With the beginning of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on charges of killing George Floyd, remember that Chauvin is the man on trial, not Floyd. Remember that the only reason police approached Floyd in the first place was that they suspected him of a minor, nonviolent offense. Remember Floyd’s desperate pleas that he couldn’t breathe, that “they’re going to kill me,” that he was dying.
Remember—as if anyone could forget—that the U.S. criminal justice system is on trial, as well. And remember that, quite literally, the whole world is watching.
The killing of Floyd last May 25 was one of those rare events that divides history into “before” and “after.” The video of his final moments was hardly the first to capture shocking and unjustifiable treatment of an African American by the police. But it was the one that revolutionized American society’s thinking about race and justice. Millions of people across the nation and the globe poured into the streets. “Black Lives Matter” went from protest slogan to the official name of a plaza in Washington, D.C., spelled out in 50-foot lettering on pavement visible from the White House.
Opening arguments in Chauvin’s trial on charges of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter narrowed the focus to the tragic event itself. For 9 minutes and 29 seconds, prosecutor Jerry W. Blackwell told the jury, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, “grinding and crushing him until the very breath—no, ladies and gentlemen, the very life—was squeezed out of him.”
Blackwell played for the jury a cellphone video of Floyd’s death. I’ve forced myself to watch it many times, but to me the clip is still almost unbearable. Chauvin has one hand in his pocket, in a posture of what looks like nonchalance, as he kneels on Floyd’s neck for 4 minutes and 45 seconds while Floyd tells him 27 times that he can’t breathe, calls out for his mother and begs for air, his repeated use of “please” a horrifying note of politeness in a scene of awful violence.
Then Floyd falls silent. But for an additional 4 minutes and 44 seconds, Chauvin keeps his knee on Floyd’s neck—even after other officers tell him they can no longer detect Floyd’s pulse, even after an ambulance crew arrives.
Put legalisms aside for a moment and think about that. How could anyone treat a fellow human being with such little regard for his life? After he stopped moving—after he stopped breathing—Floyd obviously posed no threat to anyone, let alone to the heavily armed police officers who surrounded his inert body. But Chauvin keeps kneeling on his neck anyway. Why? To keep an obviously inert man immobile? Or to make a point to the bystanders, Black and white, who witnessed the whole thing?
To me, it looks like a brutal demonstration of who has power and who does not. It looks like a performance showing that Minneapolis police had dominance over what Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, called the “high-crime” African American neighborhood the officers were patrolling. And that is the essence of the problem with police violence in this country. Policing is far too often seen by officers and their superiors as something done to a Black or Brown community—rather than with the community.
Nelson, predictably, used his opening statement to try to make Floyd the defendant and onlookers his accomplices. Several times, he highlighted Floyd’s physical size—which should come as no surprise. Throughout U.S. history, the idea of Black men as superhuman in their strength and subhuman in how they use it has been used to justify our restraint, our incarceration, our lynching.
Nelson also sought to justify Chauvin’s actions by saying Chauvin and the other officers had to “divert” their attention to the small crowd that had gathered to watch what was happening and to complain about how Floyd was being treated. Again, this was unintentionally revealing: Those bystanders, like Floyd, were residents whom those officers were sworn to protect. They were not the enemy, and no video we have seen indicates they posed any threat to Chauvin or his colleagues.
The opening statements made clear that much will be made of Floyd’s medical cause of death. Nelson indicated he will claim that Floyd died of an overdose of opioids. We can expect testimony from dueling experts on the question.
We should know by now—after so many travesties, including George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin—that it is all too possible to convince juries to blame the victim if the victim is a Black man.
It is not possible, however, to erase the video of Floyd’s final minutes. The world has seen it; and it will never, ever be unseen.