So Grieved A Cloud of Witnesses
There are few experiences in life so visceral as watching death.
Three days into the Derek Chauvin trial, that visceral reaction so many had to the initial video of the death of George Floyd is once again raw. We’ve all seen the excruciating 9 minutes and 29 seconds of video in which the body of George Floyd was between the pavement of 38th and Chicago outside Cup Foods and the knee of Derek Chauvin. The precise moment the spirit of George Floyd left that body, we will never know.
The scene has been relived over the course of the trial. The voices and shouts of the crowd that was there have moved from mere voices to faces and people as they sit to testify for the prosecution. Each has their own unique backgrounds and stories. Each has that one terrible, deadly moment that has linked their lives and brought them back to that scene of death again some 10 months later. Each is getting their moment on the stand, first for the prosecution’s carefully prepared line of questions, then the defense’s efforts to discredit them.
Through it all, there is a theme developing.
Charles McMillian, amid breaking down on the stand after having watched video of what he saw live that day, said “what I watched was wrong… I felt helpless.”
A minor who was there and recorded video, her identity being protected, testified “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life. But it’s not what I should have done, it’s what [Chauvin] should have done.”
Christopher Martin, the teenager who was working the counter at Cup Foods and was handed the counterfeit $20 by Floyd that started the whole incident, lamented “If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided.”
Genevieve Hansen, a firefighter who was also in the crowd, alternated between lamenting, like the other witnesses, and being combative with defense counsel. “I tried calm reasoning, I tried to be assertive, I pled and was desperate… I was desperate to give help.”
Donald Williams, an MMA fighter who’s voice is prominent in the George Floyd video, listened to himself on a 911 call he made that day. A call he made to the police about what the police was doing right in front of him: “Man, I’m sitting here, talking with another off duty firefighter (Hansen) that keeps saying they’re watching in front of us as well. She told him to check the man’s pulse, but they wouldn’t even check the pulse.” Then, fending off the defense’s cross that he was growing progressively angrier during the incident, Williams explained to the court “they grew more and more pleading — for life.”
Helplessness. Grief. Anger. Resentment. These are the common threads weaving through the testimony of the Derek Chauvin trial. These are the feelings of the witnesses who were there and watched it happen. These are the universal emotions of humans faced with mortality, of living beings watching death up close and personal and not being able to do a thing about it. These are emotions and events that have been with humans since the first of our species returned to the earth, however long ago.
The new modern twist is the video of death. Everything about the Derek Chauvin trial centers around videos of death. The images of last year, already seared in so many minds, start to burn and char around the edges of our memories again. The crowd. The police officers blocking the crowd. The police officer with the knee to the neck of George Floyd. And now in the Derek Chauvin trial, the witnesses and the rest of us are reliving it again.
Are the witnesses coming off combative? Sure. They’ve been through a trauma; they watched a man die right in front of them. They know on a visceral level a wrong was done here. Ten months of additional information, of back story, of toxicology, of additional video, of the social and civil unrest that followed, of nearly a year of trying to think of something, anything else, all brought to a head. The legal system requires all of us to hash it out again, as a jury of his peers is charged with determining the culpability of the man at the center of all those images. A man no longer in a Minneapolis police uniform with his knee on his neck as the crowd begs, pleads, threatens, and implores to let George Floyd up. Now it’s a suited and booted Derek Chauvin at the defense table while the crowd once again faces him down, saying what they saw, and felt, and experienced. Once again Chauvin doesn’t respond except for the occasional scribbling on his legal pad.
As he should. Derek Chauvin should sit quietly. He should let his counsel give him the best defense he can muster. We should not convict people in America based solely on emotion, just feelings, just video, just circumstances. We have to have some law, most people intrinsically feel. Most folks know in their head the complications of getting a vast concept like justice codified into written words that contain the power of life and death is complicated. Their hearts tell them those written words must mean something. Their experiences make them fear they won’t. Their eyes are telling them that it might all be insufficient to the 9 minutes and 29 seconds, to the ten months since, to the three days and counting of reliving it on the record.
They can feel it again, that helpless feeling, that feeling that something very wrong is going on here, that it is out of their control.
They are grieving.
They are angry.
Chauvin’s defense counsel Eric Nelson has made anger of the crowd an issue from his opening statement on. It’s as good a defense strategy as any. Nelson has to convince at least one of the jurors that the anger of the crowd, or the anger of George Floyd, or the toxicology report, or anything of any other reason possible excuses what everyone saw in those 9 minutes and 29 seconds of video. To create a reasonable doubt that Derek Chauvin is guilty of murdering the man who died between his knee and the pavements of 38th and Chicago. Chauvin is entitled to this defense, or any other his counsel sees fit to present within the confines of the law and the judge’s indulgences.
But the note of accusing everyone of anger rings hollow. When pressing Williams about his own anger, and his angry words, and his angry threats after, Williams sensed the bait. “I grew professional. I stayed in my body,” Williams said. “You can’t paint me out to be angry.” There is plenty of anger going around. Since Williams used the term “blood choke” the usual suspects who are utterly convinced a great wrong is being perpetrated upon not Floyd but Derek Chauvin are really upset online and debating choke holds. Debating “blood choke,” which does exactly what it sounds like it does in cutting off blood flow to the brain. How that didn’t happen here, and how even if it did that is fine.
George the addict died of a drug OD and Chauvin just happened to be there, they’ll explain if you get them talking enough. All the particulars must be examined in excruciating detail. Clinical detail. No emotion involved in it. That wouldn’t be fair, you see, to the officer of the law who was facing an angry crowd, like Nelson is selling to the court. Anger in the crowd is wrong, you see. Angry crowd excuses, he explained. Angry people made letting George Floyd get any medical attention even for a full minute after EMS arrived on scene impossible, they say.
God help anyone who thinks watching a human being die slowly, for any reason, for almost 10 minutes without anyone one being allowed to help him or intervene in his death shouldn’t arouse some sense of anger.
I don’t have the words for how angry all this makes me. Anger at the one-sided demand for understanding and empathy from the folks who had all the power and control over the life and death of George Floyd but wash their hands of any responsibility. Anger at folks online who absolutely think Chauvin was justified in anything and everything he did and how dare you question him at all. Anger at many of those same folks that think because he was uncooperative, or high, or whatever thinly veiled reason that is proffered that is really just “Floyd had it coming to him” with clever nomenclature. Anger that this whole thing could have been, should have been avoided. Anger at what came in the aftermath of what happened in front of Cup Foods that day: more anger, more destruction, more death, and not one bit of discernable change since that might prevent the next time. Anger at what it tells us about us as a people, country, and society.
But all we outside observers can do is take the example of Donald Williams. Stay professional, stay within our bodies. And hope that there is some justice coming for something that there probably isn’t any equal earthly justice for.
And pray against hope that whatever the outcome of this Derek Chauvin trial, we don’t end up with even more anger. More trials. More witnesses. More to grieve.
A visceral, angry, hopeless circle of life and death.