If someone decided to make a movie out of what we saw at the Derek Chauvin trial, who would the main characters be?
George Floyd, of course. Although not in the courtroom in person, he was very present in other ways. Derek Chauvin; the three officers who stood by and did nothing to intervene; Darnella Frazier, the young woman who recorded the whole 9+ minutes on her phone; Philonise Floyd the victim’s brother; and others
As you watch the tragic drama unfold, with which characters would you identify? Personally, I found myself relating to many of the players in one way or another, even Derek Chauvin.
If you are feeling victimized, you might identify with George Floyd. I felt like a victim after my first divorce, then when I was diagnosed with my progressive neurological disorder, and many other times. When forces over which I don’t have control have overwhelmed me, I too, to use an analogy, felt like I couldn’t breathe.
If you’ve lost a loved one recently, it might have been difficult to watch the parts of this drama in which Philonise, George Floyd’s brother, appeared. His and his family’s palpable grief may have stirred up painful memories of losses that you have experienced.
What about Jerry Blackwell, Steve Swisher, and Matthew Frank, the tag team of prosecuting attorneys? As they methodically demolished the defense attorney’s weak attempts to make a case, did you vicariously exult in good defeating evil for a change?
To tell you the truth, I felt sorry for Eric Nelson, the defense attorney. He was being asked to play a high-stakes game and was dealt a very weak hand.
The scenes filmed on location showing the three other officers — Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng who stood by and watched Floyd’s life slowly ebb and did nothing to intervene — were the parts of this drama that troubled me deeply.
I’m mostly German, and my people are, on the whole, good neighbors who care about their families. Ninety years ago in Germany, if a Jewish family moved in next door, my ancestors most likely would have acted in a neighborly way toward them. The thought of sending them to a death camp would not have entered their minds.
The problem, of course, is that in their passive, go-with-the-flow posture toward the world, they aided and abetted one of the worst examples of evil the world has ever seen.
You get the analogy. Ibram X. Kendi reminded us in How to be an Antiracist that to stand by passively in the face of evil amounts to perpetrating it. “There is no neutrality,” he wrote, “in the racism struggle.”
“We must always take sides,” wrote holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
I will not be convicted in a court of law of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter. But in the court of morality, I could be convicted on many counts of neutrality and passivity — of saying, “Don’t blame me. I was just minding my own business.”
The character in this whole Derek Chauvin/George Floyd tragedy with whom I identify the most is Darnella Frazier, the young woman who recorded the whole 9+ minutes on her phone. “It’s been nights,” she shared on the witness stand, “I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”
She did much more than the three cops who stood passively on the sidelines, but what gave her nightmares after that kairos moment — that critical moment of deciding to act or to stand by — was her conclusion that she had not done enough.
I can really relate to that profound ethical question: “How much is enough?”
Erich Fromm was a German Jew who fled from Germany to the U.S. in 1933. According to the Britannica website, his book Escape from Freedom “attempts to show modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.”
Freedom brings with it a blessing and curse. The curse is that ultimately we have to take responsibility for our own behavior — we can’t even say, “The devil made me do it.”
Attorneys at the trial spent time asking, “What was Chauvin’s training?” Ms. Frazier was, in effect, saying that in the end we can’t escape our existential freedom and ethical responsibility by hiding under the cover of training or “that’s the way I was brought up.”
Finally, the most prominent character in the drama is Derek Chauvin himself. I felt a great sense of relief when I heard that he had been convicted on all three counts, but as he put his hands behind his back, was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom, I felt sadness.
Most will say, “My God, I would never kneel on a vulnerable person’s neck like that.”
Maybe, maybe not, but as I watched the former Minneapolis police officer led off to jail to await sentencing I, as a privileged white male, saw him as a tragic character in a cautionary tale.
There but for the grace of God go I.
Tom Holmes writes a column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.