Empathy, too, was summoned — for those who witnessed Floyd’s death and for the man accused of causing it. But the stated sympathy for Floyd himself was meager. To the defense, Floyd’s memory is like dry kindling, ready to fuel another round of global protests demanding racial justice. For its purposes, Floyd was an unruly and sickly drug addict who was most likely felled by his own ill health.
The prosecution summed up Floyd’s life story with a few bullet points: He liked basketball and football. He moved from Houston to Minneapolis. The prosecution did not linger on Floyd’s humanity.
The sad truth is that history has shown that what is reasonable force in dealing with this Black man full of fears, frailties and fury, who has a right to basic human decency, likely wouldn’t matter at all. It didn’t matter for Trayvon Martin. It has not mattered with Breonna Taylor. It didn’t matter with Philando Castile.
Floyd died in May 2020 after Chauvin pinned him to the ground with his knee. Floyd, who had been accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill to purchase cigarettes, remained face down on the cement, even though he was handcuffed, with Chauvin’s weight resting on him for more than nine minutes. Even as paramedics arrived and began checking Floyd for signs of life, Chauvin, who is White, remained on top of him, pressing the Black man’s limp body into the pavement.
“He does not let up. He does not get up,” said Jerry Blackwell, a special prosecutor in the case. The words would become a refrain.
Blackwell began his opening statement Monday morning by apologizing to the jury. In keeping with coronavirus precautions, he was forced to keep his distance and speak to these citizen judges from behind a clear acrylic shield — circumstances that for him suggested disrespect. Proximity is a courtesy. It’s also a form of communication.
Blackwell was buttoned up in a gray suit with a crisp white shirt and spoke with a hint of a Southern accent in a voice modulated to soothe rather than lull. Time is at the heart of the state’s case. The breadth of Floyd’s lifetime of hardships and joys are not compressed into those few minutes, but the promises, failures, dangers and disappointments of policing in America most certainly are.
“You’re going to learn, in this case, a lot about what it means to be a public servant and to have the honor of wearing this badge. It’s a small badge that carries with it a large responsibility and a large accountability to the public,” Blackwell began. “Sanctity of life and the protection of the public shall be the cornerstones of the Minneapolis Police Department’s use of force. Compassion. Sanctity of life. Cornerstones.”
“And that little badge is worn right over the officer’s heart,” Blackwell said.
He painted a picture of idyllic policing, policing the way so many believe it to be. Policing the way in which so many White Americans experience it and the way many Black Americans do not. He gave jurors a version of a police officer with whom they could empathize, and then tried to make it plain that Chauvin was not that sort of officer.
The numbers, Blackwell indicated, tell the story of Chauvin’s brutality. The 27 times that Floyd cried, “I can’t breathe.” The 53 seconds during which Floyd fell silent and his body convulsed from lack of oxygen. The three minutes and 51 seconds during which Floyd could no longer move. And Chauvin simply refused to.
“He does not let up,” Blackwell said of the defendant. “He does not get up.”
Blackwell showed the video of Floyd’s deadly encounter with Chauvin. It remains as unbearable as ever, but in the context of the trial, the bystanders’ reactions become central. The tone in their voice shifts over those agonizing minutes from that of lookie-loo curiosity to something more profound. Their voices increase in volume, their pleas become more urgent and their derision of Chauvin more pronounced.
Blackwell describes panic and alarm. Some of the bystanders make movements to aid Floyd, and the police warn them to move back.
The defense attorney, Eric Nelson, doesn’t hear fear and pleading. He describes the gathering group as angry. They’re not reaching forward to help the man on the ground, but to possibly assault the police officer who is keeping him there. Nelson wants the jurors to empathize with Chauvin. He’s the officer in charge of a volatile situation. He’s the one engaged in the sometimes ugly business of policing, and he’s having to do so while under the watchful gaze of an increasingly menacing crowd.
“Mr. Chauvin used his knee to pin Mr. Floyd’s left shoulder blade and back to the ground and his right knee to pin Mr. Floyd’s left arm to the ground,” Nelson said, making no mention of any pressure on Floyd’s neck — as if his neck isn’t right there under the knee.
From Nelson’s perspective, time also matters — the whole sweeping expanse of it that was required for this investigation. Nelson was quick to point out the vastness: the hundreds of civilian witnesses, the dozens of search warrants, the thousands of material data points. He wanted the jury to know just how much effort went into knowing about everything that had come before that fateful encounter and what had come after.
But despite the all-encompassing nature of the investigation, “There is no political or social cause in this courtroom,” Nelson said. It’s just Chauvin.
This trial may not alter our society or affect the country’s politics. In so many ways, we are stubbornly stuck. But in asking the jury to empathize with those bystanders, some of whom are now testifying, Blackwell also is asking the jury to see the horror of bad policing. To feel the panic stirred in the face of a death unfolding. To be disturbed by the cruelty of one man ignoring another’s plea for oxygen. To struggle with the helplessness of wanting to reach out but being unable to.
“You can believe your eyes,” Blackwell told the jury. Especially because the defense, which spent much of its time tapping into cultural stereotypes and painting Floyd as a drug-addled giant, may try to make it hard to believe in Floyd’s humanity.