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Littwin: If you watch the trial, Derek Chauvin’s knee seems to be on every witnesses’ neck

The trial is not only about George Floyd’s death and injustice, but also comes at yet another American crossroads on race.

I know that Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck is at the center of the former cop’s trial.

But it’s Chauvin’s stone-cold face that still gets to me. And also the faces of the many witnesses openly weeping on the stand.

If you’re watching the trial or clips from the trial or reading stories about the trial, you know of the many emotional witnesses who have testified. What’s remarkable — and remarkably tragic — is that most of these witnesses who were moved to tears didn’t know Floyd. They saw a man being killed by a cop. We see, as we watch the courtroom drama, the trauma etched on their faces. Anyone who has not been moved cannot be moved.

Mike Littwin

We saw the killing on video. They saw it in person. Many of them were the ones yelling at the cops, vainly begging for Floyd’s life. One was an off-duty EMT who offered medical assistance and was coldly turned away. The young man who took Floyd’s apparently counterfeit $20 bill as payment for a pack of cigarettes expressed guilt that he had turned Floyd in to his supervisor, saying that if he hadn’t, Floyd would still be alive. The 911 operator who dispatched the police to the scene said she at first thought the screen must have frozen as she watched on her monitor. She was so concerned that she called the sergeant in charge to report what she was seeing, telling him, “You can call me a snitch if you want to. “

Several other witnesses tearfully lamented that they didn’t — that they couldn’t — do more. Many of the witnesses were Black and clearly felt centuries of oppression on their own necks. Several were white, who, in their testimony, might well have been testifying against racial injustice and for the notion that Black lives do matter.

But there was, of course, nothing for the crowd of onlookers to do. The cops had all the power. And yet, many in the crowd repeatedly called out to them that they were killing a guy, a Black man. As many as three people called 911 — calling the police to come and stop the police. 

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One eyewitness, Charles McMillian, did confront Chauvin minutes after Floyd had been taken to the hospital. It’s notable that when the encounter began, McMillian was encouraging Floyd to stop resisting. But by the end, McMillian was criticizing Chauvin’s use of violent restraint.

“That’s one person’s opinion,” Chauvin calmly replied. “We gotta put force, gotta control this guy because he’s a sizable guy. Looks like he’s probably on something.”

It isn’t simply one person’s opinion, of course. It’s an opinion we hear again and again. On Friday, Lt. Richard Zimmerman, chief homicide detective for the Minneapolis police, testified that Chauvin’s excessive use of force was “uncalled for” and “totally unnecessary,” adding that, “If your knee is on a person’s neck, that could kill him.”

During the trial, we’ve seen Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck from nearly every conceivable angle — it might as well be an NFL-style replay — and can see with our own eyes, even as we did last May, that Chauvin kept his knee in place for minutes after Floyd had lost consciousness, minutes after Floyd had stopped breathing, minutes after the paramedics couldn’t find a pulse. One thing we have learned from the trial is that Chauvin’s knee wasn’t in place for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, but for 9 minutes, 29 seconds.

One of the unanswered questions — and one that’s central to our understanding of what happened that day — is why Chauvin kept the knee in place even as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe, even as one of the young cops asked Chauvin if they could move Floyd onto his side, even as the off-duty firefighter begged for cops to begin resuscitating him. It’s an answer that we may never know. Even if Chauvin testifies, we shouldn’t expect him to answer truthfully to that one critical question.

When the paramedics arrived on the scene and tried desperately to save Floyd’s life, they knew what little chance they had. As one of the paramedics said, he knew upon arrival, before doing any actual checks on Floyd, the likely prognosis.

“In lay terms, I thought he was already dead,” said Derek Smith, a paramedic with Hennepin County EMS. “I looked for my partner and told him, ‘I think he’s dead.’ ”

And so I go back to Chauvin’s face as he kept his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck. There was the almost complete lack of expression, an apparent lack of empathy, a face, as it seemed to me anyway, relaying the clear message that he was in charge and can do whatever he wishes. You can’t stop him. You can’t shame him. 

At the risk of playing amateur psychiatrist — and I know I’m not in any way qualified — I couldn’t help wondering if Chauvin kept the pressure on Floyd’s neck for so long, in large part, because the crowd was screaming for him to stop.

One of the strangest things about this trial is the moment in which it is taking place. As the story of race and justice proceeds in a courtroom, Republican-led state legislatures across the country are considering new laws clearly targeting Black voters. Joe Biden compared the new law in Georgia to “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” I’m not sure Jim Crow is the right comparison — that was a system of full apartheid — but it’s close enough. These voting laws are not about old-style racism. They don’t prohibit Blacks and whites from playing checkers in a public square.But they’re about the latest form of racism, using state law to reduce the influence of the Black vote. It was that vote that allowed Biden to win in Georgia and for two Democratic senators to be elected there.

 And for those who insist Georgia law isn’t targeting Black voters, check out this New York Times analysis of the 98-page law and the 16 provisions that either make it more difficult to vote or strip election officials of authority that would now belong to the state legislature.

READ: More columns by Mike Littwin.

The Georgia law may be problematic, but it will almost certainly not be the worst that gets passed this year. Republicans are generally justifying changes in election law by saying that voters lost faith in the process after the 2020 election, suggesting, of course, that the election was somehow rigged. If some people have lost faith, it’s because of those politicians and right-wing media who baselessly claimed the election was rigged. You could call that circular logic if there were, in fact, any logic involved. 

But that’s why Democrats in Congress have been pushing voting reform that would supersede state laws. It has passed in the House, but it almost certainly can’t pass in the Senate unless the filibuster is either scrapped or reformed.

I don’t know what the jury will find in the Chauvin case. The defense hasn’t even begun to make its case. And we know that video evidence doesn’t always produce the expected result when cops are involved. In fact, I’d say that it rarely does.

I also don’t know what will happen with H.R. 1, the voting rights reform bill, and whether Democrats, whose slim majority in both the Senate and the House are at risk in the 2022 midterms, can get it passed.

I do know that we have reached yet another crossroads on race in America. In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois, America’s leading Black intellectual of his time, predicted that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” And he didn’t mean simply Blacks, but also other people of color. He was right, of course. And if he’d updated it in 2003, he’d still be right. It has been ever thus. And so it continues to be.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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