OP-ED: Race went unmentioned in closings, but what if George Floyd had been white?

Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register (TNS)
Vine Adams of Minneapolis, George Floyd Square caretaker, paces back and forth as she waits for the verdict to be announced Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Aaron Lavinsky/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Steve Schleicher never mentioned race.

The attorney prosecuting former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd by cutting off his breath never called it a race-based assault. Not once in his summation did Schleicher, a special assistant Minnesota attorney general, point out that Floyd was a Black man, and Chauvin a white police officer. He made no reference to the multiple other recent deaths of Black men and boys at the hands — or guns — of white officers. He sidestepped the sheer mathematical probability that even a minor arrest related to a broken taillight, a joint found in a car or a counterfeit $20 bill would more likely result in death when the subjects are Black.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson said nothing about race either. But it was there in their summations, the ultimate elephant in the courtroom. It was in police officers' apparent perceptions of a dangerous crowd and neighborhood — and man. Both sides probably knew better than to risk polarizing a Minneapolis jury on a topic the nation still can’t seem to come to grips with: racial bias, especially by police.

Still, plenty was said in their respective narratives of what was going on that day last May.

More:Ex-cop guilty of murder and manslaughter in George Floyd case

Schleicher, for his part, went to great lengths not to impugn police as a whole as guilty of institutional racism. He highlighted the Minneapolis Police Department’s motto “to protect and serve with courage.” He said, “This is not an anti-police prosecution. This is a pro-police prosecution,” and, “There’s nothing worse for a good police than a bad police.”

By his summary, two officers including Chauvin first insisted on forcing Floyd into the back of a car, though the space was small and he kept pleading he had claustrophobia and anxiety. On video you can hear his pleas and groans. Yet Schleicher said Floyd thanked the officers — before they got him prone on the street, where the excessive force began.

For 9 minutes, 29 seconds, “George Floyd struggled desperately to breathe,” said Schleicher, explaining that the lungs in his chest were unable to expand because there wasn’t enough room with Chauvin's knee pressing down on his neck. Floyd was “trapped by an unyielding pavement and an unyielding man who held him down.”

“He desperately pushed with his knuckles and his face to lift himself, to open up his chest, to give his lungs room to breathe.”

'These actions were an assault': Not only was it unnecessary to have Floyd on the ground when he never threatened anyone, but there were multiple moments, the prosecutor said, when Floyd could have been saved with CPR, by positioning him on his side, or by doing chest compressions.

Therefore, he said, “These actions were not policing. These actions were an assault.”

Noting that the police intervention was over a $20 counterfeit bill, Schleicher said, "All that was required was a little compassion, and none was shown that day.” Instead, Chauvin continued to grind into Floyd, hold him down and twist his fingers “beyond the point that he had a pulse.”

“You saw the defendant facing down the crowd, the body language, the kind of ego-based pride … (he) was not going to be told what to do by the bystanders. The bystanders were powerless to do anything. The defendant was trying to win. He wasn't going to take a challenge to his authority, and George Floyd paid for it with his life.”

If Schleicher’s summation was made with impassioned indignation, Nelson’s was more akin to a school teacher patiently trying to employ common sense to “look at the facts as a reasonable officer” would have viewed them. He noted Floyd’s drug use, carbon monoxide from car exhaust, the prospects of an accident — anything but racial bias “The standard isn’t what should or could an officer have done, but what facts were known at the moment,” he said.

What would 'reasonable officer' do?: But then the buzzwords started coming out — the officers being in a “densely populated urban environment,” the initial call to police from a convenience store manager who described Floyd as 6 feet tall or taller, paying with a counterfeit $20 and seeming "under the influence."

Does that sound to you like a crisis? When Chauvin and another officer arrived as backup for two who were struggling to get Floyd into a car, “They don’t know what’s going on,” Nelson asserted.

Couldn't they have asked? Floyd wasn't armed or threatening, and if he was under the influence, they should have tried de-escalation tactics. He was just terrified of getting claustrophobic inside a small back seat and pleading with officers not to force him in. Why not just sit him down on the sidewalk and talk to him?

“It’s not uncommon for suspects to feign or pretend to have a medical emergency in order to get out of being arrested,” said Nelson.

So instead, in response to what Nelson called Floyd's "active resistance,” the officers felt it necessary to “achieve effective physical control.” Then, by Nelson's depiction, when a crowd started gathering — some of them pleading with Chauvin to stop applying force as Floyd begged for air — officers saw “potential signs of aggression."

“A reasonable officer would consider, ‘Should we elevate the use of force?’ They did.”

“A reasonable police officer recognizes the crowd is in crisis.” Well, wouldn't you be, watching an officer kill someone?

“Never underestimate a crowd’s potential.” Or this one's because it was mostly Black?

In fact, the crowd was in crisis. There's been reporting on the intense trauma, especially to young witnesses, of what they saw happen: a man’s life snuffed out in front of their eyes by another man wearing a badge.

When firefighter Genevieve Hansen arrived and saw blood coming out of Floyd’s nose and wanted to check his pulse and give him medical aid, she wasn't allowed to. Nelson said Chauvin told her EMTs were on the way. But even then, he didn’t remove his knee from Floyd’s neck.

The painful irony is that, while making his case, Nelson was playing videos in which Floyd could be seen while lying prone, unable to move, crying, “Mama, Mama. I love you. … I can’t breathe.”

Apparently Chauvin's defense attorney didn't even consider that a reasonable person might watch that, be traumatized and find his client guilty of murder or manslaughter. Would he have played that tape or made that assumption if Floyd had been white?

If Floyd had been white, would any of this have even happened?

I don’t believe it would have. But Tuesday’s verdict at least reminds us there are reasonable people who saw through the hoax of Chauvin’s defense. And that the next time a police officer contemplates using excessive force, knowing what happened to Chauvin – if nothing else – will end it there.

— Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.