Terry H. Schwadron
March 31, 2021
Each time the day-long replays show the video from Minneapolis of former police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes is stomach-churning. It seems as impossible that there will not be a finding of legal wrong here as it does that the defense wants to put Floyd on trial.
We’re still at the start of testimony — some quite emotional from witnesses — in a month-long trial in Floyd’s death. But as a nation, we’re feeling plenty of pressure to read whatever results as a barometer on racism, as a measure of on national will and direction on race.
We all expect a severe and sustained public reaction to any eventual verdict in the three different murder and manslaughter charges against Chauvin, almost regardless of how the trial ends. We’ve built up too much hype and hope over this verdict. And yet, even now, we know that police practices are too ingrained by training and culture to expect one case to turn the page.
Indeed, on some level, if we have a shred of trust left here for institutions, we should be stressing that we have a trial of fact underway to judge what actually happened in this singular case — a single police officer on trial for extraordinarily poor judgment, brutality and maybe criminal intent in using the power of his badge and his knee to kill an already subdued George Floyd last May.
Even with the first witnesses, it was clear that the case against Chauvin is strong, but not necessarily determinative, with lots of video to show the inexplicable — that Chauvin kept the knee in place in full view of bystander witnesses for a seemingly interminable 9 minutes, 29 seconds. It’s the heart of the prosecution case. And it was just as clear that the defense will argue that Floyd had other medical factors that may have caused death and that police perceived some public safety concerns, that by dumping on the victim and the neighborhood, there is just enough doubt in two autopsy reports, for example, or understanding of police training rules or necessary, constant recalculation about force, to dismiss the three charges.
Nevertheless, the hours of commentary on television and oodles of available opinion insist that the case represents a national judgment, that the entire judicial system is on trial as well as America’s sense of right and wrong towards race and policing.
It’s an enormous amount of pressure being focused on resolution of an individual case with flawed characters thrown together in the confusion of street confrontation to represent whether America has any shame or justice. You find yourself wishing there had been as much search for balance going on at any point during those awful nine and a half minutes.
Seeking Meaning or Not
“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,” offers Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. It is not possible, however, to erase the video of Floyd’s final minutes, that nauseating video that we see repeatedly. “The world has seen it; and it will never, ever be unseen,” as Robinson said.
“Let us be clear that it is not just Chauvin on trial,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been working with the Floyd family. “The United States’ ability to deal with police accountability is on trial.”
Minnesota Atty. Gen. Keith Ellison reminds us that even getting charges filed was an uphill battle in a time when police contracts and state law tend to deflect criminality for police on the job. “Winning a conviction will be hard,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison told NPR. “I say this not because I doubt our resources or our ability, in fact we’re confident in what we’re doing. But history does show that there are clear challenges here.”
History shows that it is next to impossible to successfully prosecute police officers on homicide trials, or even charge them — almost regardless of whether serious mistakes, like going to the wrong address with a no-knock warrant — resulted in unintended shooting deaths. Barrels of ink have been spilled to support the data-rich conclusions that the victims of these incidents of police violence are disproportionately Black.
As much will come down to who sits on the jury as well as the myriad questions about reasoning for the charges themselves, charges that carry different levels of punishment. Then there are the normal trial problems — lawyers and witnesses who can be unclear or who make mistakes, the regularly appearing holes in some piece of evidence, judicial rulings along the way that allow or disallow a tangential argument.
Briefly, the outcome of this trial, like many, is no slam dunk. What is clear, however, is that the verdict already is being positioned as a judgment about America and race — along with our wrestle over voting rights, income gaps, housing and education discrimination and calls to 911 when a Black man walks into a White neighborhood.
Cable television joined Court TV and local channels in broadcasting the trial proceedings, the agonizingly slow and deliberate legal questions and testimony. Fox News passed, and there was no coverage on the One America News Network or Newsmax; Breitbart highlighted remarks from a CNN analyst that were framed to warn that if Chauvin is not found guilty of killing George Floyd, America would be in a “dangerous position as a country.”
Morality vs. Law
In the video Floyd told Chauvin 27 times that he could not breathe, called out for his mother and begged for air before falling silent. And still, Chauvin kept 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 the video). 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,” preached columnist Robinson.
“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,” he concludes. “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.”
There is no question that what happened in Minneapolis — and in Louisville, Staten Island, Cleveland and so many other attacks on routine stops of Black citizens — is disgusting, unjustifiable and unsustainable as any kind of measure of humanity. The question here, of course, is whether the law with all of its flaws matches with common sense.
When they clash, we get widespread protest and public demonstrations of frustration. Slogans don’t cover over the anger, and the breadth of racist behavior in our country shows that none of this is limited to policing techniques.
The Floyd family and Civil Rights leaders are making this case a focal point for what’s wrong with police and race nationwide. Advocates for Law & Order are doing likewise, from the opposite point of view. The city of Minneapolis already settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Floyd’s family, paying $27 million. The other three officers who were on the scene with Chauvin when he killed Floyd will face trial on lesser charges over the summer.
On all sides, we’re being herded to a national morality outcome in this trial over legalism that goes way beyond what the trial itself will cover. We need to control our expansionist anger and focus on this trial for its own circumstances.