Derek Chauvin is on trial - not George Floyd

Remember, it's Derek Chauvin who is on trial - not George Floyd
5 min read
16 Apr, 2021
Comment: Once again, a campaign to pin blame on the victim, and more specifically, the Black victim, was the essential first step towards vindicating Chauvin, writes Khaled Beydoun.
Protesters gather outside the trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis [Getty]
 
 
 
A quick survey of this week's news and social media feeds would have you believe that George Floyd - the Black man slain on the streets of Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin in May of last year - is on trial. Headlines and hashtags dubbing it the "George Floyd trial" are ubiquitous.

This legal centering of Floyd, whose face and name has emerged into a tragic talisman of anti-Black racism and its clutch on policing in America, might seem innocuous. However, this is hardly the case in the Chauvin murder trial, and the endless list of criminal cases involving Black homicide victims of police violence.

Assigning the Black victim as the principal subject of the case, post mortem, only compounds the avalanche of character assassination that unfolds within the courtroom. And even more vilely and violently, beyond it.

The charges against Floyd rushed in well before the Chauvin trial even began. Attention turned to criminality, drugs, and other potent stereotypes so commonly ascribed to Black men. Social media posts, from lay commentators and familiar pundits from the right, impeached Floyd's character by branding him a "criminal drug addict." These attacks on a dead man's character, a victim of homicide no less, were strategic and well-timed prefaces to a trial where these very attacks would be deployed by the defense team.

Reporting for The Washington Post, Tolluse Ollorunipa observed, "Time and again throughout the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, defense attorney Eric Nelson has found ways to bring up George Floyd's drug use. He [Nelson] has repeatedly highlighted the toxic mix of substances found in Floyd's system, floated the possibility that Floyd may have ingested drugs rectally and asked expert witnesses whether the handcuffed man's inability to breathe in his final moments may have resulted from an overdose."
  This is a pointedly anti-Black project fueled by the most potent racist stereotypes baked into perceptions of Black masculinity  

The defense strategy followed the path of the slander splashed across virtual timelines, newsprint and television screens. Derek Chauvin may have escaped those eight minutes and 46 seconds with his life, but the slain Floyd was as much the subject of scrutiny as the man sitting in the courtroom.

And that is precisely the objective of (re)framing the Chauvin murder trial as the George Floyd trial. In this absurd quest to justify a senseless killing, the campaign to pin blame on the victim, and more specifically, the Black victim, was the essential first step towards vindicating Chauvin.

The pattern and plot is a familiar one, rooted in the days of Jim Crow when Black men were murdered and subsequently demonised as sexual deviants or subversives, but just as prevalent today, with even the youngest of Black males - such as Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin - painted as ominous threats after they were killed. The 12-year old Rice was said to be older and carrying a weapon, and the teenage Martin branded a "thug" because he wore a hoodie. 

Read more: Curfew in Minneapolis amid protests against police murder of black father Daunte Wright

This is a pointedly anti-Black project fueled by the most potent racist stereotypes baked into perceptions of Black masculinity: imminent and incessant violence, criminal deviance, and the trope rising to the fore in the Chauvin murder trial, an addiction to drugs that somehow suggests physical violence - and even homicide - is warranted.


The popular and legal campaign against Floyd, in essence, is asking the jury and the public to unsee what they so vividly observed last May and hundreds of times since. And furthermore, it pushes them to believe a racist retelling of the Floyd homicide that suggests his addiction and intoxication invited Chauvin's knee on his neck, and the sinking force that pushed those final pleas and prayers from his mouth.

And yet - almost unbelievably - in the thick of the Chauvin trial and that concerted campaign to make it about Floyd, another Black man was killed by a Minnesota police officer. Just a few miles from the site of Floyd's killing in the neighbouring city of Brooklyn Center, Kimberly Ann Porter shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year old Black male during a traffic stop.

The killing of Wright sent ripples into a metropolitan area already glued to every episode unfolding within the courtroom, and a nation grappling with its longstanding psychoses of racial injustice and police violence.

Wright's murder also served as an ominous and emphatic rebuttal against the effort to demonise Floyd, countering that the recurring killing of unarmed Black men is driven by an animus ingrained in the institutions and individuals conducting the policing - not its victims.

  The campaign against Floyd, in essence, is asking the jury and the public to unsee what they so vividly observed last May  

Despite the effort to spin this murder trial into a post mortem adjudication of Floyd's character, this time it would seem, that the sheer lucidity of the video combined with the turbulent sociopolitical moment might safeguard the truth, and deliver a just verdict.

Yet, if American racism has proven to be anything, it remains an agile and adaptive beast. And nowhere more so than in the judicial system, where the defense has announced that Derek Chauvin himself will not take the stand, while the ghost of George Floyd - within the courtroom and the surrounding court of public opinion - remains seated upon it.  
 

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, and author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk
 
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.