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.