A question at the heart of the Derek Chauvin trial: Whose fear matters?
By Monica Hesse,
Minneapolis Police Department/AP
Charles McMillian, a 61-year-old man who witnessed George Floyd’s excruciating death, testified earlier this week that decades of experience had taught him what horror could await a Black man who is perceived as resisting arrest. That is why he was yelling at Floyd — already pinned to the ground — to “Get up, get in the car. You can’t win.” He broke down as he explained this on the witness stand, remembering how he told police officer Derek Chauvin that Chauvin got to go home safe to his family, and that the people Chauvin interacted with should get to, too.
McMillian did what he could but he couldn’t do enough, he explained. It was a terrifying situation. And that’s what the first week of the Chauvin trial came down to, again and again: who gets to be scared in America.
Others standing with McMillian on Chicago Avenue that evening were also scared, they said in their eyewitness recollections. They begged Chauvin to stop crushing Floyd, pointing out that Floyd was no longer moving. They did this all from the sidewalk where they had been instructed to remain: Mostly Black or Brown Americans, they were terrified of disobeying police orders even as they watched a man’s life be extinguished under a policeman’s knee.
A 17-year-old high school student testified that she was scared. A 33-year-old private security officer testified that he was scared. Darnella Frazier, noting that Chauvin’s defense attorney had portrayed the neighborhood as high in crime, testified that she’d felt safe while walking to the store; she’d only felt scared when law enforcement arrived. Two officers put their hands on their Mace canisters, she said, and she thought they might spray her.
Christopher Martin, the teenage Cup Foods cashier, testified that he’d originally recorded Floyd’s death but deleted the video; he was scared what could happen to him if he was questioned or got more involved. He’d already feared for his mother’s safety; that’s why he’d phoned their nearby apartment to tell her not to come downstairs. He’d already feared for his livelihood; that’s why he’d questioned what to do about the alleged counterfeit $20 bill Floyd had used to purchase cigarettes. He knew that if he accepted it, the money would come out of his own meager wages.
His fear was immediate and it was long-ranging; it was specific and it was existential. In the course of his young life, the concept of being scared was already fully earned.
A courtroom sketch of a video being played on the fifth day of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Chauvin’s defense team began revealing its strategy: to present Chauvin as the one who had the right to be scared. The former officer’s lawyer attempted to paint the witnesses as an unruly mob whose heckling had unnerved and distracted Chauvin to the point that he was unable to do his job.
“It’s fair to say you grew angrier and angrier?” defense lawyer Eric Nelson asked witness Donald Williams. (“I grew professional and professional,” Williams said).
“But as time went on and more people showed up, voices became louder,” Nelson said to Frazier. (“As we understood more what was happening,” she replied).
“Would you describe other people’s demeanors as upset or angry?” Nelson asked firefighter Genevieve Hansen, who was in the crowd.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen anybody be killed,” Hansen shot back, “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 on scene,” she said. “Particularly because they were people of color, Black men, and I was worried about their safety, and there were officers still on scene.”
The crowd was yelling at Chauvin, yes, but they were yelling about something specific and alarming: the knee. Chauvin was in the unique position to stop the yelling any time he wanted by moving his knee from Floyd’s neck.
And yet the defense’s narrative relied on the concept that the police officer was the scared one — and rightly so. That’s why his knee remained on Floyd’s neck, Chauvin’s lawyers would have us believe, even after Floyd was subdued and handcuffed. Even after his fellow officer told Chauvin, “I think he’s passing out.” Even after a third officer checked for a pulse and said, “I can’t find one.”
He had three colleagues, all of whom also had guns, and yet he was still scared. He had a badge, the authority of the law, the ability to radio for backup, and a vehicle exempt from speed limits, and he was still scared. He had George Floyd already subdued and handcuffed. If Derek Chauvin was scared, then, my God, what would have made him feel safe?
A memorial at the place where George Floyd was killed.
The trial of Derek Chauvin is shaping up to be about the power dynamics that have haunted America for 400 years — the dynamics of race, gender and class.
The general contours of the defense’s early explanations for Chauvin’s actions — that the armed officer of the state was, in fact, the vulnerable one — reminded me of scenarios we’ve seen play out repeatedly in the past several years: the men claiming that #MeToo (or “cancel culture”) had gone too far — that men were now a persecuted class. In fact, in the majority of cases, women were announcing that they were tired of being afraid, that they would no longer stand for the status quo.
Or the strains of Christianity claiming that their way of life is under attack — that it has become dangerous to be Christian in America (and will remain so unless we pass a federal abortion ban and deny transgender people medical care, and even then . . . ).
Or the mostly White men who were so certain that their candidate was being screwed over that they invaded the U.S. Capitol, and brandished weapons, and a policeman died. (And that, by the way, was the kind of angry crowd that should rightly scare law enforcement.)
The right to be scared has historically been reserved for the privileged. As the saying goes: When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
When you’re accustomed to power, then you might believe that being yelled at by a rightfully upset crowd is the same thing as being targeted by an angry mob.
But, in the first week of the trial, witness after witnessed explained why their fear that day was justified, correct and appropriate. And that it paled in comparison to the fear of George Floyd.
The man was lying in the street, his face mashed into the pavement. He was calling out for his own life. He was screaming for his mother.
Did that scare Derek Chauvin? Somebody should ask.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.