The title above is a headline from an editorial in USA — perhaps the most anodyne and scrupulously middle-of-the-road publication imaginable.
Moreover, the publication is not alone. Joe Biden comments that the sentence was ‘appropriate.’ (https://deadline.com/2021/06/joe-biden-derek-chauvin-verdict-1234781871/). The Hill claims that ‘No one will seriously argue that the 22.5-year sentence meted out to police officer Derek Chauvin was too harsh.‘
Some feel even more is required. ‘Is the Chauvin Verdict ‘Justice’? Not really. Our expectations are so low that conviction for a blatant, obvious murder feels like redemption. That’s not enough…’ (https://www.realclearpolitics.com/2021/04/22/is_chauvin_verdict_justice_not_really_541183.html)
USA Today again: ‘Chauvin Verdict a Win? Not When We Are Still Killed.’ CNN: ‘Why Derek Chauvin’s Sentence Doesn’t Resolve Things for Me.’
It would seem that a murder conviction and twenty two and half years in prison is not quite sufficient. There needs to be more.
I don’t like cops; I never have. I’m averse to cooperating with authority in any case, and I had my first negative experience with the police when I was seven. There have been at least two seriously unsatisfactory interactions since then. Without blaming either me or them, let’s just say I don’t automatically see cops as my friends.
But they aren’t always in the wrong.
On May 25th, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, responded to a report of an individual attempting to pass a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. He and three other officers found themselves confronted with a 6′ 6″ 223 lb Negro who had only begun cooperating with the police when one of the officers drew his gun, then had begun behaving ‘real erratic’ and foaming at the mouth. He admitted having used drugs earlier but claimed to ‘feel better now.’ The officers handcuffed Floyd and attempted to put him into the back of a police car.
A struggle ensued; eventually Chauvin gave up on getting Floyd into the back of the police car and called an ambulance. In the meantime, he held Floyd down, Floyd repeatedly complaining of being unable to breath.
That would be a symptom of Fentanyl overdose (https://www.recovery.org/fentanyl/).
In fact, Floyd was displaying quite a few of the symptoms of an overdose: from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/fentanyl-treatment/symptoms-associated-with-a-fentanyl-overdose we have:
- A person’s lips immediately turning blue
- Gurgling sounds with breathing
- Stiffening of the body or seizure-like activity
- Foaming at the mouth
- Confusion or strange behavior before the person becomes unresponsive‘
George Floyd’s post-mortem revealed a potentially fatal level of fentanyl in his system (https://www.foxnews.com/us/medical-examiner-george-floyd-fentanyl-system). While it’s uncertain if this in fact killed him, Floyd was certainly acting as if he were suffering from a fentanyl overdose; he had displayed at least three of the six symptoms listed above.
Of most immediate concern to the police of course were two of the symptoms: Floyd’s ‘seizure-like activity’ and ‘strange behavior.’ To put it differently, Floyd was a very large, very intoxicated, and very unmanageable negro who wouldn’t go into the police car and obviously had to be restrained until the ambulance arrived. Chauvin’s chosen method to restrain Floyd was to kneel on the back of his neck. This was Minneapolis police procedure at the time. (https://heavy.com/news/minneapolis-police-knee-on-neck-restraints-chokeholds-policy/)
While this was going on, something of a crowd was accumulating.
This is the account from Wikipedia:
‘…At approximately 8:22, the officers called for an ambulance on a non-emergency basis, escalating the call to emergency status a minute later.:4:50:4:42 Chauvin continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck.:5:15 A passerby yelled to Floyd, “Well, get up, get in the car, man”, and Floyd, still handcuffed and face down on the pavement, responded, “I can’t”, while Chauvin’s knee remained on his neck.:5:26 Floyd cried out “Mama!” twice. Floyd said, “My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts”, requested water, and begged, “Don’t kill me.” One witness pointed out that Floyd was bleeding from the nose. Another told the officers that Floyd was “not even resisting arrest right now”. Thao countered that Floyd was “talking, he’s fine”; a witness replied that Floyd “ain’t fine … Get him off the ground … You could have put him in the car by now. He’s not resisting arrest or nothing. You’re enjoying it. Look at you. Your body language explains it.” As Floyd continued to cry for help, Thao said to witnesses: “This is why you don’t do drugs, kids.”
By 8:25, Floyd appeared unconscious, and bystanders confronted the officers about Floyd’s condition. Chauvin pulled out mace to keep bystanders away as Thao moved between them and Chauvin…’
Two minutes later, the ambulance arrived, no doubt to the considerable relief of the officers on the scene.
Several elements need to be noted: the officers were very aware they were dealing with a large, erratically uncooperative, manifestly intoxicated subject: hence the ‘this is why you don’t do drugs, kids.’ It also explains the call for the ambulance.
