Witnessing the Witnesses of the Murder of George Floyd: Trauma at the Trial of Derek Chauvin

March 30, 2021

I’m watching the second day of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin and I want to throw up. Chauvin is the 44-year-old former Minneapolis police officer who is on trial for the murder George Floyd on May 25th of last year. I want to throw up because of the excruciating videos of Chauvin torturing Floyd to death. I want to throw up because of the young people who witnessed the police officer kill a man in broad daylight. I want to throw up watching Chauvin’s attorney trying to discredit the witnesses as “angry blacks.” And I want to throw up because there are already countless white people on social media trying to blame the murder of George Floyd on George Floyd.

Police kill roughly a thousand people a year, and, on average, about 44 police officers are convicted of anything in those killings, usually on a charge less than murder. That’s why this trial carries so much weight. Floyd wasn’t fighting or fleeing. He was on the ground, handcuffed with Chauvin’s knee on his neck for nine minutes, while he called out for his children and his dead mother and repeatedly told police “I can’t breathe!” There is no ambiguity. No “maybe he had a gun.” No implicit bias. There was only explicit cruelty. It was the revelation of that cruelty, caught on video because of the number of witnesses, that reignited the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.

Those videos traumatized every person of color who understands from first and secondhand experience the reality of race in America. Their experience with law enforcement is deeply different than the experience that white people like me have with law enforcement. I see the police as my protector. They have learned to see the police as their potential executioner. The murder of George Floyd unlocked the very real generational trauma that is rooted in the dehumanization of black people initiated in centuries of chattel slavery. I witnessed this in the weeks following Floyd’s killing, seeing black men on TV in rarely shared tears, wondering aloud when they would be seen as human beings in America.

Day Two of the trial has featured a number of prosecution witnesses who, for various reasons, were in front of Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue and E. 38th Street that spring day. Most were underage at the time. One was a teenager named Darnella Frazier, who was there with her 9-year-old cousin. This young women was sharp enough to pull out her phone and record what was happening. In tearful testimony, she reported that she saw in the dying face of this black man, all the black men in her life. “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad. I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles. Because they are all Black … I look at that and I look at how that could have been one of them.” She begged the police to help him instead of killing him. Her young cousin testified that Chauvin didn’t remove his knee from the already dead Floyd until the paramedics pulled him off.

Frazier then testified to the guilt she experienced for not doing more. “It’s been nights I stay up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life. But it’s not what I should have done,” she said, looking at Chauvin, who was writing on a yellow legal pad. “It’s what he should have done.”

Similar testimony from other young people at the scene told a similar story. They begged police to help Floyd has he faded from consciousness. That’s what the police are supposed to do. Help. They detailed, often pausing to weep or collect themselves, how the life was slowly choked out of George Floyd. They were just feet from him as his life and urine were squeezed out on to Chicago Avenue. To the four police officers, including Chauvin, it was just another day on the job, but for the witnesses, the moment is frozen in amber.

Each witness, including the off-duty firefighter who crossed the chaos, provide accounts that were devastatingly powerful. Maybe none more than bystander Donald Williams, a mixed martial arts fighter who repeatedly begged the police to take the pressure off of Floyd’s neck and render aid. Williams, there on the sidewalk in his Northside Boxing Club sweatshirt, exercised great restraint while telling Chauvin that he was enjoying the torture. He called 911 because he believed he had witnessed a murder. “I called the police on the police,” he testified.

Chauvin’s defense attorney tried to characterize him as an angry black man, perhaps threatening the officers on the scene. He calmly answered the cross examination. “You can’t paint me as angry. I was in a position where I had to be controlled, controlled professionalism.” If Chauvin’s defense was that a “riot” or an angry crowd of bystanders caused the police to forget that they’re not supposed to murder people, it fell apart at that moment. 

I don’t know what will happen after today. If history is any guide, Chauvin will be found not guilty on a technicality or found guilty of a lesser charge, like not filing some required paperwork. But I do know three things.

First, is that the the United States Constitution guarantees due process rights of anyone accused of a crime. It is a founding principle of our American democracy and distinguishes us from the world’s tyrannies. The right is guaranteed to anyone within the boundaries of our nation, including undocumented immigrants and people with previous criminal histories. Due process is afforded to those accused of white collar crimes and street crimes, and it doesn’t matter if you are a “menace to society,” as one of my “I’m not racist” white Facebook friends described George Floyd in attempt to blame him for his own murder.

The police are not judge, jury, and executioner. That’s common in dictatorships. Derek Chauvin did not have the right to execute George Floyd for “his actions and lifelong poor decisions,” as another white Facebook poster tried to rationalize. We have a justice system and it’s supposed to be blind. Do police have the right execute you for jaywalking (Michael Brown), selling loose cigarettes (Eric Garner), or allegedly passing a fake bill (George Floyd)? Black America has an answer to that question.

The second thing I know is that the 2020 murder of George Floyd woke a lot of people up to the very deep reality of black trauma in America. The weight of the dehumanization of slavery foist upon African-origined people didn’t magically disappear in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. It morphed into Jim Crow and then institutional racism that explains the wealth gaps and death gaps and the incarceration gaps that disadvantage African-Americans in the twenty-first century. George Floyd was every black person and, in his name, Americans flooded the streets. Americans also read books about racism and found ways to respond to the empty bleat that “all lives matter.”

But the trauma experienced by the young witnesses who testified today is even deeper. Like witnesses to a lynching, these people, including the children who were standing on the corner of Chicago and 38th, watched a group of white police officers (and an Asian-American cop who failed to intervene) kill a black man. Their trauma will last a lifetime. Their deeply held beliefs about police, white people, and the value of black life will be shaped for a lifetime. Even MMA fighter Donald Williams was in tears as he testified, as was off-duty white firefighter, Genevieve Hansen, who witnessed the crime.

