White America Should Be Watching

The Derek Chauvin trial and the portrayal of George Floyd

Photo: Mercedes Mehling/Unsplash

Listening to a New York Times podcast covering the Derek Chauvin trial this week, I heard excerpts of the voir dire, that part of jury selection where prospective jurors are questioned about their reading habits, political beliefs, and various other convictions and opinions, so the attorneys on both sides can winnow the jury pool down to just those bland individuals who do not hold any polarizing beliefs or opinions. That they will admit to, anyway.

In the voir dire for Chauvin’s trial, the prosecutor questioned a man about whether he is a football fan. The New York Times podcast played his audio, so I got to hear him reply, without hesitation, “Yes, absolutely.” The man sounded, to my ear, White, which thought I immediately felt guilty for thinking.

“Vikings season ticket holder,” the prospective juror added.

“There are some people,” the prosecutor came back, “who have decided to not watch NFL football anymore, as sort of a protest, of players who might take a knee during the national anthem. Are you aware of that?”

“Uh, sure, yeah,” the prospective juror replied. The attorney asked him what he thought about that. “My thoughts is that players can do whatever they’d like to, voice any sort of protests or beliefs.”

It’s possible Chauvin’s attorneys removed this man from the juror pool, using one of their peremptory strikes — there’s no way to know, since the audio clip was anonymous and jurors in an active court case are never named or depicted in the media — but I will admit to feeling heartened at his answer, because I thought that man was White, and I want to believe there are White men in this country who like football, and who also believe that players have the right to protest.

There, in my assumptions, is the crux of the issue. I assume White people will be more likely to buy the defense’s line. And I also assume the defense will use the same story line they always use when an unarmed Black man — or child — is killed by law enforcement.

Story number one goes like this: “This Black man was unstoppably strong and police officers feared for their lives.” White citizens respond to this wolf-whistle — a big scary Black man! What else were they supposed to do? — even if they don’t think of themselves as afraid of Black people. This story works, and cops get acquitted of all charges.

Story number two is the opposite theme: “This Black man had drugs in his system, and/or underlying health conditions, and this is what killed him, not the policy brutality.” Here, the implication is that he caused his own death, either by not taking care of his health, or by ingesting drugs, or both. While we accept that a White person might have mental health issues, or be going through something, or be suffering from drug addiction, Black men must be above reproach in their conduct in order to deserve, in our collective White opinion, not to be murdered during arrest for a nonviolent alleged crime like a traffic stop, a property crime, a loitering violation. We’ve all seen it time and time again.

In Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, we’ve heard his justification for kneeling on George Floyd’s neck (for what we now know was not eight minutes and 26 seconds, but nine minutes and 29 seconds): George Floyd was tall and large. The defense framed Chauvin as the underdog, compared his height (5'9") to Floyd’s (6'3"), and said Chauvin was doing what he was trained to do. On that last point, he was technically correct: Kneeling on a suspect’s neck was allowed for law enforcement in Minnesota at the time George Floyd was murdered.

But the defense also claimed that it was not the full body weight of a police officer on his neck for nine and a half minutes that killed him, it was the drugs in his system and his underlying health issues.

For years, the White community has wanted to have it both ways in exactly this fashion. The murdered or brutalized Black man is a brute, a danger to society who deserved to be dehumanized. A Black man gets a cop kneeling on his neck while he repeats, in this case 27 times, that he cannot breathe. While a crowd gathers. While the crowd grows increasingly concerned and panicked. While that crowd yells at police to stop, and is ignored. I have three White sons, two of whom are adults, and I can guarantee that if one of them were to have an interaction with police over a minor infraction, they would be treated with civility, even friendliness. They might be called “bud,” and allowed to sit uncuffed on the curb. My oldest son is 6'4", incidentally, which fits the description of “a sizeable guy,” as Chauvin referred to Floyd. Even so, I have zero concern that he will ever be mistreated, much less brutalized, by police. My sons, if they do something to draw the attention of police, are going to be seen as having made an Honest Mistake, Experiencing a Setback, Having a Bad Day.

But George Floyd, to hear the defense tell it, is a Black brute. And yet he’s fragile, unhealthy, below the standard of basic functionality, which led to his freak death during a routine arrest. Not the cop’s fault, either way.

“You will see,” defense attorney Eric Nelson told the jury in his opening statement, “that three Minneapolis police officers could not overcome the strength of George Floyd.”

Story number one , check.

“What was Mr. Floyd’s actual cause of death?” Eric Nelson asked the jury. “The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body, all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart.”

