McMillian did what he could but he couldn’t do enough, he explained. It was a terrifying situation. And this is what the first week of the Chauvin trial has come down to, over and over again: who is he afraid of?n America.
Other people standing with McMillian on Chicago Avenue that night were also scared., they said in their eye memories. They begged Chauvin to stop crushing Floyd, pointing out that Floyd was no longer moving. They did everything from the sidewalk where they were ordered to stay: mostly black or brown Americans, they were terrified of disobeying police orders even as they saw a man’s life extinguish under the knee of a policeman.
A 17-year-old high school student testified that she was scared. A 33-year-old private security guard testified that he was scared. Darnella Frazier, noting that Chauvin’s defense attorney had portrayed the neighborhood as a very criminal neighborhood, testified that she felt safe walking towards the store; she had only been afraid when the police arrived. Two officers put their hands on their mass cans, she said, and she figured they might spray her.
Christopher Martin, the teenage Cup Foods cashier, testified that he initially recorded Floyd’s death but deleted the video; he was afraid of what might happen to him if he was questioned or if he got more involved. He had already feared for his mother’s safety; that is why he had telephoned their apartment next door to tell him not to come downstairs. He had already feared for his livelihood; that’s why he had wondered what to do about the counterfeit $ 20 bill Floyd had used to buy cigarettes. He knew that if he accepted it, the money would come from his meager salary.
His fear was immediate and long lasting; it was specific and existential. During his young life, the idea of being afraid was already fully acquired.
Chauvin Defense Team began to reveal his strategy: to present Chauvin as the one who had the right to be afraid. The former officer’s lawyer attempted to portray the witnesses as an unruly mob whose heckling had baffled and distracted Chauvin to the point that he was unable to do his job.
“Is it fair to say that you got angrier and angrier?” Defense attorney Eric Nelson interviewed witness Donald Williams. (“I grew up professional and professional,” Williams said).
“But over time and more and more people came forward, the voices just got louder,” Nelson told Frazier. (“As we figured out what was going on,” she replied).
“Would you describe the behavior of others as upset or angry?” Nelson asked firefighter Geneviève Hansen, who was in the crowd.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen someone get killed,” Hansen retorted, “but it’s upsetting.”
She later said that even after Floyd’s body was removed, she was afraid to leave: “I was still worried about the witnesses at the scene,” she said. “Mainly because they were people of color, black men, and I was worried about their safety, and there were still officers there.”
The crowd was yelling at Chauvin, yes, but they were yelling about something specific and alarming: the knee. Chauvin was in the unique position of stopping the screaming at all times by moving his knee from Floyd’s neck.
And yet the defense narrative was premised on the concept that the cop was the one in fear – and rightly so. That’s why his knee stayed on Floyd’s neck, Chauvin’s lawyers would have us believe, even after Floyd was restrained and handcuffed. Even after his fellow officer told Chauvin, “I think he’s passed out.” Even after a third officer checked the pulse and said, “I can’t find any.”
He had three colleagues, all of whom also had guns, and yet he was still scared. He had a badge, the rule of law, radio capability for rescue, and a vehicle free of speed limits, and he was still scared. He had already overpowered George Floyd and handcuffed. If Derek Chauvin was scared then, my God, what would have made him feel safe?
The trial of Derek Chauvin shaping up to be the power dynamic that has haunted America for 400 years – the dynamics of race, gender and class.
The broad outlines of the defense’s early explanations of Chauvin’s actions – that the armed state officer was in fact the most vulnerable – reminded me of scenarios we’ve seen unfold repeatedly over the past few years. years: men claiming that # MeToo (or “cancel culture”) went too far – that Men were now a persecuted class. In fact, in the majority of cases, women reported that they or they were tired of being afraid, of no longer defending the status quo.
Or the tensions of Christianity claiming that their way of life is under attack – that it has become dangerous be a Christian in America (and will remain so unless we pass a federal abortion ban and deny medical care to transgender people, and even then . . . ).
Or the mostly white men who were so sure their candidate was screwed that they invaded the United States Capitol, and brandished guns, and a policeman died. (And this, by the way, were the kind of angry mob that should rightfully scare law enforcement off.)
The right to be afraid has historically been reserved for the privileged. As the saying goes: When you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
When you’re used to power, you might think that being yelled at by a rightfully upset crowd is the same as being targeted by an angry mob.
But, in the first week of the trial, a witness after witnessing explained why their the fear that this day will be justified, correct and appropriate. And that it paled compared to the fear of George Floyd.
The man was lying in the street, his face smashed into the sidewalk. He was calling for his own life. He was screaming for his mother.
Did this scare Derek Chauvin? Someone should ask.
Monica Hesse is a columnist who writes about gender and its impact on society. To learn more, visit wapo.st/hesse.