On a snowy springtime day in Canada there unfolds a drama in the United States of America which I suspect will mark the beginning of a renewed perception of their society, an abrupt recognition that outright brutality is offensive and punishable as criminal by the law of the nation. It is too late to be sorry for George Floyd; instead my concern is for Derek Michael Chauvin whose history will no doubt disclose the poisonous ingredients which overtook his own life.
George Perry Floyd Jr. (October 14, 1973 – May 25, 2020) was an African-American man murdered by police during an arrest after a store clerk alleged he had passed a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin, one of four police officers who arrived on the scene, knelt on Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. After his death, protests against police brutality, especially towards black people, quickly spread across the United States and internationally.
Floyd grew up in Houston, playing football and basketball throughout high school and college. He was a hip hop artist and served as a mentor in his religious community. Between 1997 and 2005, he was convicted of eight crimes. He served four years in prison after accepting a plea bargain for a 2007 aggravated robbery in a home invasion In 2014, he moved to the Minneapolis area, residing in the nearby suburb of St. Louis Park, and worked as a truck driver and bouncer. In 2020, he lost his job as a truck driver, and then his security job during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chauvin had 18 complaints on his official record, two of which ended in discipline, including official letters of reprimand. According to the former owner of El Nuevo Rodeo, a Latin nightclub, Chauvin had worked there off duty as security while George Floyd was also working as security, but was not certain whether they knew each other. The owner has been critical of Chauvin since his arrest, describing Chauvin’s tactics as “overkill” and saying “Chauvin was unnecessarily aggressive on nights when the club had a black clientele, quelling fights by dousing the crowd with pepper spray and calling in several police squad cars as backup”.
It is insufficient in these particular circumstances to attach blame solely to Chauvin. Even if he were not supported in his burgeoning and relentless brutality it was tolerated to the point of complete distortion. The contradiction of Floyd’s petty larceny with Chauvin’s dedicated brutality is unparalleled. Yet both men suffered a similar contamination by the society into which they were drawn. How Chauvin felt the necessity to display his strengths against the weaknesses of Floyd is utterly harrowing. Yet both were set upon a predictable trajectory.
Upon this melancholy course the nation – and in some respects the world – is now aligned. The fuel upon the fire is ignited. The thought that Chauvin will be incarcerated (though in protective custody) does little to rectify his brutality. As former President Barack Obama noted after the verdict was rendered by the jurors (six white, six of colour), this is just the beginning of change.
The incident is not merely exemplification of racism; it illustrates the unrestrained abuse of power, propelled not by need but by illness. America and the world have now to confront the obligation to confess the assault. There is little doubt that the verdict was a product not merely of the video of Floyd’s death (as it should have been) but rather of the influence of the national uprising against the brutality.
On May 25, 2020, during an arrest made with three other officers, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed, lying face down on the street calling out “I can’t breathe”. The next day, Chauvin was dismissed by the MPD. On May 29, he was arrested and charged with second-degree unintentional murder and lesser included offences. The incident set off a series of protests in the Twin Cities and across the rest of the United States, later spreading around the world. Chauvin was released on bail on October 7, 2020.
As a child of the ’50s (living in Washington DC at the time) I am authorized to concede the perversions which silently insinuated American society at that time and which have been allowed in part to linger unchecked to this day. Society’s lack of willingness to either address or understand this failure is the author of the human bullfight that persists.