Ten months after he killed George Floyd by holding a knee to Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is finally on trial. He faces three charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. “At the end of the day, justice is a conviction,” Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, told CNN.
On May 25, Floyd was handcuffed and arrested by Chauvin and three other officers for reportedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill at a Minneapolis corner store. During the arrest, Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck, ignoring Floyd's repeated cries for help. According to USA Today, Floyd said that he couldn’t breathe more than 20 times.
Floyd is far from the first or last Black American to be killed by a member of law enforcement. According to the Mapping Police Violence database, 1,127 people were killed by officers in 2020, and Black people are three times more likely to be killed, despite also being 1.3 times more unlikely to be unarmed. Floyd’s case garnered national attention, however, as video of his killing gained traction and sparked a nationwide series of protests in support of Black lives.
Chauvin’s trial began on Monday with opening statements. Prosecuting attorney Jerry W. Blackwell also played video footage of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd as bystanders shouted and implored him to stop. “Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd,” Blackwell said. “That he put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him until the very breath — no, ladies and gentlemen — until the very life was squeezed out of him.”
On Tuesday, six witnesses, including a nine-year-old, recounted the trauma of watching the police kill a man and knowing they were powerless to stop it. Several of them cried, including 18-year-old Darnella Frazier, who recorded the viral video of Floyd’s killing. “It’s been nights I stayed up apologising and apologising to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” she said. “But it’s not what I should have done. It’s what [Chauvin] should have done.”
Alyssa, a high school senior who also witnessed the killing, said that she decided to start recording after she heard Floyd’s screams. “I almost walked away at first because it was a lot to watch. But I knew that it was wrong and I couldn’t just walk away, even though I couldn’t do anything about it,” Alyssa said, before describing the experience of watching Floyd lose consciousness. Her friend, another witness whose name is unknown, added he looked “limp” and “purple,” as if he wasn’t getting enough circulation.
Genevieve Hansen, a trained firefighter and EMT, said that she was off-duty when she witnessed Floyd’s death. Concerned, she approached the officers and asked to check his pulse. “I tried calm reasoning, I tried to be assertive. I pled and was desperate,” Hansen said. “I was desperate to give help.” Eventually, she called 911.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, claimed that shouting and interference from witnesses impacted the police’s ability to do their job. At the same time, however, Nelson has maintained that Chauvin was doing his job correctly. “You will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career,” Nelson said in his opening statement. “The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.” (Over the past year, it has been mind-boggling to watch people try to defend both Chauvin and the police as an institution by arguing in one breath that his behaviour was an aberration, and in another that he was just doing his job.)
The defence has also tried to argue that Floyd was under the influence of drugs, and that he died due to an overdose paired with complications from a heart condition. On Wednesday, 19-year-old Christopher Martin, who was working at Cup Foods, said that Floyd appeared to be high when he entered the store on May 25. Martin recognised that Floyd had paid using counterfeit money, and he originally planned to just accept the money, believing that Floyd “didn’t really know it was a fake bill.” However, after talking to his manager, his boss asked him to bring Floyd back into the store. When Floyd declined, someone at Cup Foods called the police.
“If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided,” Martin said, before describing the “disbelief and guilt” he felt as he watched Chauvin arrest Floyd.
Floyd’s sister, Bridgett Floyd, commented on the defence’s arguments. “They would find any way possible for this police officer to not look bad. But, the whole world saw what happened to him,” she told ABC News. “The drugs that they say they found in his system did not kill him... [it] was the pressure that was kneeled down in his neck. It’s not surprising to me, but one thing's for sure. The world [has] seen how my brother left this world.”