killings are completely antithetical to our system of justice and commitment to freedom from government.

If the courts were to apply the Fourteenth Amendment when deciding cases of police brutality, they could order wide-ranging changes to how law-enforcement is conducted. A proposal I saw this morning suggested the automatic firing of law-enforcement agents accused of malfeasance. This would be workable given some due-process protections for the officers. However, other, more wide-ranging options should also be on the table.

Seeing that I have never worn the uniform, I make no pretensions about how police officers perceive their role within their communities. That said, I have also never walked a day in the shoes of communities who feel -- with merit, if Floyd’s death teaches us anything -- that law enforcement is not serving their lives, liberty, and property, but instead hindering their flourishing. Initiatives to build trust between law enforcement and the communities are essential to bridging this gap. I have no words of advice on how such programs should be constructed, but the first step is judicial deference to the wise words of the Fourteenth Amendment: Police conduct which is inimical to due process and Americans' basic constitutional rights, and contrary to the spirit of the laws being enforced, should be declared illegal.

Whether or not the judiciary embraces the Fourteenth and stewards positive change, George Floyd has shown America that the status quo is anti-limited government and, frankly, anti-constitutional. The question is whether we will act.

All unsigned FDL Review content is the product of Declan M. Hurley.