Eugene Robinson

Washington, D.C.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section. He started writing a column for the Op-Ed page in 2005. In 2009, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for “his eloquent columns on the 2008 presidential campaign that focus on the election of the first African-American president, showcasing graceful writing and grasp of the larger historic picture.” Robinson is the author of “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America” (2010), “Last Dance in Havana” (2004), and “Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race” (1999). He lives with his wife and two sons in Arlington.

Sign up to receive Eugene Robinson's latest columns in your inbox as soon as they're published. Honors & Awards:
  • 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary
  • Books by Eugene Robinson:
  • Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race (Free Press, 1999)
  • Buy on Amazon
  • Last Dance in Havana: The Final Days of Fidel and the Start of the New Cuban Revolution (Free Press, 2004)
  • Buy on Amazon
Recent Articles

EUGENE ROBINSON COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 16, 2021, and thereafter

(For Robinson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON -- The defense has rested in the trial of Derek Chauvin, after spinning a bizarro-world interpretation of events in which George Floyd somehow killed himself. This line of argument isn't shocking or stunning, given what we've seen before. But trying to turn Chauvin into the real victim, by asking what gave Floyd the right to die on him like that, is despicable.

Floyd had an enlarged heart, Chauvin's star witness, forensic pathologist David Fowler,testified Wednesday. And that implied that Floyd also had high blood pressure. And he had drugs in his system. And he was in a "stressful situation." And,finally, his heart "went into an arrhythmia and stopped pumping blood." The fact that Chauvin pressed his knee down on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes was apparently, in Fowler's telling, just part of the unfortunate "situation."

When police officers who kill African Americans actually make it to trial, there is almost always an attempt by defense lawyers to blame the dead for their own demise. No matter how trivial that alleged wrongdoing might have been, there's always a way to suggest Black Americans escalated the situation or made it more deadly.

The most common excuse for these police killings is that the victim was somehow not "compliant" enough. This can involve a range of behaviors, from simply demanding to know the reason for the arrest to physically resisting being taken into custody. Floyd's fatal offense, according to Chauvin's defense team, seems to have been failing to maintain textbook-perfect cardiac health.

This reasoning disguises what's really happening in these incidents: The police dole out death penalties for minor offenses. In Ferguson, Mo., Michael Brown was jaywalking and suspected of stealing a box of cigarillos; the officer who struggled with him and shot him to death, Darren Wilson, was never charged with a crime. Daunte Wright, killed Sunday in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, had been pulled over for a minor traffic violation. Floyd, of course, was suspected of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill -- a misdemeanor -- and paid with his life.

But the definition of "compliant" apparently varies with color. The White mass murderer Dylann Roof, who killed nine innocent worshipers at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was as noncompliant as anyone could possibly be -- he fled the scene and was known to be armed and dangerous. Yet police managed to capture him alive, and they ordered him food from Burger King when he complained of being hungry.

The other principal way African Americans are usually blamed for being killed by police is the claim that the victim is "no angel" -- that the victim's "prior bad acts" somehow justify the use of deadly force and that race had nothing to do with the unfortunate outcome. But police have no right to kill someone for having a police record. And they have no way of knowing whether someone such as Rayshard Brooks -- killed after falling asleep in the drive-through line at a Wendy's in Atlanta -- is angelic or not.

The problem with even attempting the "noncompliant" and "no angel" defense strategies in the Chauvin trial is that Floyd was not just fully restrained. After several minutes under Chauvin's knee, he lacked respiration or even a pulse. Yet Chauvin persisted.

And so defense attorney Eric Nelson built Chauvin's case around the far-fetched notion that Floyd, who was fit enough to work providing security at a nightclub, was in such delicate health that he might have dropped dead at any minute. That he expired while Chauvin was crushing his neck and chest is simply, Nelson implied, an unfortunate coincidence.

It's hard to believe that anyone could buy this fairy tale, even if the jury sees this as a battle between competing medical experts. Fowler's claim that Floyd died from his preexisting heart condition suffered much more damage under cross-examination than did the much simpler explanation offered by pulmonologist Martin Tobin: that Chauvin crushed the life out of Floyd, as clearly seen on video.

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell brought Tobin back to the stand to refute some nonsense Fowler had tried to sell about the role carbon monoxide from the exhaust of the police car might have played Floyd's death. But Tobin's return to the stand seemed less about picking apart one more dubious defense theory, and more about reminding the jury of what obviously seems true: that no matter what else was happening inside Floyd's body, the weight Chauvin put on him was what mattered.

It is always dangerous to assign too much significance to any single case -- you never know what a jury will do -- but the killing of Floyd was a watershed moment and the outcome of this trial will be another. We all can see who the victim is. His name is not Derek Chauvin.

