A week ago I, like thousands of others in the United States, saw, for the first time, reports that an African American man had died in Minneapolis while a white police officer was kneeling on his neck. My initial reaction was probably somewhat numb. The stories of African Americans dying at the hands of, and/or in the custody of, law enforcement have become too common. Too, I am reluctant to jump to conclusion, especially when it seems that maybe I do not know or understand the full story. Furthermore, I am a relative of a police officer and a friend of a number of others, and I recognize that their jobs are often thankless—that they have to make difficult decisions every day, often without the time and the privilege of thinking through every possible option before acting.
When I saw the video footage of the police officer kneeling on George Floyd, though, I was confident that, whatever the further details of the situation may be, the matter was not handled properly and there was no reason for Floyd to have died. I could not imagine any scenario in which the officer would not be charged with murder. When Jacob Frey, the mayor of Minneapolis, said that Floyd “should not have died” and that the officer involved had “failed in the most basic human sense,” I had to agree. Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, said that the cell phone footage of “a defenseless, handcuffed man one of the most vile and heartbreaking images” he had seen. I had to agree. When Senator Amy Klobuchar said, “Those involved in this incident must be held accountable,” I had to agree.
Less than thirty minutes ago, as I write this, the results of Floyd’s autopsy were released. The finding was that Floyd died as a result of asphyxiation from sustained pressure.
The New York Times has put together a video that resulted from “combining videos from bystanders and security cameras, reviewing official documents and consulting experts.” It is an interesting video. It makes valid and significant points. For example, the police officers who responded to the scene were expecting, based on the 911 call they received, to be dealing with a man who was “awfully drunk” and out of control. No doubt that influenced their attitude and mindset before they even encountered Floyd. It also states that Floyd told the police officers who tried to put him into their vehicle that he was claustrophobic and unwilling to get in. I am sure that police officers hear excuses on a regular basis, and I cannot fault them for not putting much stock in that statement from Floyd. It goes to explain that nine minutes into the arrest, officers Tou Thao and Derek Chauvin arrive together. Apparently they are partners. Assuming the Times report that Thao has had six complaints and been the subject of a brutality lawsuit, and that Chauvin has had seventeen complaints and been involved in three shootings is correct, one has to question why these two men are partners—if not why they are still on the police force at all. Why Chauvin gets involved in trying to get Floyd into the vehicle, and why he then pulls Floyd all the way through and onto the road, is unclear. What is clear is that he puts his knee on Floyd’s neck and it remains there. According to the Times, it remained there for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Someone is heard telling Floyd to get up and get in the car. Whether or not that is Chauvin, I cannot tell, but obviously Floyd could not get up or get in the car while Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck.
According to the Times, Floyd tells the officers at least sixteen times in less than five minutes that he cannot breathe. To be fair, the first time I watched the footage of the incident I was skeptical of Floyd at first. After all, if he could continue to say that he could not breathe, he was obviously breathing. My thinking changed, however, when Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck even after Floyd stopped saying anything and appeared to be either unconscious or dead. Bystanders repeatedly asked that Chauvin get off of Floyd or that he at least check Floyd’s pulse. Again, I am sure that police officers hear many things from the public in the midst of an arrest and no doubt tend to ignore them, but it is clear that both Chauvin and Thao can hear them because Chauvin appears to draw mace from his belt and Thao is interacting with the bystanders and trying to position himself to block their view. Chauvin keeps his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly a minute after EMS personnel arrive, and while Floyd is put into the ambulance and the ambulance drives away, he is pronounced dead at the hospital.
More than likely, you know most, of not all, of the above. There is nothing that can be done to change any of that, but there is much that can be learned from the incident. There are many questions to ask and attempt to answer. And then, of course, there is the reaction that is spreading across the country in the form of riots and looting. I would naïve to think or suggest that I have all of the answers or even that I have much to add to the discussion that is unique or new. But I am going to share a few thoughts regardless.
First, as I have already mentioned, law enforcement is a difficult and often thankless job. It is also a necessary job. As long as human beings are the ones serving in law enforcement, there will be mistakes made. There will be “bad apples.” There will be individuals who misuse and abuse their authority and their power. That is not a racial issue, it is a human issue. No race or gender or ethnicity is exempt from flaws. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, there are more than 800,000 law enforcement officers currently serving in the U.S. I am confident that many of them do their very best every day on the job and that they are just as upset over the death of George Floyd as anyone else. According to the same source, there has been an average of one law enforcement officer dying in the line of duty every 54 hours over the past ten years. That is a startling number, and a great reminder that law enforcement officers literally put their lives at risk to do their jobs.
Second, while it is clear that Chauvin needed to be both fired and charged, not much more than that is entirely clear yet. I read person comment on Facebook, of Chauvin’s charges, “Never seen a charge this fast with peaceful protests, all I’m saying.” Well, there is no way to know if the charges would have come that quickly without protests, though I cannot help but think that they would have. And if the point of the protests was to get Chauvin charged then the protests should stop. Is a third degree murder charge too lenient? My inclination is no…unless there is more to the story that we do not yet know. Multiple news sources, for example, are reporting that Floyd and Chauvin worked at the same night club in Minneapolis, El Nuevo Rodeo, and may have known each other. That needs to be investigated. If there was some personal motive behind Chauvin’s actions then the charges need to be increased and the protests against police discrimination and brutality are off the mark. Specifically, as The Western Journal noted, “that should give pause to those portraying law enforcement and the criminal justice system as being inherently biased against minority Americans.”
