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Chauvin’s lawyer asked a Black witness about anger, conjuring centuries-old tropes, scholars say

Derek Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson has made anger and questions about area safety central to his defense of the former Minneapolis police officer. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The mixed martial artist and witness in the murder trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin delivered controlled testimony on the second day of witness statements to the court on Tuesday.

Donald Williams, 33, dabbed his eyes with tissue while listening to the 911 call he made on what would be George Floyd’s final day last May.

Williams inhaled deeply as he tried to hold back his emotions while talking about the death he just witnessed.

“He pretty much killed this guy that wasn’t resisting arrest. He had his knee on the dude’s neck the whole time,” he told the dispatcher about Chauvin and Floyd. “Y’all murderers, bro.”

The aftermath of Floyd’s death has led to a racial reckoning that’s inspired protests around the globe and more frank conversations about race in nearly every facet of American life. Yet, intentionally or not, racial tropes have played out in the Chauvin trial, especially the idea of the angry Black man, race and legal scholars told The Washington Post.

Eric J. Nelson, one of Chauvin’s defense attorneys, repeatedly told Williams that he was “angry.” The defense counsel may not be aware of the racial overtones in his arguments, but his words paint Williams as someone whose anger overpowered and colored his perception of the event, according to Deborah A. Ramirez, professor of law at the Northeastern University School of Law.

“That was disturbing because it has clear racial overtones in which I believe the defense is trying to argue ‘don’t believe an angry Black man,’ ” she said. “To try to describe the situation as an angry Black man overreacting seemed like it crossed a line.”

Nelson said he is not commenting on the case at present.

Williams called Chauvin a bum 13 times, along with expletives, as his “anger” grew in front of Cup Foods last year, Nelson told the court.

“They grew more and more pleading for life,” Williams responded.

Perspective: The witness would not be described as angry

Courtroom players have frequently portrayed Black men as behemoths who were too wild to contain, according to Katheryn Russell-Brown, professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. She pointed to cases such as Eric Garner and Rodney King, who was described as having “hulk-like strength” and compared to a “Tasmanian devil.” Officers in both cases didn’t see jail time.

“These are the tropes we’ve all learned. They have worked,” Russell-Brown said. “This is how we got to where we are because of these images of how Black life has been valued.”

Court and the perceived credibility of people of color have a long, complicated history. Black, Native American and Asian people have been barred from providing testimony against or for Whites because their race made them unreliable, Russell-Brown said. A court ruling in the mid 1800s described non-White people as being part of a “degraded and demoralized” status.

Williams faintly smiled after Nelson’s questioning. At one point, he told Nelson, “You’re not going to paint me as angry,” before giving a wink.

The emotion that Nelson tried to turn against Williams is notable in a case that could carry serious consequences for how the country upholds or disavows white supremacy, said Kari J. Winter, professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo.

“ ‘Are you angry’ isn’t really the question,” she said. “It’s the accusation that you are not a valid witness because of the way you as a Black man responded to the murder of a Black man. There’s great dexterity in his response to maintain poise and reject the real underlying questioning.”

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