I have a confession to make: I have not seen the infamous video of George Floyd’s last moments of life under the ruthless knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
I confess I am sensitive. I confess I am Black. I confess I am tired of witnessing the trauma of my kin killed in the most inhumane of circumstances, frequently on camera. Just the gruesome details of the May 25 incident, gleaned from official reports and public play-by-plays over the past year, have been enough to break my heart: that the 46-year-old Floyd cried out for his mother, who had passed away two years prior; that he made the now-familiar complaint of Black men dying at the hands of white police officers: I can’t breathe; that he was choked for nearly 10 minutes.
The recent start of the trial of Floyd’s accused killer, Chauvin—a man who had racked up at least 17 misconduct complaints throughout his career before he was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department last year in the aftermath of Floyd’s death—threatens to trigger some of that ever-present trauma.
While justice is an urgent demand of Floyd’s family and many of us who strive and aspire to see the world and our country operate from a sense of what is right, I confess to greeting the beginning of the murder trial with not a little bit of apprehension and anxiety. How could I not, when cops in America are so rarely convicted of killing or otherwise harming Black citizens? How could I not worry that a trial, with a verdict to be decided by a jury that includes a white woman who said she believes that “Blue Lives Matter” was about everyone but Black people, could end up just being more salt in the wound left continually open by the extrajudicial killing of our brethren?
And at the very least, how could those of us with plenty of melanin not cower a bit from the detailed recitations of how the life of a man—who could pass for a member of many of our families—was slowly, cruelly taken?
Day two of the trial, featuring witnesses who saw with their very eyes the events of Floyd’s death, has helped answer these complicated questions for me.
Donald Williams, a Black man and former wrestler who called 911 when he came upon the scene of Chauvin holding Floyd in a deadly restraint last May, took to the stand to continue his powerful testimony on Tuesday. Williams’ bravery and equanimity in recalling what he saw—even as it brought tears to his eyes to listen to his own call to the police, on the police, about the brutal treatment of a man who looked like him, was something to behold.
“You can’t paint me as angry,” Williams responded to Chauvin’s probing defense attorney, Eric Nelson, as Nelson questioned whether the witness called the ex-cop a ‘pussy ass bitch’ while watching him kneel on the throat of a prostrate man.
Nelson asked if it was fair to say Williams grew angrier and angrier after witnessing the death that was happening before him.
“I grew [more] professional and professional,” Williams answered. “I stayed in my body.”
What strength. What next-level strength is required of us as Black people, and that we manage to muster continually, somehow. In witnessing an incident of horrifying, traumatizing violence, this Black man still knew he had to keenly control his reactions because his Black skin could have just as easily branded him a threat, causing someone to snuff out his humanity just as Floyd’s was.
As Williams himself said in a heart-wrenching interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo in the days after Floyd’s death, “I was the most controlled, as I’m seeing another man that looks like me, that feels like me, that has the same complexion as me, lose his life to another man that had no senses, no feeling—he had no remorse.”
Also testifying Tuesday was the Black teen girl who recorded the video of Floyd’s last moments that went viral, setting the stage for Chauvin to be tried for the man’s death at the proceedings the world is watching now.
Darnella Frazier, unnamed by the court as she is a minor at 17 years old but who has been widely credited for filming the video, testified that Chauvin gestured his mace at her and other bystanders who walked up to witness what he was doing, reports USA Today. While Frazier testified that she was (understandably) scared at the moment, the high school senior still found the strength of spirit to press record—to refuse to let Floyd’s death go unwitnessed.
And even with that immense bravery in the face of forces that couldn’t be cowered, empowered as they are by the state, the teen testified to spending nights “apologizing & apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting & not saving his life.”
What heartbreaking humanity.
A 9-year-old Black child who exhibited the bravery and better angels that reside inside our spirits, despite the world’s best efforts to break them, testified to seeing an officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck until some EMTs took him off.
It made her “sad and kind of mad,” she said. “Because it feel[s] like he was stopping his breathing and it was kind of like hurting him.”
Genevieve Hansen, a white off-duty firefighter who came upon the scene of Chauvin restraining Floyd, also took the witness stand on Tuesday to deliver a testimony blessedly full of humanity.
Admitting to being everything from calm, pleading, to desperate and angry as the officers refused her attempts to check Floyd’s pulse and carry out life-saving procedures to the point where she called one of them a bitch, Hansen said plainly to the defense:
“I don’t know if you’ve seen anybody be killed, but it’s upsetting.”
I am encouraged by the evidence of the witnesses’ shining humanity. I am still cautious of putting my faith in a system that has failed so often, and so badly, in finding police officers guilty—especially after watching Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over the trial, sternly scold Hansen on the defense’s behalf and tell her “do not argue with counsel.”
Tuesday’s testimonies reminded me that, in an event that seems to exemplify the worst of human behaviors, much of the best of it was also present. All kinds of people stood witness to the value of Floyd’s life and fought valiantly for it. And they are pulling from depths of strength I can’t even comprehend to do their best to win whatever justice they can for the life that was stolen.