All around the globe, the footage of George Floyd’s final words echoed: “I can’t breathe.” His death hastened an overdue racial reckoning in the U.S. And now the world is watching to see whether there will be legal justice.
Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on a Black man’s neck for close to nine minutes last May, is on trial for murder and manslaughter. But Floyd appears to be, too.
As the first week of the trial wrapped up at the heavily guarded Hennepin County courthouse, I saw a familiar trope from the defense attorney — blame the victim of police violence. Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson is using an often successful tactic he undoubtedly learned from other cases in which white police officers killed Black people. Attacking their character, habits and past mistakes taps into the disturbing logic of Black people deserving to die. It’s a cruel justification to deflect from racism.
So far, Chauvin’s attorney has mentioned that Floyd used counterfeit money to buy cigarettes and ingested drugs to hide them from the police. Floyd’s size is seen as a threat even though Chauvin is a police officer with a weapon. The defense reasons that Floyd had drugs in his system and an enlarged heart. Floyd’s health issues are weaponized against him with the assertion that adrenaline contributed to his death. He’s reduced to being just a large Black man who did drugs — in other words, deserving to die.
This week takes me back to the Jason Van Dyke trial in Chicago a few years ago. The world also saw 2014 footage of a white police officer pumping 16 bullets in the body of the Black teenager Laquan McDonald. During the trial, the defense stripped the victim of his humanity. During closing arguments, defense attorney Dan Herbert said if McDonald had been wearing a Boy Scout uniform, perhaps the killing would have been unjustified. Herbert likened McDonald to a monster in a horror film scaring his client.
This rinse-and-repeat cycle is another form of community trauma. When a police officer wields physical and psychological power over a person, then school grades, girth, job status, drug use or anything else shouldn’t matter. A perfect victim doesn’t exist and, frankly, police officers often don’t know a person’s background during the sudden moments that lead to death. Guilt is presumed of victims, not innocence.
Steven Thrasher is a professor at Northwestern University and author of the forthcoming book “The Viral Underclass: How Racism, Ableism and Capitalism Plague Humans on the Margins.” When Ferguson, Missouri, police killed Mike Brown, Thrasher wrote back in 2014 how the ghost of the Black unarmed teenager had to defend his right to life.
“The reason they [defense attorneys] do it is because it works for their client,” Thrasher said. “I’m writing in my book how Floyd was also positive for coronavirus and that just shows how these same populations are affected by police violence.
“But what is interesting and sad is learning more is that he struggled with addiction, which is the same type of population,” Thrasher said “It is disappointing because it will be used against him instead of a public health matter.”
It’s telling how the defense doesn’t mention that part of Floyd’s autopsy.
Sometimes entire Black communities become subject to scrutiny. When William Balfour was on trial in 2012 for killing members of Jennifer Hudson’s family, so was the Englewood neighborhood. A Chicago jury convicted Balfour, who is Black, but when I sat in the courtroom covering the story, I was stunned when his defense argued Englewood is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the U.S., therefore the murders could have easily been committed by someone else.
Juxtapose the stripping of Black humanity with Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in last month’s killings at spas in Atlanta. He is white, and most of the victims were Asian. A county sheriff suggested that Long simply had had a “bad day.” Law enforcement granted a suspect grace and humanity that Black victims are often deprived of in similar situations.
We certainly don’t see that from Chauvin’s defense. But you don’t need to be a clean-cut Boy Scout or a respected banker. You can be a struggling teen or a man making it in the off-the-books economy. Neither deserved to be killed by police.