They also evidently felt threatened by the crowd: hence the mace and hence Officer Thao taking up a position blocking access to Chauvin and Floyd. One can assume that the onlookers were yelling quite a few things; not just the quoted remarks. The incident had started with attempting to get Floyd under arrest; by 8:25, Floyd was under control; the focus was more on standing off the crowd.
What was supposed to happen? Chauvin was to release Floyd and see what he got up to? The police were to let the crowd help Floyd in some way? They should have ignored the crowd and let it do what it would while they turned their attention to meeting Floyd’s medical needs themselves rather than waiting for the medics? It was obviously turning into quite a confrontation: the police were intent on keeping matters from getting out of hand until the ambulance arrived.
According to the prosecutors at the trial, Chauvin held down Floyd for seven minutes and forty six seconds. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_George_Floyd). Chauvin could have experimented with removing his knee a minute or two earlier. On the other hand, that would have been giving way to the demands of an apparently belligerent and hostile crowd. It would also have involved seeing what 6’6″, intoxicated George Floyd might get up to. It’s hard to fault the choice to maintain and wait for the ambulance to show up. In fact, it’s rather easy to see the police being faulted for not doing just that if they had done something else and matters had gone sideways: Floyd getting up and lurching off down the street, the onlookers entangling themselves with Floyd, whatever.
There is also the question of precisely why George Floyd died. Everyone appears to agree that George Floyd’s heart stopped while Chauvin was holding him down. On the one hand, Floyd had ingested a potentially fatal overdose of Fentanyl (apparently he swallowed his stash when he realized he was about to be arrested). On the other hand, Chauvin didn’t actually break Floyd’s neck, and he was using a hold that doesn’t normally entail the death of the suspect. Then finally, Floyd’s heart seems to have been bad shape to start with.
Baker listed in his autopsy that Floyd’s death was the result of a “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” Other significant conditions were listed as “arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease; fentanyl intoxication; recent methamphetamine use.”
So Chauvin restrained Floyd until the ambulance arrived, Floyd died, and it’s unclear as to why. Certainly, to go by Chauvin’s expression, he doesn’t seem to feel he’s killing anyone; if anything, he’s got Floyd under control, and he’s keeping an eye on the crowd.
Floyd could have died because he had taken an overdose of Fentanyl; he certainly had taken an overdose. He also could have died because Chauvin was restraining him — but should Chauvin not have restrained him? Then, Floyd could have died at any time; anything could have finished off that bad heart. It’s even possible Floyd could have weathered any one or even two of these factors; it was all three occurring at once that proved the perfect storm.
For two minutes — from 8:25 to 8:27 — Chauvin continued hold Floyd down even though he had ‘become unresponsive.’ Perhaps Chauvin could have taken his knee off of Floyd’s neck at that point. It’s unclear if it would have made any difference: the restraint Chauvin was using doesn’t normally kill a suspect, and Floyd’s heart had probably already failed by then in any case. He may well have already been dead.
On the other hand, confronted with hostile onlookers, expecting the ambulance at any moment, and dealing with a large and recently very uncooperative suspect, Chauvin may be pardoned for simply keeping things as they were: Floyd firmly pinned down, the crowd kept at bay, and the ambulance coming.
It’s also hard to see in what way Chauvin’s behavior could construed as somehow racist or evidence of ‘systemic racism;’ is the argument that a white who attempted to pass a counterfeit twenty dollar bill wouldn’t have been arrested, or that if he had begun to behave as George Floyd did, that he wouldn’t have been restrained in exactly the same way?
Be that as it may; the verdict notwithstanding, it’s clear Chauvin wasn’t trying to kill Floyd; he would have been happy to have seen Floyd loaded — alive — into the back of the ambulance and never heard from again. At most, Chauvin can be accused of having held Floyd down for two minutes more than absolutely necessary. Conceivably, he could have ignored the crowd and turned his attention to Floyd — who, to all appearances, was simply moving on the ‘reduced or loss of consciousness’ stage of a fentanyl overdose. That would be a matter for the ambulance personnel when they arrived.
So what was Chauvin’s crime? Restraining a criminal suspect? Using the methods he had been taught to do so? Simply waiting for the ambulance rather than attempting to evaluate and treat Floyd’s medical condition — on his own, in the presence of a hostile and restive crowd?
Chauvin can, at most, be accused of misjudgment, of assuming that Floyd was fine when he was not. His ‘crime’, if it can be called that, might be compared to that of a driver who sets out for work under the impression that his brakes are working properly when they are not, and subsequently causes a collision in which someone is killed. He thought he acting sensibly.
…except that we cannot even be sure Chauvin caused the collision. After all, people do die from Fentanyl overdoses. They also die from heart conditions.
And for this, Chauvin is convicted of murder, and sentenced to twenty two and a half years in prison. Our president and the press applaud. It is assumed that not only did Chauvin deliberately kill Floyd, but that he did so because Floyd was black.
…and it’s not enough. We must do more.