Story number two, check.

Black drug addict, code language for unimportant citizen or disposable person. As a nation, we’re outraged and saddened by the opioid crisis when it affects White people. The rust belt and Midwestern states in particular have been crippled by the prolific availability of opioids. I’m sure you’ve seen the news stories, as I have, of White parents so drugged out their kids die of malnutrition (Pennsylvania), or White grandparents passed out in a car in broad daylight with a four-year-old child in the backseat (Ohio). Once these images were making nightly news, it became imperative to do something about the opioid epidemic. Opiates, a new national plague!

Black folks, by contrast, are bringing it on themselves when they fall victim to addiction, though they suffer the same economic and emotional challenges as White addicts. I think the argument could be made their challenges are more pronounced, since they have to face them in a Black body.

The reason the police were called on George Floyd, let’s remember, is that he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes in a corner store. The clerk, a 19-year-old Black man, took the bill even though he noticed something looked off about it. He dithered with himself about whether to tell his manager, but since the store policy is to take the cost of counterfeit money out of the salary of the employee who accepted it, he did tell. This is pitting the poor in the community against one another, plain and simple. If you’ve ever been young and working an entry-level job, you know that a19-year-old clerk can’t afford to cover a bogus $20. His manager told him to go over to Floyd’s car and get him to come back into the store. This is not a reasonable thing to ask of a 19-year-old clerk, but he did try, twice. When Floyd twice refused to return to the store, the clerk went back and told his manager to just take the money out of his pay to resolve the issue. The manager instead told another employee to call the police. They came, and they killed George Floyd.

Let’s please, please pay attention to the way George Floyd will be portrayed by Derek Chauvin’s defense. The prosecution has done a solid job so far of calling witnesses who have spoken to George Floyd’s humanity, his good works, and his human struggles. They called the aforementioned clerk, Christopher Martin, who described his “disbelief and guilt” as he watched Floyd be detained and killed. This teenager will have to live with that experience the rest of his life. They called Darnella Frazier, another teenager, who was walking her nine-year-old cousin to the store when Derek Chauvin arrived on the scene. On the stand, she cried and expressed her remorse for not doing more, though the video she made of events is in large part the reason the country knows with its own eyes how George Floyd died. George Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, spoke about his deep voice, kind demeanor, and struggles with addiction. Chauvin’s former supervisor, now-retired Sgt. David Ploeger, testified that restraint of George Floyd could have ended as soon as he stopped resisting.

The defense, when cross-examining these witnesses, has focused not on Chauvin’s actions but on what others did wrong. The witnesses who were traumatized by watching Floyd suffer and eventually die were angry and distracting to the police. George Floyd was a big guy and clearly on something. The attempt is going to be made, once it’s the defense’s turn to call witnesses, to trot out the same tired tropes: the Black man with superhuman drug-addled strength, the angry mob of Brown, Black, and poor folks, the dutiful public servant just trying to keep the peace. Nothing to see here, folks, please keep moving.

And why are they trotting out the same tired stories? Because it works. Because, for years and years, it has worked.

The Minnesota Public Radio podcast In Front of Our Eyes played audio of George Floyd’s brother, Terrence, talking about having watched the video of his brother’s killing over and over, just to hear his voice. “They say trust the system? They want us to trust the system? Well this,” he said, speaking of the trial, “is your chance to show us that we can trust you.” Listening to him, my first thought was that he seemed to speak, so eloquently, to the way Black America must feel after seeing these police murders happen over and over again, with the police always acquitted of all charges, often not even fired from their jobs.

Ugh.

White America has got to stop thinking like this. We have got to stop thinking, I can see why Black people don’t trust the police, and start considering ourselves allies. If we want to be allies, we have got to ask ourselves, do we trust police? Do we trust a system that was designed to disenfranchise, brutalize, and discount a segment of our population? Is that what we believe in? It’s an uncomfortable question that requires a commitment to examining ourselves and our own biases. What, exactly, are we willing to accept? What can we help to change, if we decide to? What is the cost of continuing to do nothing?

I hope we are watching this trial closely, and watching our reactions to the lies being sold. Please, White America, let’s not buy any more.

writer, mother, desert-dwelling urban professional with a bohemian heart and a rebellious streak. I travel the path with pluck, moxie, and a great big smile.

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Momentum is a blog that captures and reflects the moment we find ourselves in, one where rampant anti-Black racism is leading to violence, trauma, protest, reflection, sorrow, and more. Momentum doesn’t look away when the news cycle shifts.

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