Believe your eyes, said the state prosecutor. And the jury believed what they saw, and what the whole world saw: a policeman placing his knee on the neck of a man who threatened no one — a man handcuffed and begging, crying for air, calling for his mother.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that the verdict would change things forever in the relationship between police and minorities. Maybe. Maybe not. It is true that, in more ways than one, the guilty verdict of former police officer Derek Chauvin for second-degree murder is historic.
But think of the degree of perfection of the evidence necessary to convict Chauvin. Videos from every angle. Stunned passersby who watched this man die before their eyes while demanding officers let him breathe. Numerous outstanding experts who established the cause of death as asphyxiation. And, perhaps above all, a succession of experienced officers from his own force who testified against him, from the chief who spoke of “murder” to colleagues and trainers who all showed up to eject Chauvin from their corps like a virus.
It is quite an extraordinary thing in the United States, as it is here in Canada. Solidarity in the police ranks is tough to break. Police officers “understand” one another — know that an arrest is rarely a thing of beauty, know the difficulties, perils and ambiguities. But in Chauvin’s case, remarkably, a kind of unanimity against him took place. He did not testify in his own defense. This case is exceptional, then, not only for its outcome, as charges are rare and acquittals many. It is also exceptional for the mountains of crushing evidence. For all the other cases, without witnesses, without video, will justice be served? I am not so sure.
In every trial for use of excessive force involving a police officer, the work involved in prosecution is enormous. In addition to the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt, there are two factors. One, the right, and the duty, of officers to use reasonable force to arrest someone. Two, the reflexive public sympathy for the officer. I remember several momentous trials in Montreal where acquittals were delivered on the basis of the dangers of the job and the fear of letting the criminal, or potential criminal, win by convicting the officer of the law who was only protecting the public.
During the Chauvin trial, which I watched, a large segment of the defense tried to bring to the difficulty of police work to the forefront. We see in their own videos how very calm they are; we hear them tell George Floyd to get into the police car, that they will open the door, to not be afraid, and so on. We see him resist; he is apparently under the influence of “substances.” We see the officers handcuff him, and attempt without success to push him into the car. There is neither insult nor aggression. He is there, on the ground, hands behind his back. And then the revolting, heartbreaking scene I had only watched guardedly, but watched again and again: the knee on the neck. Floyd begging. The passerby shouting, “You are going to kill him.” One called the police. It is endless. And he loses consciousness.
With each viewing, one tells oneself that this is not possible; that he will get up; that it’s just too absurd. It all begins with a purchase made by an unarmed man using a counterfeit $20 bill* in a convenience store. You don’t have to want to disarm the police, or defund them, to see the tragic pointlessness of this escalation of violence. And to think of all the cases not filmed, with the only living witnesses being the police themselves.
I don’t know if this is a turning point, but there are moments of truth in the relationships between society and its justice system. And this is one of them.
I don’t know if this is a turning point because I wonder if it will take another case of perfect proof, a kind of scientific, social and constabulary unanimity to condemn another abuse of power, mortal or not.
But this is a moment of truth, because we have seen with our own eyes how, in good conscience, a cop can kill an unarmed man, a threat to no one, who wanted to take $20 from a convenience store.* Maybe this image, this notion, will work its way into consciences and hearts because for once, we saw Floyd, powerless, die in the name of the law. And that the law called it by its name: murder.
This truth is also a moment where each of us can, if only for an instant, put ourselves into the body of this man who died before our eyes for no other reason than his skin. And realize that, who knows, here, too, maybe we are not being treated exactly the same way by the police based on the color of our skin.
*Editor’s note: The $20 bill used by Floyd was allegedly counterfeit.