The third thing I know is that Darnella Frazier should not feel guilty for not doing more. Her recording of George Floyd’s murder went viral and sparked a massive civil rights movement that transformed America in the summer of 2020. A recent study from Northwestern University found that cities that had sustained Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 experienced a 20% decrease in killings by police. Because of what she did on May 25th, Darnella Frazier saved countless lives.

And I will add one more thing I know. If Derek Chauvin is not found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, Americans will be right to return to the streets to express their frustration over this country’s inability to end the reality that there are two justice systems in America, one for white people and one for everyone else. You can work to heal trauma or heap more pain upon the open wound. If you think more wounding will silence black pain, you don’t understand the mighty resilience of a people who have had it with centuries of this trauma. America is on trial.

Do We Have to Burn Down America to Save It? Rethinking Rioting

May 31, 2020

Vuitton

As rioters ravaged Portland Friday night at 2 am, a local news anchor lamented how sad it was that the Louis Vuitton store was being looted. I thought Luis Vuitton Incorporated would survive, unlike the man named George Floyd.

There was a time when the lure of an exciting riot would have drawn me to the street. The belief that social justice could be advanced by screaming at authority would have inflamed my voice. Then I learned how deeply social evils, like racism, were woven into our society and how broadly complex anything approaching a solution would be.

Let’s start with the obvious, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th was a racial lynching by police. It took Minnesota authorities four days to arrest one murderer, Derek Chauvin, the officer who had his knee on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes, including three minutes in which Floyd was unconscious. The fact that in took law enforcement four days to arrest this murderer must have surprised a lot of black people that it was so hard to get arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers that participated in Floyd’s murder, well, we’ll see, I guess. And arrest does not equal conviction; the track record favors the murderers in these types of cases.

But we’re supposed to have faith in the system. After generations of George Floyds, I’m not 100% sure why.

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I’ve written so much about this issue and I want to write something now, but I’m glued to the TV watching another night of America convulsing as it tries to marshal that antibodies to fight the pandemic of racism that’s ravaged its body since its birth. I’m trying to explain this to my five-year-old and trying to find evidence that anything will be different this time. My thoughts are disjointed. Do I support the rioters? Do I invite a cop out for beer and race talk? Do I make a bid on Ebay on a looted Louis Vuitton bag, a souvenir of the great uprising of 2020?

So here are some random thoughts as America burns. Again.

  • America was founded by rioters and looters (read about the Stamp Act of 1765), when they are white and want freedom they are called “patriots.” When they are black and want freedom, they are called “thugs.”
  • This not about George Floyd or “honoring his memory.” This about the thousands and thousands and thousands of George Floyds and the inability of black people to have a right to just be alive in America.
  • White people act shocked when black people let them know they are sick of this shit.
  • The “coded” language the president is well understood by people of color even if his base pretends that “MAGA loves the black people.”
  • I had a brief fantasy that the protestors in Lafayette Park stormed the White House and dragged Donald Tump out by his ankles, but then I realized he was probably hiding in a vault, crapping in his diaper.
  • There should be no doubt that Trump is a white supremacist, no goddamn doubt. But racism is woven into complex systems, including the police.
  • The economic strain of this pandemic has added to suffering of those who are marginalized day after day, and are understandably at their breaking point.
  • The history of police officers who are arrested for murder rarely leads to police officers who are convicted of murder (less than a third of cases). The history of riots often lead to tangible results, including Watts (1965), DC (1968), LA (1992), and Ferguson (2014).
  • If you feel like your city doesn’t care about you, why would you care about your city?
  • It seems like a lot of privileged violent white protestors, who call themselves “allies,” think they are “smashing the system,” while simultaneously bringing the heat down on the peaceful black protesters they think they are defending.
  • I worry about how right-wing extremists might exploit this moment or even be working as agent provocateurs to push their racist agenda.
  • There are so many police officers that were disgusted by actions of Derek Chauvin and his three fellow Minneapolis officers. I wonder if any are currently engaged in the police assaults on protestors I am witnessing on TV right now.
  • As hard as this is to explain to my 5-year-old, I can’t imagine how hard it is for black parents who must prepare their children for life in a white supremacist country that refuses to do the work to change things.
  • It would be nice to hear local reporters and anchors express as much concern for the historical trauma of black people as they do for Chase Bank and the Apple Store.
  • Someone said lawsuits filed against abusive police departments should collect their awards from police pension funds. That might get their attention!

I’ve spent a career a partnering with law enforcement to work on issues like hate crimes and domestic terrorism. I’ve worked on trainings for law enforcement and helped to develop policies that help police understand the trauma experienced by crime victims. I went from “cops are pigs” to “police reform” as I matured and understood the social work aspects of law enforcement and the healthy communities well-intentioned peace officers can help create.

But now I’m not sure that’s enough.

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While we still have departments that allow various choke holds, and don’t immediately arrest officers who are accused of the murder of unarmed civilians, and defend a macho police subculture, it seems like Eric Garner, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and all the others will just be names on an ever-growing list that only magnifies the trauma of black America. The murder of black civilians by police has not significantly decreased since Ferguson even with the important changes that have been made. Maybe it’s the very structure of policing in America that’s the problem. Maybe we should start figuring out how other countries keep the peace and chase the crooks. Maybe we should burn the old system down. Out of the ashes…

I really don’t have the answer. I just know it’s up to white people to do the work to end racism.