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Derek Chauvin’s Defense Puts Black Lives Matter on Trial

If George Floyd was somehow culpable in his own death, the defense seemed to argue, then so were the bystanders.

Mario Tama/Getty Image

Not long into the official opening of State v. Derek Chauvin on Monday, the voices of community members who protested police violence in Minneapolis were invoked, starting with those at the scene of what prosecutors call the murder of George Floyd. Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell showed the jury a video still image of those witnesses: the teenagers who recorded Chauvin’s knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for eight or nine minutes as Floyd cried out for help, along with the others who were recorded trying to offer Floyd aid, and who chastised the officers for using their bodies to restrain a motionless man.

Chauvin’s defense, meanwhile, doesn’t have to provide an alternative theory as to what caused George Floyd’s death. Yet in his opening statement Monday, Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson claimed that what killed George Floyd, in part, was an “ingestion” of drugs—allegedly to conceal them from police—and that the people gathered, who watched Chauvin and the other officers move Floyd’s inert body onto a stretcher—didn’t know the full story. In fact, Nelson told the jury, the “angry” crowd appeared to officers to be a “threat.” They called officers names, he continued, causing officers to “divert” their attention from the man they had restrained beneath them.

Nelson’s characterization of the crowd was a revealing moment for the defense, one meant perhaps to appeal to some of the jurors who, when asked their views on Black Lives Matter, had responded, “All lives matter.” The same officers who perceived Floyd’s already prone body as an ongoing threat had also perceived the witnesses recording them as a threat. To follow the defense’s logic, if Floyd was somehow culpable in his own death, so were the bystanders. To the extent that Black Lives Matter is on trial in this case, it will concern the conduct of the people who stood witness to Floyd’s death.

What the witnesses had in common, said Blackwell, the prosecutor, is that when they came across something in the course of their day that disturbed them, they tried to intervene. They represented many walks of life, he stated: different genders, different races, including a trained security professional and a first responder, along with younger people with their phones up. When they objected to what they saw, they tried “to get into what we call ‘good trouble’ with their voices,” and “they took out their cameras,” so that it would not be misrepresented or forgotten.

As the trial opened today, it was as if the witnesses were merging with the uprisings. From the defense’s perspective, this was a way to associate the people who captured Floyd’s death for the world to see with people jurors may see as dangerous. (The defense didn’t even need to say that directly; the former president had, over months of blaming protesters for violence.) The witnesses, the state told the jury, were people getting into “good trouble”—like the protesters, they, too, had helped put pressure on the state to prosecute Chauvin in the first place.

Such prosecutions are still so rare, and when they come, it may seem to some in law enforcement like a betrayal. But they can’t generally say that, and so what we hear is that if police can be held accountable for deadly force, it will by definition stand in the way of police doing their job “to keep us safe.” It’s a scrambled safety, one in which a first responder who tried to approach officers and ask about Floyd’s pulse was met by Chauvin’s extended arm holding a can of mace. Chauvin, far from being distracted by the witnesses, then returned his attention to the body underneath him, his knee on Floyd’s neck, his hand back in his pocket. Jurors were shown this moment, the nine minutes and 29 seconds that define the trial, as Blackwell put it. The utter casualness of death-dealing could be its own proof.