The topic of “toxic masculinity” comes up more in conversations about #MeToo than about Black Lives Matter, understandably so. But cop machismo is an important way of understanding police violence against people of color. It helps explain why Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck — continuing for two minutes after Floyd’s pulse stopped — and why three other officers chose to keep the crowd at bay rather than save Floyd’s life.

Much commentary on the broken relationship between police and African Americans focuses on anti-Black bias and structural discrimination. While it’s hard to overstate the role that race plays in policing, gender matters, too. Legal scholar Frank Rudy Cooper has described encounters between the police and African Americans as “Who’s the man?” contests. Some cops perform their masculinity by showing off their power and control over Black bodies.

“Dude, act like a man.” That’s what a Minneapolis police officer told Floyd when he was arrested in May 2019 — a year before his fatal encounter with Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering Floyd. On both occasions, officers approached Floyd’s car, drew their guns, pointed them at Floyd and ordered him out of the car.

Floyd’s reaction to both arrests was to burst into tears and call for his mother. “Listen to him. He’s crying like an adult male,” one of the officers says sarcastically during the 2019 arrest.

George Floyd was not a macho dude. In the hood, they called him the “gentle giant.”

But that’s not a space that Black men get to inhabit in the public imagination — and especially not to the police. We don’t get to be soft or vulnerable. When cops point guns at us, we don’t get to be traumatized.

Thus Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill will not allow the jury to hear expert testimony from a forensic psychiatrist to demonstrate that Floyd’s previous experiences with police officers had impacted his mental health. Prosecutors wanted to show that Floyd’s reluctance to get into a squad car was not resisting arrest, but a legitimate fear based on a series of violent encounters with police. But Cahill ruled that Floyd’s mental state was not relevant, although in the same decision he said the jury can hear testimony that, on the day of the 2019 arrest, Floyd consumed illegal drugs.

This evidence will be helpful to the defense in its fictional reinvention of Floyd as a violent, drug-deranged thug. “Three Minneapolis police officers could not overcome the strength of Mr. Floyd,” Nelson said in his opening statement. Cue “excited delirium,” which Nelson raised in cross-examination of medical experts last week.

It’s a term that defense attorneys use more than doctors. They typically use it when they are trying to justify violence against Black people. William Smock, a forensic medicine specialist, told Nelson that most medical associations don’t recognize this condition, but he defined it as a “physical and psychiatric state where, because of an imbalance in the brain, a patient will exhibit multiple symptoms,” including superhuman strength.

The Brookings Institution released a report in 2020 that described how police selectively apply the term to African Americans. One study found that police officers in the Miami area, explaining the death of cocaine users who died in police custody, would frequently say that Black people died of excited delirium, but White people died of accidental cocaine toxicity.

Charles Wetli, the forensic pathologist who coined the term, claimed that it was responsible for the deaths of 32 Black women in Miami in the 1980s. Later it was discovered that those women actually died of asphyxiation by a serial killer.

Excited delirium is a way of making nonthreatening Black people aggressive — to justify the cops’ hypermasculine response. After Floyd had been taken away by paramedics, Chauvin said to a bystander who confronted him, “We’ve gotta control this guy because he’s a sizable guy, looks like he’s probably on something.”

The final moments of Floyd’s life included a tragic conversation between him and Charles McMillian, an older African American man who told Floyd to do what the police told him, saying “You can’t win.” “I am not trying to win,” were the last words Floyd said to anyone at the scene other than the police officers who are now charged in his death.

“Who’s the man?” contests are not actually contests in any meaningful sense. The police always win — at least in the short term. They have the guns and the authority of the law. But for bullying police officers intent on acting like men, too much power is never enough.

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