Members Only | April 7, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Witnesses to Floyd’s death seem to feel more guilt than does the man charged with his murder

Ponder that for a minute, writes Issac J. Bailey.

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The image of Derek Chauvin, a cop, a supposedly good citizen with a badge and uniform supposedly charged with doing good things, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, won’t ever leave me. But it’s what went on around them for nine minutes and 29 seconds, and how that scene is being used in his defense, that disturb me more. The anger expressed by those watching Chauvin atop Floyd as life slowly left Floyd’s body must be considered a mitigating factor in the killing, Chauvin’s defense has argued.

It felt like a large crowd of people standing around yelling at Chauvin, they argued. It was scary and dangerous, seemingly ready to get out of hand any second. That likely distracted Chauvin. That’s likely why he was perched atop Floyd for so long and why he likely did not notice that Floyd was dying. Because the crowd was too big. Because the crowd was too boisterous. Because a man was yelling at Chauvin, calling him ugly names. Never mind that Chauvin’s actions animated the crowd. Never mind that even his fellow officers, including Chauvin’s own boss and trainers in the use of force, say he did not follow protocol, went beyond what officers should do in such situations.

Still, many in the crowd felt guilty. Not because they caused a scene. But because they believed they either helped cause a murder or didn’t do enough to prevent one. The young cashier at the store where Floyd showed up with an alleged fake $20 bill expressed regret, wished he had just accepted the bill and had it taken out of his own pay later instead of feeling compelled to get the police involved because of store policy.

Trying to intervene more forcefully would have turned witnesses into criminals based on our criminal “justice” system, writes Editorial Board member Issac J. Bailey.

Just ponder that for a minute longer. A low-income worker in a working-class neighborhood feels more guilt about what Chauvin did to Floyd than Chauvin seems to feel about what he did to Floyd. Others who yelled at Chauvin and his fellow officers, some of whom provided crucial video that is being used in the trial, regret not being able to save a life they knew was being snuffed out in front of their eyes. 

But it’s worse than that. Trying to intervene more forcefully would have turned them into criminals based on our criminal “justice” system. Had they tried to physically remove Chauvin’s knee from Floyd’s neck, they would have been arrested. They would have been handcuffed and locked away behind cold-hard steel. They would have been considered the true threat to law and order, and to the way things are supposed to be, the way things must be. And make no mistake, many would have taken the side of the police officers who would have detained them even though their acts would have been about saving a life. It’s the perversity of our system. We are led to believe it’s built upon due process. Floyd was provided with none, and those who saw that clearly that day, in that moment, did not have the option of acting upon that conviction.

Chauvin’s fellow officers were more concerned about providing Chauvin the unencumbered space and time to slowly knee the life out of Floyd’s body than the sanctity of Floyd’s life. Their instincts, maybe their training as well, convinced them that Chauvin was the potential victim who needed to be protected from a potentially hostile crowd. It did not occur to them—or did not matter to them—that Chauvin was the offender, that Chauvin was killing a man in broad daylight on the side of the road like a stray-rabid dog. We pay police officers and equip them and give them the power to take away the freedom of fellow citizens, or even their lives when warranted, to protect us from boogeymen. But when the boogeyman is a police officer and other officers standing around and protecting him, it’s the worst of all worlds. It’s why images of an armed-agent of the state murdering a man while other armed-agents of the state allow him to have been blasted around the world, undermining the belief in a United States of America in which such things are simply not supposed to occur.

In some quarters, we are told to ignore those facts or downplay them or forget them. We are told to focus on Floyd’s drug addiction and his past problems.1 It was just a coincidence that Floyd died while under Chauvin’s knee for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Had Chauvin never done that, Floyd would have died at that precise moment and time anyway, many in the right-wing media want us to believe. As reported by the Post’s Margaret Sullivan, even the media analyst for Fox News, Howard Kurtz, has bought into that rationale. “He was a drug addict, who initially resisted arrest,” Kurtz said. “Yet I’m not seeing too many commentators saying Derek Chauvin is getting a raw deal in being charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.”

Why, yes. Sure.

More of us should be arguing that Derek Chauvin is getting a raw deal, because he’s facing serious charges for killing a man. His fellow officers protected Chauvin on the street that day. Conservative commentators have taken up that mantle since. The rest of us shouldn’t let any of them get away with that level of insanity and cruelty.

Issac J. Bailey

Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s been published by The New York TimesWashington Post, CNN, Politico MagazineTime, among many other publications. He recently released his third bookWhy Didn’t We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.

Published in cooperation with Alternet.


See Lindsay Beyerstein’s “Chauvin’s attorney is back on his bullshit.”

Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He's been published by The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Politico Magazine, Time, among many other publications. He recently released his third book, Why Didn't We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.

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