Perhaps the life of George Floyd would have been spared if Derek Chauvin and the three other Minneapolis police officers with him had just paid attention. Not just attention to Floyd as he cried for "momma" and said over and over he could not breathe, but attention to the bystanders who gathered around as Chauvin put his knee to Floyd's neck, reapplying pressure at incremental moments, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. What if police had heeded the cries from those people begging Chauvin to let up and the other officers to intervene, because Floyd had been subdued and was now in distress? But they did not.
The concerns of these people were invisible to the officers, or, even worse, they were seen as agitators with the audacity to question police authority. Officer Tou Thao took on the roll of crowd enforcer, prosecutors said, blowing off resident complaints. Now Floyd is dead, and Chauvin is on trial, accused of taking Floyd's life.
The first week of testimony in Chauvin's trial put on full display what can go horribly wrong when police view the community with such little regard, and gave a glimpse into the fractured relationships around the country between police and the neighborhoods that they are supposed to protect, especially when the residents are Black and brown. Baltimore was one of those cities where police were cited for bad relationships with the community in a federal consent decree. In Minneapolis last week, witness after witness expressed their own guilt and anguish for not being able to intervene in Floyd's death. With each testimony came the same feeling of hopelessness and fear of officers brazen enough to do what they did in front of scores of witnesses and as video cameras recorded. Tears flowed freely on the witness stand, many witnesses still visibly affected by what they saw.
Darnella Frazier, who recorded Floyd's death and uploaded the video to Facebook when she was 17, testified that she has anxiety and is haunted by his death. She thinks about how it could have been her dad or any other Black man she knows to suffer that fate that day. Christopher Martin, a cashier at Cup Foods who received the $20 counterfeit bill at the center of Floyd's arrest, said that he deleted video he took because he was scared of getting too involved. He too is filled with feelings of culpability over his connection to the death: What if he hadn't reported the counterfeit money to his boss? A 9-year-old girl said she watched as Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck, even after an ambulance arrived. How long will that image rest in that little girl's brain?
In his cross-examination of emotional witnesses, defense attorney Eric Nelson painted the community as the antagonists and Chauvin and the officers as the heroes simply trying to do their jobs. He tried to get some witnesses to admit they were angry, as if to link the crowd's behavior with Chauvin's actions. The narrow defense only serves to prove the point of police officers being apathetic to the communities that they patrol, and not being held accountable for their actions.
This "us vs. them" culture that has permeated some departments has to change if policing is to be truly reformed in this country. Police who terrorize communities rather than work in tandem with them have done nothing to ease the violent crime in this country. Citizens who are fearful of the police and don't see them as allies will work against them, or not work with them at all. Police who look at the community skeptically will escalate rather than de-escalate — and we will continue to hear more stories like that of George Floyd.
In the case of Chauvin, members of the Police Department aren't putting up the blue shield to protect him. Even Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified against Chauvin, saying the former officer violated several policies, including those regarding use of force. He also said that Chauvin should have rendered medical aid to Floyd and should have released his knee from Floyd's neck once the man appeared in distress. Chauvin and the three other officers were fired the day after Floyd's death.
It's hard to convict a police officer in this country, but the evidence is stacking up against Chauvin. But we never had to get here. If only police had followed their own policies and listened to the people desperately pleading for rational action, George Floyd might be alive today.