Evidence presented this week in Derek Chauvin’s trial on charges that he murdered George Floyd showed a national audience how the former Minneapolis police officer saw his alleged victim: as a dangerous, “sizable” Black man who had to be controlled, subdued and forced to submit. The message Chauvin sent with his actions wasn’t intended for Floyd alone, and it’s one Black Americans have heard for centuries.
Chauvin didn’t see Floyd as a citizen suspected of a minor, nonviolent crime or as the gentle “mama’s boy” Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, described. To Chauvin and the other officers, Floyd was guilty from the start — guilty of inhabiting an imposing Black male body, a circumstance that has always been a punishable offense in this country.
As witness Charles McMillian tried to tell Floyd when the officers first put their hands on him: “You can’t win.”
For me, McMillian’s Wednesday testimony was the most heartbreaking so far — and, sadly, the least surprising. At 61, he has lived long enough to know all about the criminalization of Black manhood. He cried on the witness stand as he described feeling “helpless” while Floyd — pinned to the ground, with Chauvin’s knee on his neck — cried out for his late mother. “I don’t have a mama either,” McMillian said. “I understand him.”
After the May 25, 2020, encounter was over, and Floyd’s limp and apparently lifeless body had been taken away by paramedics, McMillian is heard on bystander video bravely confronting Chauvin about his actions. Chauvin’s response says everything about the lens through which he saw Floyd: “We’ve got to control this guy because he’s a sizable guy. Looks like he’s probably on something.”
Think about the fact that Chauvin and the other officers thought they had to “control” Floyd in the first place. And think about how they initiated their encounter with him.
Police body-camera footage played Wednesday at the trial shows that one of the other then-officers, Thomas Lane, was the first to interact with Floyd. Lane rapped with his flashlight on the driver’s-side window of Floyd’s car, apparently startling Floyd, who opened the door slightly and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Lane’s immediate reaction was to draw his service weapon, point it at Floyd and shout: “Get your fucking hands up right now!”
At that moment, both of Floyd’s hands were near the steering wheel, clearly visible to the officers. It is obvious on the video that he was neither holding nor reaching for any kind of weapon. Yet he suddenly found himself looking down the barrel of a policeman’s gun.
Like McMillian said: You can’t win.
Attempts by Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, to paint the onlookers who watched Floyd’s killing in horror as some kind of angry mob are laughable. Surveillance video played in court shows that the number of witnesses could be more accurately described as “a handful” than as “a crowd.” They were White and Black, male and female, very young and old. They invariably complied when the officers told them to back up and remain on the sidewalk. They have testified that their voices became progressively louder and more urgent, and the insults they directed at Chauvin more pointed, only because they saw Floyd’s condition deteriorating and feared they were watching a man being killed before their eyes.
The witnesses have almost all, like McMillian, spoken of how helpless they felt. Floyd “was in pain. It seemed like he knew it was over for him,” testified 18-year-old Darnella Frazier, whose shocking cellphone video was the first to show Floyd’s death to the world. “He was terrified. He was suffering.” Yet she and the rest of the onlookers were powerless to persuade the officers to let up and allow Floyd to breathe. They couldn’t even persuade Chauvin to let off-duty firefighter Genevieve Hansen, trained as an emergency medical technician, check Floyd’s pulse.
As for Chauvin, Frazier testified, “He just stared at us, looked at us. He had like this cold look, heartless.”
When I see that look Chauvin gave the onlookers, I see more than heartlessness. I see arrogance and superiority. I see him teaching an old lesson about who has power and who does not, about whom the law protects and whom it doesn’t. I see Chauvin demonstrating that he, not Floyd, got to decide whether Floyd was allowed to breathe.
Frazier, who is Black, told the court that when she remembers what she saw happen to Floyd, she can’t help but think about how her own father, brothers or uncles might find themselves in a similar situation and suffer the same fate. I have the same fears about my sons and myself.
Which means we all got Chauvin’s message. Loud and clear.
Eugene Robinson: The world saw George Floyd’s final minutes. Now it will see whether he gets justice.
Read more on how to Reimagine Safety
Every community deserves to be safe and healthy, but with police facing a crisis of legitimacy, it can be hard to see a way forward. A project from The Washington Post Editorial Board shares proven strategies that cities can embrace now and are not centered in law enforcement.
Read the full project here.
More from outside voices:
Moki Macias: We need to rethink mental health care — and the assumptions we have about what support means
Jasmine Heiss and Krishnaveni Gundu: Why reimagining safety looks different in rural America
Fatimah Loren Dreier and David Muhammad: President Biden is listening to communities on violence prevention. Congress should, too.
Patrick Sharkey: We can’t reimagine safety without being clear-eyed about America’s gun problem
Debbie Ramsey: I’m a former Baltimore police detective. Cities like mine should embrace a community responder model.
Elizabeth Glazer: To fuel public safety reform, cities must build their civic muscles
Phillip Atiba Goff: We’re making progress on the ‘what’ of reimagining safety. But what about the ‘how'?
Marc Mauer and Bernice Mireku-North: How we are reimagining public safety in Montgomery County
Johanna Wald and David J. Harris: Abolishing the death penalty must be part of reimagining safety
Andrea James: Women and girls must be at the center of reimagining safety
Richard Wallace: In Chicago, systemic racism runs deep. Our solutions must evolve.
Cedric L. Alexander: Which side are you on? That’s a question every police officer must answer.
Eugenia C. South: If Black lives really matter, we must invest in Black neighborhoods
Kassandra Frederique: To truly create safe communities, we must end the war on drugs
Thomas Abt: To stop the spike in urban violence, engage those most at risk
Elizabeth Hinton: We were warned about a divided America 50 years ago. We ignored the signs.
Chloe Cockburn: Money can’t buy criminal justice reform. But it can fuel a movement.
Robert Rooks, Lenore Anderson: No, crime survivors don’t want more prisons. They want a new safety movement.
Eric Cadora: Emergency management governance is our safety net of last resort. It’s not a good one.
Aqeela Sherrills: Police do not stop cycles of violence. Communities do.
Norma Loyd, Brandon Russ: Mental illness is not a crime. Police should not respond like it is.
Read the transcript of a live chat with editorial writer Emefa Addo Agawu on this project.
Read letters to the editor in response to this project.