Remember, America’s on Trial — Not George Floyd

How we frame a trial sets the stage for expectations

A mural painted by artist Kenny Altidor depicting George Floyd is unveiled on a sidewall of CTown Supermarket on July 13, 2020, in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Last year, George Floyd’s death sparked a new wave of advocacy. Athletes continued to kneel on one knee, companies made diversity pledges, and everyday Americans protested. They made signs, printed shirts, and posted blacked-out squares on social media. Yet it all comes down to this moment, which arguably could last a few weeks — if not months.

The long-awaited trial started on Monday.

Rep. Cori Bush’s tweet at the outset of the court proceedings provided some much-needed context: “Derek Chauvin is on trial. America is on trial. Our criminal-legal system is on trial. George Floyd is not on trial.”

It’s essential to remember this point, because defense attorneys will muddy the waters. Their goal will be to justify Chauvin’s actions and thus Floyd’s death.

“You would think the trial was for George and it isn’t — it’s for the police officer,” said Lamar Pettis, 38, a Black man and protest attendee who watched portions of the trial’s first day at the dentist office. “I’ve got six kids and I don’t want to imagine them getting older and having this happen to them.” —USA Today’s Chauvin trial updates

Now, the country will have to watch lawyers defend the seemingly indefensible. White men have historically used the “strong brute” or “thug” stereotypes to justify brutality against Black men. When officers claim to fear an unarmed Black person, they feed into the narrative that Blackness is dangerous. No matter what is said at trial, America cannot unsee or unhear that video. As Floyd begged for his life, America became the set of a grotesque play.

The prosecution began by playing a 9-minute 29-second video of George Floyd’s death. In doing so, they refocused the jury and nation’s attention on Chauvin’s actions last May. On that day, Floyd told officers that he couldn’t breathe 27 times, yet the abuse continued. According to NBC News, here’s what happened:

“He put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him, until the very breath—no, ladies and gentlemen, until the very life was squeezed out of him,” Blackwell said.

In my article “If George Floyd Was Murdered Off Camera,” I discussed society’s fixation of witnessing Black pain. White people often doubt Black people’s experiences unless they can see it for themselves. While seeing Floyd die on camera will haunt America forever, it also made anti-Black violence undeniable.

America’s on trial here. And the entire world is looking on from the gallery. They want to see if our criminal justice system works. And while the answer is subjective, the inequities present aren’t up for debate. According to Mapping Police Violence, Black people are still three times as likely to die by police than White people.

Image generated via interactive graph on

Last year, a diverse group of Americans protested systemic racism, particularly in policing, but police violence continued at the same rate, unaffected by calls for change. So, while protests made people feel connected, saving Black lives requires more than empathy. Americans who want this dynamic to improve should support structural changes to policing.

While the defense may try to blame bystanders or the victim, the crime in question is homicide. One witness testified, “I believe I witnessed a murder. I felt the need to call the police on the police.” In America, Black people experience brutality, and there’s no one they can call for help when police take the law into their own hands. Chauvin wasn’t the only officer present that day, but none of them effectively deescalated the situation.

The first witness, a 911 dispatcher, spoke to her experience of watching the grim scene unfold. The following was reported by NBC News:

Scurry said the police officers restrained Floyd for so long that she asked someone whether her “screens had frozen because it hadn’t changed” and was told that it was not frozen.

Scurry informed the officers’ supervisors about her concern. Even though she works with officers every day, she recognized the officers’ behavior as problematic. Sadly, Floyd still died that day as Chauvin kept his knee on his neck. But the officers’ actions didn’t take place in a vacuum. Societal norms facilitate state-sanctioned violence. In an interview with ABC News, Emmett Till’s cousin said she considers George Floyd’s killing a modern-day lynching.

Video: ABC News

This moment feels heavy as Black people collectively hope George Floyd’s family receives justice. But this trial is about more than one man. This is about America’s inability to value Black lives. Officers are watching this trial and will consider Chauvin’s punishment or lack thereof. I’m afraid of what type of environment a not-guilty verdict will produce for Black people throughout America. The last thing we need is an escalation in aggressive police tactics.

Justice shouldn’t be a dream deferred for Black people, yet Black Lives Matter remains an aspirational statement in America. Even though former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin faces murder charges, some people continue to refer to this trial as the “George Floyd trial.” Onlookers should remember that a living, breathing man died that day. What happened was a tragedy, and he is the victim in this scenario.

America’s on trial today. While we collectively await a verdict, it’s important to remember that Black lives should matter. No matter the outcome, we should commit to turning that aspiration into a reality.

Essayist, Poet, Activist, and Scholar, EIC of CULTURED, Founder of #WEOC, with bylines at Momentum & ZORA ♥︎

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