Black Lives Do Matter
Today, I put aside my research of the life and times of Robert Jefferson to say that yesterday, April 20, 2021, was a great day for the United States of America. For the very first time, a fired police officer was held accountable for causing the death of an unarmed black man he was "restraining" in an attempt to make an arrest.
A Minneapolis jury found Derek Chauvin guilty – after only 10 hours of deliberation – on three counts: second-degree manslaughter, third-degree murder, and second-degree unintentional murder.
While I believe Derek Chauvin fully intended to take George Floyd's life in those moments, he was convicted and will serve time in prison. Hopefully a lot of time. I can live with that. But I will never forget how this man stared directly into the the lens of a camera phone held by witness Darnella Frazier as he casually pushed his knee into the neck and shoulder of George Floyd for nearly nine-and-a-half minutes; and don't forget, at least two of the other three officers also were pinning Floyd down with their weight on his back and legs.
It was a horrific video to watch back in May 2020; it proved to be a very difficult video for the jurors who had never seen it prior to the trial. But God bless that young woman for recording what she was seeing. Of course, she and the others who testified over the past few weeks told the jury they carry guilt that they didn't do more; but I see them as heros. We forget, I think, that even heros fail. Let's be honest, those cops weren't fooling around and there really was nothing any of the witnesses could have done to stop what was happening. But these people are heros because they were willing to take the stand and tell their truth, and to hold at least this man accountable for the death they witnessed with their own eyes.
The first time I saw that video, I recall seeing the soulessness of Chauvin's eyes, along with his smug expression that screamed "I have the power to take this man's life, and none of you can stop me!" That was compounded, for me, by the lack of concern of the other three officers, two of whom also used their weight to pin the 49-year-old man face-down on the pavement.
And this happened because Floyd was believed to have passed a phoney twenty-dollar bill in a nearby convenience store.
The journalist in me asks if Floyd even know the bill he had was counterfeit. We'll never know, because Floyd was never given the chance to defend himself. But does it really matter, either way? No. Because the life of any human being – even Chauvin's, though I'm not sure he is human – is worth more than the crime of passing a counterfeit bill.
I will admit: I am one of those white people who did not understand what my black brothers and sisters have to deal with living in this country that boasts about the freedom and bravery of those who founded it. I've always known the injustice, the hate, was there. It was all around me, but never in plain sight like it is right now.
As a woman in this country, and God forbid, being a woman with opinions who had the audacity to be overweight (genes can be a bitch), I told myself I knew how African Americans, Latinos, Asians and others felt when being unfairly judged. But in the past few years I have been listening and really hearing what Americans of color have been trying to make us privileged white folk understand. A few years ago, I deliberately began to expand my list of Facebook friends to include people of all colors – most of whom I had never met, but are fellow genealogists. Even though it was the right thing to do, I did worry that they would see me as being insincere. I didn't want to be seen as "collecting" them as friends just to make myself feel good.
Regardless, this has given me an oppotunity to be part of the conversation with people who live with this every minute of every day of every year of their lives. Only in college and for the few years I worked in Connecticut and Tokyo, have I ever been immersed in a multicultural setting. Trust me, it was very easy to spot me in a crowd of Japanese people. Facebook has been the best way for me to reach out to and become friends with people who don't look like me.
One of my best Facebook friends, Lisa, is African American. After spending a few years in the Peace Corps in Africa after retirement, she discovered what it's like to be looked at solely as a human being and not just as a black woman. She told me that living in Madagascar, she can go into any place of business and not be watched to make sure she wasn't going to shoplift something. She was no longer living in the cold shadow of watchful suspicion everywhere she went, because her skin color no longer made her a target.
I've experienced having sales people look down on me, but I've never been followed around a store because an associate suspected that I was going to steal something. I have been stopped by the police for traffic infractions, but only once was I treated like I might be a criminal. I was poorly treated by an angry cop who thought he was pulling over a black woman, also named Phyllis, who had a bunch of unpaid parking tickets downtown. Mistaken identity because he misread my license plate.
It was nighttime and he had told me to get out of my little red 1998 Hyundai Exel. With the lights of his cruiser flashing on us, and standing at least 20 feet away from me, he asked if my eyes were blue or green. I said blue – because, well, they ARE blue – and his comment was that they looked green to him. In my frustration, which probably set the wrong tone to my voice, I replied that this probably wasn't the best lighting for him to be able to see the color of my eyes.
He got angry and threatened to put me in the back of his car; how DARE I question his "authoritay," as Eric Cartman would say on South Park. I was afraid of being taken to the police station, only because I had no money on me and had one local to call if I needed bail; my family lived three hours away. But I never feared for my life. In retrospect, it was a ridiculous situation I had found myself in, but I can't help but wonder how differently I would have been treated if the officer had known, when he was pulling me over, that I was white.
All of this for having made an illegal left turn in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Westwood. I didn't see the "no left turn" sign until I had already made the turn, and that's why I was stopped. It is chilling to know that unarmed black men have been killed for even less.
While technology has brought with it many problems within our society, the idea that witnesses and victims of excessive use of force can record their experiences with those police who abuse their positions. On video. With sound. And thank God. I continue to dream of – and help work toward – an America that is less hateful, less judgmental and, let's face it, less trigger-happy.
Good riddance, Derek Chauvin. Here's hoping the other officers involved are held accountable, too.