- - -

Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

EUGENE ROBINSON COLUMN

Advance for release Tuesday, and thereafter

(For Robinson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON -- After hearing in such clinical, heartbreaking, infuriating detail about George Floyd's final agonies, I want to believe justice is possible in the Derek Chauvin trial. I want to believe the jurors heard what I heard and felt what I feel. I want to allow myself to hope for it. But a part of me holds back.

The police officers who beat Rodney King to a pulp were acquitted. The self-appointed vigilante who shot Trayvon Martin to death was acquitted. The police officer who killed Philando Castile after a routine traffic stop -- just miles from the Minneapolis intersection where Floyd died -- was acquitted.

It feels risky to have any confidence that this time the outcome will be different, even though it feels as if it should be. It's not just that the prosecutors seeking to convict Chauvin of murder have presented what seems to me an overwhelming case. This trial and the context in which it's taking place are different from the other proceedings that led to such shattering disappointments.

Never that I can recall, in all the attempts to hold police accountable for unjustified killings of African Americans, have we heard such damning testimony from the highest levels of the police department in question. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo told the jury last week that Chauvin, once he had Floyd in the prone position, should have quickly released the pressure he was applying to Floyd's neck and back -- rather than kneeling on Floyd for more than nine minutes.

"To continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back -- that in no way, shape or form is anything that is by policy," Arradondo testified. "It is not part of our training. And it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values."

Other officers took the stand to attest that Chauvin had never been trained to put his knee on any suspect's neck. The "thin blue line" solidarity that we've come to expect is present in this case, but in a way that excludes Chauvin. The only consensus we've seen thus far among police officers is that what Chauvin did was obviously, tragically, unambiguously wrong.

Police officers, including an expert witness on use of force from the Los Angeles Police Department, also blew holes in the likely defense argument that Chauvin was distracted or even threatened by the onlookers who watched and recorded Floyd's death. Surveillance video proves that there was no angry mob on the scene. Instead, a handful of horrified bystanders obeyed the command to keep their distance -- even as they implored Chauvin to relent because they feared they were watching a man being killed before their eyes.

Some of the most excruciating testimony has come from medical experts who described, in agonizing detail, the nature of Floyd's death. Martin Tobin, a Loyola University Medical Center pulmonologist and expert on the mechanics of breathing, had the jurors examine their own necks to identify the anatomical features he was describing: the hypopharynx toward the front, the nuchal ligament in the back.

For me, the most searing moments of the trial thus far came when Tobin used video footage to show how Floyd, his neck and chest compressed by Chauvin's weight, struggled to breathe -- how he desperately tried to use his right hand to push against the pavement or the officers' squad car to create space for his lungs to expand. And then Tobin showed the moment when Floyd's leg lifted in an involuntary spasm -- an anoxic seizure -- marking the lack of oxygen to the brain. Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck for at least two minutes after learning he had no pulse.

I've been a journalist my entire adult life. I am good at viewing tragedy with detachment because that is my job. But as I watched Tobin's testimony, I had to wipe tears from my eyes.

Floyd's death is fully documented on video recorded from multiple angles: the onlookers' cellphones, the officers' body cameras, a surveillance camera across the street. All the jurors have to do is believe their own eyes and ears. I should be able to expect that they will do so. I should at least be able to hope they will.

But hope still feels dangerous.

Eminent expert after eminent expert has explained why Floyd's heart disease and his history of opioid abuse did not cause his death. But Chauvin's defense has yet to make its case, which will surely try to paint Floyd as a junkie and a thug, a bad hombre who either deserved the treatment Chauvin gave him or would have dropped dead anyway from heart disease and drug use.

I want to believe jurors will see Floyd simply, and fully, as a man. Too often, that has been too much to hope for.

- - -

Eugene Robinson is on Twitter: @Eugene_Robinson

For Print Use Only.

By EUGENE ROBINSON

Eugene Robinson will not be sending a column today. If you need a substitute, you are welcome to run ANY of our other syndicated columns in its place, including by writers your publication does not subscribe to. To use a substitute column, first go to syndication.washingtonpost.com, where you can browse our full offerings by clicking on the Syndicate tab. Open a column you'd like to use and click on the "Copy as Vacation Sub" button to grab the full text. Should you have questions, contact us at syndication@washpost.com or 800-879-9794, ext. 1.

About
Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section. He started writing a column for the Op-Ed page in 2005. In 2009, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for “his eloquent columns on the 2008 presidential campaign that focus on the election of the first African-American president, showcasing graceful writing and grasp of the larger historic picture.” Robinson is the author of “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America” (2010), “Last Dance in Havana” (2004), and “Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race” (1999). He lives with his wife and two sons in Arlington.

Sign up to receive Eugene Robinson's latest columns in your inbox as soon as they're published.
Books
  • Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race (Free Press, 1999)
  • Last Dance in Havana: The Final Days of Fidel and the Start of the New Cuban Revolution (Free Press, 2004)
Awards
  • 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary
Links