The witness Donald Williams was trained in mixed martial arts. He had experience working in security — and alongside police officers — and handling potentially unruly crowds. He also described himself as an entrepreneur and a father. But during his hours of testimony over two days in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who is charged in the death of George Floyd, there is one thing that Williams made clear he was not: an angry Black man.
That he could not afford to be. He was not allowed to be. He could cry for Floyd. He could despair for him. But he was not supposed to be angry, even if that was what Floyd’s death demanded.
Defense attorney Eric Nelson has made anger central to his argument for Chauvin’s acquittal. In his version of events, the anger of the growing crowd on the street that May afternoon distracted Chauvin from the man he had pinned under his knee. Floyd, who had been accused of circulating a counterfeit $20 bill, was in Chauvin’s custody, which meant that he was also in his care. But the crowd — that dangerous, unruly mob, according to Nelson — had distracted Chauvin so that he could not attend to Floyd’s well-being. He could only concern himself with his detainment.
To that end, according to several witnesses, including Williams, the White police officer adjusted his knee to apply more pressure, to ensure that Floyd’s Black body remained immobile — until his immobility turned into unconsciousness.
The defense’s narrative makes use of one of the culture’s most damaging and enduring stereotypes about Black men — and women, too. These people ooze anger, and Black anger is inherently menacing. It isn’t justified or understandable or controlled, even when it is all of those things. It most certainly is not righteous. And when it rises, it must be tamped down, defused and crushed.
Nelson, bespectacled and bearded, and with an affinity for florid neckwear, worked hard to have the jury see Williams as enraged — as a man who was yelling at Chauvin and threatening fellow officers. Nelson detailed the many expletives and insults that Williams directed at Chauvin. He portrayed Williams as a man who was advancing toward the police with his chest thrust forward and spoiling for a fight.
“It’s fair to say you grew angrier and angrier?” Nelson asked.
“I grew professional and professional. I stayed in my body,” Williams replied. “You can’t paint me out to be angry.”
Williams said he was speaking loudly so that he could be heard, so that he wouldn’t be ignored. He was imploring Chauvin to relent. He was calling Chauvin a bum and lacing his speech with expletives because the situation was too dire for polite conversation.
What Williams saw was, on its face, enraging. He had happened upon the sight of Floyd facedown on the ground with Chauvin on top of him for more than nine minutes. He heard Floyd cry for help and cry out for air. A young bystander saw him turn “purple” and described him as looking “really limp.” Kids saw this horror. Children. The gathered crowd all watched as their pleas to render aid to Floyd went ignored.
Anger is surely the natural human reaction, along with alarm and concern, but Nelson has characterized that as a wholly unnatural response to Floyd’s dire circumstances, as if he was not worthy of any of those emotions. Should the crowd simply have stood silent?
History would probably have excused their anger. So many other people of color — unarmed and stopped for minor offenses or for nothing at all — have died during encounters with police officers. They have been deprived of air, riddled with bullets; they’ve been killed without consequences because their death was deemed reasonable. When does fury become moral and decent if not in the face of all that?
Williams seemed to understand the perilousness of leading with anger. He refused to let it be his abiding message on Tuesday afternoon in a Minneapolis courtroom as Nelson tested him. No, his words weren’t getting angrier that awful day in May, he said, “they grew more and more pleading — for life.”
Williams was so alarmed by what was unfolding before him that he even called 911. He called the police on the police because he had not given up on law enforcement. He still had faith that they had the capacity to protect and to serve. He trusted in their outrage even if society demands that he deny his own.
The phrase resonated. “I stayed in my body.” Williams remained in control. He maintained focus. He was attuned to his movements and gestures. He didn’t let emotions take hold. He didn’t relinquish his soul.
As he spoke from the witness stand, Williams’s deep voice rumbled from a body that was both solid and still. On his second day of testimony, he wore an open-collared dress shirt in a sea-foam green. His hair was cut close. He didn’t fidget or appear nervous. He didn’t look imposing, but he often looked perplexed.
When Nelson questioned his emotions, pressed him about the expletives he’d used and took a sharp tone, Williams cocked his head sideways and furrowed his brow. Then a slight smile flashed across his face.
Williams did not display a hint of fury. Outrage can be a burden, but it can also be a source of power. If Williams had any anger, he was keeping it in reserve.