Ten months after George Floyd died with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, jurors in Chauvin’s murder trial were told that the former Minnesota police officer knelt on Floyd’s body for nine minutes and 29 seconds—43 seconds longer than previously reported. Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell noted that during the first four minutes and 45 seconds, Floyd shouted 27 times that he could not breathe; in the 53 seconds that followed, Floyd went “completely silent and virtually motionless” as he experienced seizures; and for three minutes and 51 seconds, despite one of his own officers informing him that Floyd had no pulse, Chauvin remained atop his unresponsive body. For the entirety of the nine minutes and 29 seconds that the defense and prosecution agree that Chauvin kept Floyd pinned beneath his knee, Floyd was not only unarmed but handcuffed. “He was completely in the control of the police,” Blackwell said in his opening statement. “He was defenseless.”
Chauvin’s defense team is, essentially, charged with making the unjustifiable seem justified. By convincing jurors that the near 10 minutes Chauvin spent leaning his full weight into Floyd’s neck was a “reasonable use of force” applied by a “reasonable police officer,” it hopes to create reasonable doubt about his guilt. Defense attorney Eric Nelson and a dozen cocounsel are being paid more than $1 million by Minnesota’s largest police union. (Chauvin was fired by the Minneapolis Police Department after footage of Floyd’s killing spread across social media, and several officers are testifying on behalf of the prosecution.) Their apparent strategy? To put witnesses, first responders, and Floyd himself, rather than Chauvin, on trial.
Nelson’s case leans into the fallacy of superior Black strength and what the neuroscientist Carl L. Hart labels the “drug-crazed Negro” myth. In his opening statement, Nelson compared Floyd’s 6-foot, 3-inch frame with Chauvin’s “5-foot-9” height, a contrast meant to paint Chauvin as helplessly dwarfed by Floyd. Because of that discrepancy in size, in tandem with Floyd’s “ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl,” Nelson claimed, “three Minneapolis police officers could not overcome the strength of Mr. Floyd.”
Studies show that white people believe Black people are inherently more aggressive, larger, more threatening, and less susceptible to pain than white people, stereotypes that make victimhood off-limits to Black people. Researchers have found that white Americans believe Black folks are “more likely to have skin thick enough to withstand the pain of burning hot coals, to be strong enough to lift up a tank, or to be capable of surviving a fall from an airplane without breaking a bone” than white people—in other words, that we are quite literally superhuman. What choice did the Minneapolis Police Department have but to dispatch four officers with guns to arrest one man accused of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill? What choice, we are supposed to ask ourselves, did Chauvin have but to apply the full weight of his body against Floyd?
Chauvin invoked this fable himself. “We’ve got to control this guy because he’s a sizable guy,” he told a witness. “Looks like he’s probably on something.” His words echo those used nearly three decades ago by a member of the Los Angeles police gang that brutally beat Rodney King. “In my mind, he had exhibited this hulk-like strength,” Sgt. Stacey C. Koon informed a jury, “which I had come to associate with PCP.” (A drug test later showed no signs of PCP in King’s bloodstream.) Darren Wilson, the officer whom a jury declined to charge in the 2014 murder of Michael Brown, described himself as feeling “like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan” in his court testimony. “That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt.” Betty Shelby, the ex-Oklahoma cop acquitted in 2017 after fatally shooting Terence Crutcher as he walked away from her with his hands up, focused on the PCP found in Crutcher’s system and what she labeled his “zombie-like” state. “In the end, he caused his own [death],” she claimed in a TV interview. “This is the exact same playbook they used in my brother’s trial,” Tiffany Crutcher recently told CNN about the Chauvin defense. “You can have police killings on video and they still get away with it.”
Nelson is using other outlandish claims against those taking the stand for the prosecution. He suggested that the crowd of witnesses to Floyd’s murder, who grew so “upset” and “angry” that they were “screaming” at the officers to release him, caused the police officer “to divert the attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat growing in front of him.” He again evoked the image of the threatening Black man by implying that witness Donald Williams, a mixed-martial-arts fighter who told jurors he warned Chauvin that he was using a “blood choke” on Floyd, had contributed to Floyd’s death by growing “angrier and angrier” at the incident unfolding before him. “Police know what to say and what to tell a jury and what to tell a judge to make those folks believe that they were reasonably in fear,” Kate Levine, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, told The New York Times last year. “Even if there are other witnesses, those witnesses just don’t get the same amount of credibility determination from prosecutors, judges, juries.”
The case being made is that the fault for Floyd’s death lies anywhere but with his killers: Derek Chauvin and the three cops charged with aiding and abetting in Floyd’s murder. The witnesses include four teenagers who testified that they felt guilty about being unable to stop Floyd’s murder and a 9-year-old who described being “sad and kinda mad” at seeing cops “hurting” Floyd. But it is Chauvin and his seemingly remorseless codefendants alone who are culpable for ending Floyd’s life. The defense is taking victim-blaming to literally unbelievable levels. And yet, if only one juror buys the defense’s line, Chauvin and the other officers may walk. We’ve seen this before. And it rarely ends with justice.
“For most of American history, killing Black people was not considered a criminal act,” Madiba K. Dennie, a racial and gender justice attorney, told me. “Things get difficult when we ask the criminal legal system to do something it wasn’t meant to do. Justice would require a fundamental transformation of that system.”