The verdicts are in and former police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murdering George Floyd. Over the last few weeks, the evidence has focused on the last moments of Floyd’s life.
What led the police officers to put Floyd on the ground, face-down and handcuffed, on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill; whether the bystanders’ desperate verbal efforts to intervene made the arrest so dangerous that the officers were justified in reacting with dismissiveness that seemed to prevent them from hearing everyone’s pleas for Floyd’s life; and whether his death was caused by heart disease, a drug overdose, inhalation of carbon monoxide, or former officer Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
But I keep thinking of everything that has gone unsaid. Floyd’s death last summer, on the heels of the reports of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder allegedly by white vigilantes while he was out jogging, and Breonna Taylor’s death while she was asleep in her own home in a botched raid by Louisville police officers, galvanized the largest sustained period of protest this country has seen since the civil rights movement against Jim Crow, America’s own apartheid, in the 1960s.
A Shift in Consciousness
More than 15 million people around the world protested in the weeks after Floyd’s death, with more than a half-million people in 550 cities across the U.S. protesting on a single day. These protests animated a zeitgeist, a shift in our collective consciousness, that has led to many local, state, and federal actions against police brutality and racial injustice.
The protests also created a space for a national discussion about shifting resources from policing into community-based networks that would provide mental health care, job training, counseling, and other holistic resources.
The video footage of Floyd’s death caused a lot of people, for a few moments, to replace their rose-colored glasses with race-colored glasses, to see the face of our country’s ugly history of racial subordination and stereotypes when it is not glamoured to look like personal responsibility or threat of harm.
But, because of the specific questions at issue in criminal trials, there was no discussion of any of these things during the proceedings.
The stereotypes at play were implied, not named. At 6’4” tall, Floyd was a large man. He showed every indication that he was trying to cooperate with the officers. They asked him his name, he spelled it for them; when the police put him on the curb instead of forcing him into the police car after he showed obvious distress because of his claustrophobia, Floyd thanked them.
He was not armed. He did not try to run. He did not try to strike the officers. While he was begging for his life with his hands cuffed behind his back, he called Chauvin, “Mr. Officer.” Two honorifics.
But what Floyd actually did was subsumed by what he represented. The defense made sure that there were mentions of Floyd’s “superhuman strength” that made him “impervious to pain” throughout the trial.
But Floyd did not display any superhuman strength save the fabled invulnerability that is too often attributed to Black men through stereotypes about Black menace and criminality—and that is often the basis for successful defenses of police accused of excessive force.
Even the bystanders who tried to intervene were ensnared in the defense’s net of stereotypes. In fact, Donald Williams, the Black mixed martial arts fighter who was one of the most vocal bystanders has been the only person in the trial to explicitly name the racial stereotypes the defense deployed. At one point, Williams testified, “You can’t paint me out to be angry,” rejecting being portrayed as an angry Black man stirring up an unruly crowd.
A Lesson from History
There was a time when we did not have to rely on innuendo to discuss racism. In September 1925, a Black doctor named Ossian Sweet moved into his new home in an all-White neighborhood in Detroit.
His second night there, a large crowd of White people swelled outside, surrounding his home. The crowd threw rocks, smashing the second-floor window, and drew closer and closer to Sweet’s doors. Defending the home, one of Sweet’s brothers shot and killed one White man and wounded another.
Clarence Darrow, one of the most prominent defense attorneys of the last century, defended Sweet in his murder trial. In his closing argument, Darrow told the all-White, all-male jury, “Now, gentlemen, I say that you are prejudiced. ... Would this case be in this court if these defendants were not Black? Would we be standing in front of you if these defendants were not Black? Would anybody be asking you to send a boy to prison for life for defending his brother’s home and protecting his own life, if his face wasn’t Black? What were the people in the neighborhood ... doing on that fatal night? There isn’t a child that doesn’t know. Have you any doubt as to why they were there?”
Despite the long odds against it, that case had the right result. Darrow won an acquittal for his client.
We have to confront the racial dynamics at play in these cases. Even while the Chauvin trial was proceeding, a 13-year-old boy Mexican-American boy named Adam Toledo was shot and killed by police in Chicago, and a 20-year-old African American man named Daunte Wright was shot and killed by police just outside Minneapolis. We will not see real change until we begin to say the things we keep leaving unsaid.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Robin Walker Sterling is the associate dean for clinical education, the director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, and the Mayer Brown/Robert A. Helman Professor of Law at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.