Third, cooler heads really do need to prevail. Saying something that captures headlines but has zero basis in reality is nothing short of stupid. Leslie Raymond, the president of Minneapolis NAACP, called Floyd’s death a “cruel display of the state-sanctioned murder.” That’s absurd, and not even remotely helpful. Raymond went on to say, “Their actions represent a dangerous precedent set forth by the racist, xenophobic, and prejudicial sentiment in our society against Black people.” Again, both absurd and unhelpful. Floyd’s death was wrong and that would be true even if the perpetrator were black and the victim were white. It would be true if the perpetrator and victim were both white. Or both black. Or both blue. That is a deeper truth that needs to be grasped. The taking of a life is wrong. Period. That’s not a racial issue.
In today’s issue of The Briefing—which is excellent in its entirety—Albert Mohler writes,
Every single human being is of the same dignity and of the same worth and have the same value, precisely because we are made by the same Creator equally in his image. And thus, every one of us bears the same dignity and that dignity must never be denied. It must never be slighted. It must never be reduced. It must never be hidden.
Mohler is correct, and that is why the death of George Floyd must not go unnoticed or unpunished.
Yesterday Wynton Marsalis wrote a lengthy post on his Facebook page addressing Floyd’s death and the deeper issues surrounding it. About halfway through, Marsalis wrote,
The whole construct of blackness and whiteness as identity is fake anyway. It is a labyrinth of bullshit designed to keep you lost and running around and around in search of a solution that can only be found outside of the game itself.
Excuse his language, but Marsalis is spot on. The problem is not racism and the solution is not eliminating racism. He continued,
Our form of Democracy affords us the opportunity to mine a collective intelligence, a collective creativity, and a collective human heritage. But the game keeps us focused on beating people we should be helping. And the more helpless the target, the more vicious the beating. Like I was trying to explain to my daughter, something just feels good about abusing another person when you feel bad about yourself.
I do not know if Chauvin felt bad himself, or somehow felt bigger, badder and tougher by kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, but the temporary good feeling that comes from abusing another is not a racial issue. It is human issue and a heart issue. It is, in fact, the very issue at the root of the current riots and looting. No one in their right mind thinks for a second that the destruction and violence we are seeing around the country will bring back George Floyd, make law enforcement officers act differently or improve race relations in the U.S. There is nothing constructive or helpful about the riots and looting. It is, quite frankly, part of the labyrinth of bovine feces Marsalis referred to in his post.
Earlier in the post, Marsalis describes a conversation he had with his eleven-year-old daughter about the death of Floyd. She asked him why “that man” would “just kneel on him and kill him like that in front of everybody?” Like a good parent in a teachable moment, Marsalis responded with an illustration and asked his daughter to come up with the answer herself. She gave some good ones, but she never quite got to where Marsalis wanted her to go, prompting him to—at her urging—just tell her. What was the deepest reason he had in mind? “Because he enjoyed it. For him, and for many others, that type of thing is fun.” He elaborated, saying, “this type of fun is much older even than America itself.”
I do not agree with everything that Marsalis said in his post. I do agree, however, that the death of George Floyd is not fundamentally a racist issue. That Chauvin enjoyed it—assuming he did (and there is no evident hesitance or concern on his face in the video)—would likely have been true if almost anyone had been under his knee. I do not know, of course, but I suspect that if we ever find out for sure, we will discover that Floyd said or did something to Chauvin that upset him—either when they worked at the club or just before Chauvin pulled Floyd through the vehicle onto the road—and Chauvin wasn’t going to put up with it.
This is a human flaw illustrated perfectly by Haman in the Old Testament book of Esther. Haman was a Jew and he refused to show Haman the physical homage he felt he deserved. Esther 3:5 reads, “And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage to him, Haman was filled with fury.” So full of fury was Haman, in fact, that he had a 75-foot gallows constructed and devised an elaborate plan to get the king to let him execute Mordecai—all because he got on his nerves. If you are not familiar with it, you can read the book of Esther to see how that worked out for Haman. Unfortunately, Derek Chauvin succeeded in killing George Floyd. Whether that was his intention or not I do not know and I doubt anyone ever will truly know. But, in the words of Max Lucado, here is what we do know: “the heart of the human problem is the heart of the human.” Why would Lucado say that? Because Jeremiah 17:9 says this: “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable” (HCSB). That is true of Derek Chauvin. It was also true of George Floyd. Whether we like it or not, it is also true of you and me.
Seemingly everyone, everywhere, is saying something about how wrong the killing of George Floyd was, and that’s fine. Within the past couple of hours I have seen messages from two of my alma maters condemning the actions of Derek Chauvin. One was headlined, “University condemns racial injustice and senseless violence.” The other included the statement, “Justice demands that we all do our part to confront and overcome the legacy of bigotry….” I suppose it is good that these schools, and others, are making such statements but they do not really do much.
Fifty-seven years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Sadly, our nation is still not that place. The color of one’s skin still matters far too much. No murder sentence for a police officer will change that. No riots will change that. No university announcements or presidential proclamations will change that. Nothing will change it until we realize, as Wynton Marsalis said, “The whole construct of blackness and whiteness as identity is fake anyway.” Or, as Albert Mohler said, “Every single human being is of the same dignity and of the same worth and have the same value….”
Maybe Nkwachukwu Ogbuagu said it best: “I have this feeling in me that those who continue to see race and color in everything must be as miserable as those who continue to see ghosts in every nook and cranny. They have no peace of mind because they are truly haunted.”
Photo credit: Singlespeedfahrer / CC0