As the prosecution prepares to wrap up its arguments, there have been some deeply ominous and disturbing warning signs as the George Floyd trial progresses. On March 20th, a Black student at Duke University came upon George Floyd’s toxicology report on a Black History Month bulletin board. Interestingly, there was no negative information about Chauvin on the board: there was no lengthy record of the numerous misconduct complaints against him or any information about his eventual termination. Rather, the board was populated with unflattering news about Floyd. It was ugly. The situation resembled the unsettling USA/Ipsos poll published on the eve of the start of the Chauvin trial.
The poll found an alarming reversal in the mainstream public’s (White Americans) attitudes and sentiments towards Chauvin’s behavior and Black Lives Matter (BLM): they have started regarding BLM more negatively and Chauvin more positively. Even though no new information has come to light about the circumstances of Floyd’s slaying in almost a year, many people have changed their minds about Chauvin and Floyd. It is the classic example of yesterday’s victim eventually becoming today’s suspect. Suddenly, George Floyd, not Derek Chauvin, is the person on trial.
To be honest, many people of color, Black people, are hardly surprised by the sudden change of events. George Floyd had a prison record. The toxicology report revealed that there were drugs in his system at the time of his death. Derek Chauvin’s defense attorneys made it clear that this was the sordid legal path they would take in their defense. They would attempt to convince the jury and witnesses (and the millions of viewers watching the trial at home) that it was not Chauvin who snuffed the life out of George Floyd by sadistically and menacingly pressing his knee on the back of the handcuffed suspect, but rather, it was the drugs that caused Mr. Floyd’s death.
By most rational-minded people, this defense would be decried, derided, and denounced as downright disingenuous nonsense. However, the indisputable truth is that when it comes to race, rational behavior is routinely cast aside in favor of the irrational. Derek Chauvin is a middle-aged white male police officer. George Floyd was a Black man with a criminal record.
The passive-aggressive attack on Floyd served two purposes. One was to show that he was far from being the innocent victim that large segments of the mainstream media have touted him to be. The other, more sinister, purpose was to exonerate Chauvin from the murder by presenting an acceptable argument as to why he did what he did. By attempting to generate enough skepticism and doubt in the minds of the jurors and spectators about the circumstances of Floyd’s slaying, they hoped to ensure that many citizens would see that Chauvin’s violent behavior was not as despicable as the video seen around the world made it seem. On the contrary, Mr. Chauvin was “just doing his job.” Please!
The character assassination of George Floyd as a wayward criminal is hardly surprising. Indeed, it is representative of a long list of historical stereotypes and negative typecasting that much of the public (including some Black people) harbor about Black men.
Being a postmodern civil rights child who came of age in the early 1980s, I cannot remember the overt, sordid, racially inflected practice of lynching, Jim Crow (though it seems that the current GOP is trying hard to return to such an era), and other forms of humiliation, denigration, degradation, and dehumanization that were inflicted upon a large segment of the Black population. However, I am astute to the fact that Black men bore the brunt of these inhumane atrocities. Their possible innocence was never considered. They were convicted by a dehumanizing legal system and in the mind of a largely racially bigoted populace.
Moreover, I am old enough to remember some more recent cases where Black men were falsely targeted as criminals. The 1989 Boston, Massachusetts case of Charles Stuart comes to mind immediately. Stuart was a 29-year-old married man who killed his pregnant wife, shot himself in the abdomen, frantically dialed 911, and gave police a description of the supposedly “raspy-voiced” Black man who had committed the horrific crime. Remembering this case also conjures up memories of a South Carolina woman, Susan Smith, who, in November 1994, brutally drowned her two children at the bottom of a lake in Union, South Carolina.
Almost immediately afterward, she had the perverse audacity to go on national television, tearfully describing to a horrified nation that a twenty-something Black man with a ski mask drove off with her three-year-old and 16-months-old boys. When the racially charged smoke cleared, the public was alerted to the fact that both Stuart and Smith were the sadistic, deviant culprits of their own horrendous crimes. Stuart committed suicide by jumping to his death in Boston Harbor. The fabricated image of the evil, rapacious Black men was just that: fabrication.
While the truth prevailed in both cases, the larger issue that emerged was the alarming vulnerability of Black men to such sinister allegations. Had law enforcement officials in each of these cases not been so effective in quickly zeroing in on the inconsistencies of Smith’s story and if Stuart’s brother, Matthew Stuart, had not gathered the moral decency to inform the Boston police about the truth, two innocent Black men could have been arrested, tried, and unfairly convicted. It would have been reminiscent of the justice served in the 1962 film To Kill A Mockingbird.
Another important factor to acknowledge is that this is not a situation experienced solely by poor and lower-income Black men. Upscale Black men can also fall prey to such situations. Countless Black attorneys, professors, businessmen, and other professionals can recite stories about being stopped, interrogated, and in some cases, booked and imprisoned for being seen as suspects. Remember Harvard University’s distinguished professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., being questioned and eventually arrested in his own house in 2009?
I can share with you stories even closer to home. My three brothers (all professionals, one now deceased) have had to endure enraging and humiliating situations where they have been stopped and questioned by police because they were DWBM: driving while Black and male.
Most of the time, the level of interrogation and the officers’ confrontational behavior have been minimal, yet personally disturbing. It was needless stress rearing its pernicious head. Add Caron Nazario and Daunte Wright (God rest his soul) are the most recent example of this disgraceful and menacing tactic.
The fact is that Chauvin’s defense team is all too aware of the power of the myth of the Black man as a demonic menace and the attitude of guilty until proven innocent, both of which are deeply etched in the psychological fabric of the larger society. Thus, they have decided to pursue such a sinister strategy and recast the current narrative by casting Derek Chauvin as the victim and George Floyd as the villain. A sad and outrageous fact to be sure.
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