I can still hear the cries of George Floyd, pleading to breathe.
The sound is deafening.
I, like more than 80% of the rest of Black America, have paid attention to the trial of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin — the man who put his knee on Floyd’s neck.
I watched as much of it as I could stomach.
During the first days, we all saw what seemed like an endless loop of horrifying moments captured on police bodycams: witnesses standing on the sidewalk near Cup Foods begging Chauvin to stop; closeups of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck; and a grown man lying prone, helpless on the street, crying for his mother. He was dying at the age of 46, just a year younger than I am now.
At times, it’s been too intense.
That endless loop of videos, the 38 credible witnesses called by the prosecution and the doctors who testified in no uncertain terms that Floyd died from a lack of oxygen not a drug overdose should add up to a guilty verdict.
But I know that doesn’t mean they will.
Racism, implicit bias mean losing instead of winning
That sentiment isn’t mine alone.
While nearly 80% of Black adults say Chauvin should be found guilty of murder, only 42% think he will be, according to a poll conducted this month by The Economist and YouGov. That’s a 38-point difference.
In that same poll, the difference is significantly smaller between whites who think he should be found guilty and those who think he will.
The prosecution needs such an overwhelmingly detailed case because they know what Black people have lived for centuries: Racism and implicit bias (whether from police or a jury) mean we lose, even when we should win.
A recent “Saturday Night Live” cold open perfectly captured the gap between Black skepticism and white certainty when it comes to the Chauvin verdict:
The show opened with four anchors (two white, two Black) sitting at the KDBD “Eye on Minnesota” news desk.
After they all agree on how horrible Chauvin’s actions were, the white anchorwoman declares that “there’s no way Derek Chauvin walks away from this.”
The two Black anchors tilt their heads with skepticism, and after much back and forth, they agree that the white anchors “mean well” but “we’ve seen this movie before.”
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There is no doubt that a guilty verdict in such an overwhelmingly clear case shouldn’t feel like a victory. The fact that so much evidence against a man like Chauvin, who had nearly two dozen complaints on his record, still has a strong chance of resulting in a not-guilty verdict is insulting. But as Black Americans, we’ve grown to expect that pain and humiliation.
It was a grave and depressing insult when the officer who killed Breonna Taylor after barging into her apartment and shooting her in the middle of the night wasn’t charged in her death. It was equally dehumanizing when Tulsa officer Betty Shelby was acquitted in 2017 after she shot and killed Terrence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man who was standing by the side of the road on a dark night, trying to get help starting his broken down vehicle.
We’ve seen this too many times
Officer convictions for killing civilians are rare. More than 6,000 civilians were killed by officers over a five-year period beginning in 2013, according to data reported by Time. Legal action was taken against 104 officers in murder or manslaughter casesbetween 2005 and 2019. Of those, only 36 were convicted. And a disproportionate number of civilians killed every year are Black.
Previous generations endured insults that were much more blatant and open: An all-white jury acquitted the white men who drowned 14-year-old Emmett Till after he supposedly flirted with a white woman (the woman later recanted part of her story). More than 4,000 Black people have been lynched in this country, many of whom had not been given a fair trial.
Yes, we’ve seen this movie way too many times before.
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And incidents since Floyd’s death continue to reinforce the idea that Black lives don’t matter to America.
We’re all too familiar with the headlines:Daunte Wright, 20, was shot and killed this month during a routine traffic stop just miles from where Floyd was asphyxiated. An Army officer was pepper-sprayed in Virginia after being pulled over for supposedly not having plates on his vehicle. He in fact did have plates and filed suit against the police department.
In the face of these police violations, President Joe Biden has refused to follow through on campaign promises to tackle police violence, choosing instead to back a congressional act that’s making no progress in the Senate.
As much as hearing Floyd’s cries have made me emotional, the incidents that have happened since his death have made angry. I, like most Black people across America, am wondering:How many of us have to die for federal politicians to act?
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is pushing for action, but has taken heat for it. She called on protesters to “stay on the street” if Chauvin is found not guilty. The GOP is calling for her censure and the defense tried, unsuccessfully, to use the moment to gain a mistrial. But embedded in her statement, aside from the surface-level anger, is something I’m guessing most of Black America has been feeling since this trial began: Fear. If we can’t get justice in a case this obvious, then will we ever?
Tears were shed, more will fall
The defense team’s weak argument that drugs killed Floyd and that excessive force was warranted is not the first time America has tried to convince us that its terrible treatment actually wasn’t all that terrible, and that the outcome was somehow our fault.
Late first lady Barbara Bush once implied that Hurricane Katrina, and the deadly delay in assistance for New Orleans’ predominantly Black Ninth Ward, was somehow a blessing. During an interview, she demonstrated a brazen disregard for Black life, stating that the victims who lost their homes were better off because they could now be displaced to other states. They were “underprivileged anyway,” Bush said.
Bush’s line of logic was similar to the arguments many used to justify slavery — Africans were better off in civilized America than savage Africa, even if they were brought here in chains.
Those dehumanizing ways of viewing Black America, frequently worked their way into the Floyd trial. Throughout, the defense attempted to paint him as a “superhuman” threat because of drug use.
During Monday’s closing arguments, the prosecution worked hard to make Floyd human again, stating repeatedly that the unarmed man could indeed feel pain.
Prosecutors also reflected on some of the most emotional parts of this trial.
When Charles McMillian cried on the witness stand because he had also lost his mother and was taken back to those moments of helplessness, I cried, too.
When Floyd’s baby brother Philonise Floyd dabbed his eyes to stop tears from flowing when he saw a photo of his mother holding Floyd as a baby, my eyes also welled with tears.
And if a guilty verdict is rendered, I will likely cry then as well.
Black America will celebrate. We will take the breaths that Floyd couldn’t as we acknowledge this step forward (even as we also recognize that the step is coming way too late in the nation’s history).
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Floyd’s death (along with that of Taylor and jogger Ahmaud Arbery) spurred a moment of racial reckoning. Those massive summer protests, in the face of a deadly pandemic, marked an incremental change in the country’s attitude about the dangers of police to Black America.
So too will Chauvin’s guilt.
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