"Totally Unnecessary": Two Days of Testimony Display Chauvin's Indifference to George Floyd's Life
Let’s all try, if you can indulge this writer and his relative position of privilege, a little thought experiment.
In a culture whose primary modes of communication enable hot takes and institutionalized anti-institutionalism embodied by sedentary hordes of white boys on the internet playing Devil’s Advocate, examining something as toxic and traumatic as the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin through any lens beyond the obvious invites risk. For most of this first week, the emotional impact of this heinous crime (and the system that allowed it to happen) on everyone—the Black community, the community in general, and certainly, the people who loved and cared about George Floyd—has dominated the foreground of Chauvin’s trial. Criminal trials are not about emotion unless it specifically serves a purpose; it’s difficult to reasonably engage the strategic calculations that occur underneath the surface concurrent to the very real trauma the trial evokes. Through hours of repeated viewings of Floyd’s murder through every possible camera angle and tearful testimony from eyewitnesses, there’s a sense of collective agony that shudders when suddenly forced to remember that counsel for both sides, and Judge Peter Cahill, are conditioned to serve a different ideal.
No better example of this disconnect can be seen than yesterday’s moment when Courteney Ross, George Floyd’s girlfriend, realized that attorney for the defense Eric Nelson was about to trivialize Floyd’s dying words by asking her what his pet name for her was. “Mama,” she answered, her face literally contorting in pain and anger, cut with a sense that she’d been tricked. Conned by this guy in a suit. She’d just sat for hours bearing her soul not only about her loss but the painful reality of both she and Floyd being victims of the opioid epidemic, a line of testimony that arguably was absolutely necessary for attorney for the prosecution Matthew Frank to introduce and control, but no less painful for doing so. Now here was Nelson asking, “How were you programmed into Mr. Floyd’s phone?” Basically gaming her into telling the world, “George Floyd wasn’t crying for his mama. Just his girlfriend.”
This trial is about many, many things beyond the obvious tragic murder. It is about a culture of systemic oppression where Black Lives are seen as less than. It is about the opioid epidemic. It is about accountability for the unaccountable. It is about the looming specter of community reaction to the trial’s conclusion. It is about reforming policing. It is about how slowly the Law that governs the trial adapts to the change demanded for Justice to occur. It is simply not possible for this trial to address or correct all of these things, but that doesn’t make them less real.
The trial also changes its focus from day to day, telling a slightly different story, depending on which witnesses are testifying, and which evidence is being introduced. Since Ross’s time on the stand, the testimony of the past two days has told a story about how people function and react to society’s expectations, specifically through the lens of how people choose to participate in the social contract of our culture.
So here’s where the thought experiment begins, if this writer can beg a little leeway: Imagine that you go to your job. Doesn’t matter what kind of job. Could be in a warehouse or an office or a fast food restaurant or a hospital or a construction site. Or any other job. In every job, there’s a specific set of rules, written, set in stone. Sometimes those rules are entirely created by the people in charge. Sometimes those rules are created through negotiation between the people in charge and those who aren’t. Either way, no workplace functions without them. Imagine those rules.
Now think about the other rules you encounter at work: the unwritten ones. Everything that you and everyone else you work with that isn’t written down but generally agreed upon, because someone told you how to do something, or you told someone, or no one told anyone but you just do them because that’s how it’s always been done. These rules are largely just as important as those written rules. More often than not, they’re the rules that you depend on and refer to far more often than the written rules. How you, or anyone you work with, interprets and incorporates their rules into their daily routine is not dictated by what’s written. More often than not, it’s dictated by your own internal compass.
Are you the kind of person who always does everything exactly the way your boss showed you because you know that’s going to make them happy? The kind of person who finds your own way that still works or even works better? The kind of person who shows up early and starts working even if you aren’t getting paid? The kind of person who shows up exactly on time and leaves exactly on time? Are you the kind of person who thinks that the person who shows up early is somehow a better worker than the person who shows up on time, even though they are both following the rules?
Are you the kind of person who would spend your last day of work doing exactly what you’re supposed to, or the kind of person who steals a stapler every time you leave a job? (Unrelated side note: this writer owns a truly impressive collection of staplers.)
Now imagine that you have a co-worker whose number one priority is making those rules work for them, not the other way around. (It could actually be several co-workers. Or every co-worker except you. Or every co-worker including you. But for this, let’s say one co-worker.) That co-worker finds every angle to play to avoid the most annoying or burdensome of the written rules while still doing their job competently enough that people either don’t notice, or don’t say anything because nothing’s going to change. Basically, this co-worker only cares about the parts of the job they like, and their effort is on doing just well enough that they can keep doing the parts they like while avoiding drawing attention to how little they care about the job when it doesn’t serve them.
Have you ever worked with a person like this? If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky. They’re all too common. If you have, you know. How do you feel about this person? Annoyed? Indifferent? A little jealous that they seem to cruise by like they're made of Teflon?
Derek Chauvin is one of these people. Testimony from multiple people over the past two days, nearly all of them Minneapolis police, people who know both the written and unwritten rules of their particular workplace, has shown this. Yesterday’s testimony from Sgt. David Ploeger, Chauvin’s shift supervisor, involved a review of the MPD’s rules about using force. What force needed to be documented, what force didn’t. When an officer had to tell his boss something, when he didn’t. What is now crystal clear is that throughout Chauvin’s confrontation with George Floyd, every choice he made was to avoid being held accountable. Chauvin could have restrained Floyd in a safe manner, but that would have required him to fill out a report. Chauvin could have shared accurate details when Ploeger reached out to him, but instead he minimized and excluded details that would have resulted in someone telling him how to do his job. Every choice Chauvin made during and after the confrontation with Floyd functioned to minimize scrutiny and accountability. Everything Chauvin did was to make MPD’s written policy work for him, because he could point to the rules and say, “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The fact that Chauvin successfully avoided discipline for 21 of the 22 complaints about his conduct in his career prior to him murdering George Floyd would indicate that his approach of exploiting every accountability and scrutiny loophole in MPD policy has worked well for him in the past. Honestly, there’s not much reason for him to have expected otherwise this time. Chauvin spent two days barely reacting during testimony from cops, paramedics, and firefighters criticizing his abuse of force, his obstruction of attempts to save Floyd, his holding back key details of the encounter, including how long he knelt on Floyd's neck, and calling his actions "totally unnecessary." It is telling that the most significant emotion he’s shown all trial was when MPD Homicide Commander Lt. Richard Zimmerman testified, “If you’re kneeling on a person’s neck, that can kill him.”
It’s hard to know exactly what was in Chauvin’s head when he shot Zimmerman a look across the courtroom. But it wasn’t a look of someone who regretted his actions, no matter how many people told him he was wrong.