Struggling for his life, George Floyd lost consciousness and eventually died under the repressive, forceful knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, it has been alleged. For over nine minutes the horrendous encounter between a weaponless drugged man and an allegedly power-drunk officer that occurred on May 25, 2020, came to life once again in a Minneapolis courtroom where the trial began March 29, 2021 of Chauvin.
We have all been taught by principles of justice to assume one is innocent until proven guilty. But the Floyd video with graphic recording of the brutal last moments of his life leave no room in most of the viewers’ mind to deem it as anything but a murder brought about through callous deliberate slow choking of a black man whose 27 pleas to let him breathe were ignored by an officer fixated on keeping him down with his knee pressed against the victim’s neck. Desperate response and heckling from enraged strangers who were witnessing the incident did not move that officer to get up and get off the person lying defenseless and senseless on the ground.
In a brilliantly controlled and non-provocative manner, prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell laid out his case. In his opening statement, he let the explicit video speak for itself, as it clearly captured officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's head and neck for 4 minutes and 45 seconds as Floyd cried out for help. Chauvin stayed on his neck as Floyd flailed and suffered seizures for 53 seconds; and continued to keep his knee on a non-responsive Floyd for another 3 minutes and 51 seconds. As Blackwell noted, "Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd. That 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."
The video shows another police officer standing by – chillingly nonchalantly – as though that is how things are supposed to happen in law enforcement or that what he is seeing is not enough to move his conscience, let alone his humanity. That he is Asian American only gets noticed and gains particular significance now – in the wake of the recent hype about anti-Asian American racism and hate crimes against them.
Against the larger incredible inhumanity of the white officer, sadly we all missed that cruelty and indifference as well as cowardice and malign conduct are not solely a white sickness, and that behind all the recent rage among us Asian Americans as “victims” lies a similar poisonous seed that pushes even some of us – the well-behaved non-confrontational minority ethnicity – to victimize, and silently bear witness to violence against, and torture of, others.
This case, as Blackwell rightly pointed out, “is not about split-second decision-making.” It is hard to find fault with what he said. Floyd did not die of a gunshot encounter wherein police must make a life-or-death split-second decision. His was a calculated slow motion killing by a man slowly and intentionally taking his breath away like blowing out a flickering flame from a dying lamp.
That the perpetrator Chauvin has dared to plead not guilty to charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter boggles our lay minds. That he has lawyers actually ready to defend him and his innocence of the charges is even more puzzling and unjust to our modest intellects.
Most of us tend to believe what we see with our own eyes as true. But law and justice have different standards. They are supposed to be blind to perceived reality and to only trust and abide by proven reality. Our system of criminal justice expects every accused to be defended and to have their day and say in court. Hence, we are required to be open-minded and reasonable and sift the grain from the chaff based on what the defense presents as evidence in order to rationally rule on the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Not surprisingly, defense attorney Eric Nelson focused the defense's opening statement on Floyd's state of health and his conduct during the encounter. The use of fentanyl and methamphetamine and his resistance to the arresting officers were presented as contributing causes to the outcome. Nelson suggested that a confluence of factors contributed to Floyd’s death — importantly, a combination of drug use and preexisting health problems. He also sought to establish that Chauvin's actions were in line with the training the police officer received.
"You will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career," Nelson asserted. "The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing."
The reasonable doubt theory thus becomes the strategic weapon of defense being deployed to suggest to jurors that the precise cause of Floyd's death was not Chauvin's knee but a mix of causative factors. Sadly, the trial will go on finding ways to weaken the argument for conviction of brutality.
Significantly, all three former police officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao – who were present at the crime scene along with Chauvin and are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter – have all pleaded not guilty. Their joint trial is scheduled for this summer. Meanwhile, they are not expected to testify in Chauvin's trial.
The Floyd video vividly captures how justice is administered by some of its rogue officers who can be beastly when tackling crime. But it is its racist roots that really shook this country and in fact much of the world – awakening all to the dehumanization and trivialization of black lives, leading to the powerful slogan and its lasting transformative message that Black Lives Matter.
That the Floyd’s aggrieved family has already received $27 million in settlement may seem fair to many or excessive to some. But it is not the amount that can bring them the solace they seek. In an unprecedented move, shortly before the trial started, Floyd’s family members and several attorneys knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds outside the courthouse to commemorate the time Chauvin was originally reported to have stayed on Floyd's head and neck. The civil attorney representing Floyd's family in his public statement noted, "Today starts a landmark trial that will be a referendum on how far America has come in its quest for equality and justice for all."
That suggests clearly that Floyd’s family and supporters will heal only if the system renders justice by punishing the accused.
A jury operating under such pressure cannot but feel compelled to follow the inhumanity of the crime rather than be bogged down by the fog of “reasonable doubt.”
(The views expressed here are solely of the author, an Indian American published author and opinion writer.)