The murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer whose killing of George Floyd sparked one of the biggest mass uprisings against white supremacy and police brutality in American history last year, began on Monday. People watching learned chilling new details about the nearly 10 minutes in which Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck.
People also learned about how Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, would try to sow doubt about what happened to Floyd. His methods were pretty standard—he implied that Floyd was probably killed by something other than the knee on his neck; pointedly noted that Floyd was bigger and taller than Chauvin; and made sure to mention that drugs might have been involved.
But Nelson went further than these familiar, insidious and racist tropes. At one point, he mentioned that a crowd had formed as Floyd struggled to stay alive.
“You will see and hear that a crowd begins to develop, watching and recording officers, initially fairly passive,” Nelson said. “As the situation went on, the crowd began to grow angry.”
He continued (emphasis mine):
As the crowd grew in size, seemingly so too did their anger. And remember, there’s more to the scene than just what the officers see in front of them. There are people behind them. There are people across the street. There are cars stopping, people yelling. There are — there is a growing crowd and what officers perceived to be a threat. They are called names—you heard ’em this morning, “a fucking bum. They’re screaming at them, causing the officers to divert their attention from the care of Mr. Floyd to the threat that was growing in front of them.
So, in other words, the crowd that was increasingly angry because it was watching George Floyd being slowly killed by the police is at least partially to blame for Floyd’s death. The officers got distracted from what Nelson had the gall to describe as their “care” of Floyd (one expects that Nelson would not want to be cared for in this way) and, Nelson implied, this made things worse.
Just a thought here: would putting a pause on the slow asphyxiation of George Floyd also have helped the situation? If Chauvin had taken his knee off Floyd’s neck, would that have caused the crowd to subside a little bit? No, according to Eric Nelson: Chauvin was just doing what he was supposed to do.
If people watching this disgusting thing unfolding in front of them had a problem with that, that was on them. One would hope that such appalling excuses would not sway a jury. But this is America, and we know better than to be sure about that.