One year ago today, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman after being arrested on suspicion of using counterfeit money in a store. His killing was captured on video by a young woman, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who recorded the scene as a police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck and choked him for more than nine minutes. The events of that day and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe have been seared into our minds and the history books for decades to come – and that’s because of the remarkable courage of many people and the conviction of one.
The courage was demonstrated by Darnella and other witnesses who stepped forward to counter the excuses of the legal defense team. In addition to Darnella, who testified in the trial of the killer, others who showed great courage were Jena Scurry, a 911 dispatcher who reported her concerns about the treatment of Floyd; Alisha Oyler, who was working nearby and took video recordings; Donald Williams II, a mixed martial arts fighter who warned the police that they were killing Floyd; Judeah Reynolds, Darnella’s 9-year-old cousin who also witnessed the murder; Alyssa Funari, another 17-year-old girl who recorded the killing; Kaylynn Gilbert, also 17, who witnessed the murder; Genevieve Hansen, a firefighter who offered to render aid to Floyd and was rebuffed by the police officers; Christopher Belfrey, who videotaped the murder; and Christopher Martin, a 19-year-old store clerk who had reported Floyd’s use of a counterfeit bill and later observed the murder.
It’s especially notable that so many of the witnesses who came forward were young people, people who had reason to fear the consequences of their bravery. Many of these young women and men were Black – and all were familiar with the frequent stories of police harassment and violence against their community. These witnesses took the stand seeking justice for Floyd, regretting their inability to stop the murder and anxiously calling for accountability. Their courage should serve as an inspiration to all of us. What if each of us were given the chance to stand up to police brutality? Would we be as brave? As Dr. Martin Luther King noted, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Our country was well-served by these brave young people who spoke out to demand justice.
As a nation, we also owe mental health support and trauma counseling to all of the brave witnesses who took the stand in the case. The toll of being a witness and having to relive that trauma multiple times through the trial is a severe one. If we want to encourage witnesses to come forward, to be willing to share their experiences, we must also be prepared to offer them the support they will need. This case should lift up the importance of protecting witnesses and ensuring that their courage is recognized and appreciated.
This story is also unusual because it resulted in a conviction. According to Mapping Police Violence, 7,666 police officers killed someone in the U.S. between 2013 and 2019. Mapping Police Violence defines a police killing as “a case where a person dies as a result of being shot, beaten, restrained, intentionally hit by a police vehicle, pepper sprayed, tasered, or otherwise harmed by police officers, whether on-duty or off-duty.” Of the 7,666 cases, only 25 officers were convicted of a crime. In another 74 cases, the officers were charged with a crime but not convicted. In 99% of the cases, officers were not charged with any crime whatsoever.
The conviction of Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder most likely occurred because the police department turned against the officer. Witnesses included his supervisor on the day of the event, the head of the homicide unit, the head of training, the police chief and others in the law enforcement profession. All of them testified that the officer should not have taken the actions that he did and that the murder violated his training and his obligations to serve the community.
It is highly unusual for law enforcement officers to testify against their own. The facts of this case were indeed very compelling. But police departments should consider why it is so unusual to have official witnesses testify against those law enforcement agents who cause harm. If they want to build trust with the communities they serve, they must be willing to call out criminal behavior within their own ranks. Hopefully this conviction will reset expectations for police departments across the U.S.
On this anniversary date, we should take a moment to reflect on where we must go from here.
The conviction is a significant relief and highlights the importance of accountability. The courage of the witnesses and those who took to the streets to protest Floyd’s murder and other police killings should become a call to action to all of us. We must be ready to stand up whenever we see injustice, to call out those responsible and to demand accountability. To the brave witnesses who stepped forward in the trial, we owe our gratitude and our commitment to follow in their footsteps. In George Floyd’s name, we must continue the fight for justice.
Image at top: A mural dedicated to George Floyd in Minneapolis also honored the lives of other Black people who have been killed by police, as protests against police brutality continued across the country on May 29, 2020. (Credit munshots/Sipa USA/Alamy)