Two months after footage of George Floyd’s death went viral, sparking an epidemic of rioting and violence that killed dozens of people and caused untold damage to countless communities across the country, body cam footage of the incident has finally been made available. Published by the Daily Mail after being leaked to the outlet, the additional video (below) lends crucial context to the fatal encounter between Floyd and Officer Derek Chauvin, and gives insight into the states of mind of both men.
Given that this tragic episode and the reaction to it has been the most significant story in the country for two months, and one of the most significant of the past decade, you might think that the media would treat the new evidence as a rather big story. But so far the opposite has been the case. The news media, for the most part, has had a noticeably muted reaction to the footage. One might say suspiciously muted. Perhaps that’s because the story the new footage tells is, at the very least, far more complicated than the one the media and activists have been screaming into our ears since May. That story, with which we are all extremely familiar, is that George Floyd was a compliant and peaceful man who was strangled to death by a racist, anti-black, sociopathic cop. It was straightforward, we were told. Quite literally black and white. And the only opinion one can really have about it is the kind of opinion that is easily expressed on a protest sign.
Of course we’ve known from the beginning that some of this was, to put it gently, not quite accurate. However Floyd was or wasn’t acting on the day of his death, it strains credulity to use a word like “peaceful” to describe a man who once forced his way into a woman’s home and robbed her at gunpoint in front of her child. As for the racism claim, there was perhaps no evidence to disprove it, but neither was any evidence ever presented to support it. It is merely assumed that any white police officer who kills a black suspect no matter the circumstances is motivated, at some level, by racism. Some of them may be so motivated, but the burden of proof is on those who make the claim. Yet those who make the claim rarely acknowledge that there is any burden to meet, much less make any honest attempt to meet it.
Also, anyone following the story has known for sometime that, according to the medical examiner’s report, Floyd was not strangled to death and did not die from asphyxiation as the media had so confidently declared in the immediate aftermath. It was found that Floyd — who had a pre-existing heart condition and three illicit drugs in his system, including fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than morphine and known to cause respiratory distress — died of “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restrain, and neck compression.” A medical examination performed by an examiner hired by Floyd’s family contradicted those findings, claiming that Floyd did in fact die of asphyxiation.
That was the status of things prior to this week’s developments: we had a disturbing video without prior context, a bunch of assumptions, and not much more. And those assumptions were considered reason enough to burn our cities. The new footage does not necessarily clarify things — in fact, it does the opposite, adding complications and nuances to an issue that was once assumed to be utterly straightforward.
The body cameras worn by officers Alex Kueng and Thomas Lane, the first two cops on the scene, show Floyd agitated and uncooperative from the first moment that officers arrive in response to a call from a business owner who accused Floyd of trying to pass off counterfeit bills. Floyd is in his car when law enforcement first shows up. One of the officers draws his weapon because Floyd is initially hesitant to show his hands. Once Floyd places his hands on his head, the gun is holstered. After much coaxing, he is eventually removed from his car and taken over to the police cruiser.
Floyd appears to have trouble walking on his way over to the police car. He shouts “ow” and seems to be in pain even though he is only being grabbed by the arm. Once at the vehicle, he repeatedly refuses to get inside, saying that he’s “claustrophobic,” though he’d just been sitting in his own car without any apparent difficulty (on the contrary he was extremely reluctant to get out of his own vehicle). At one point, as officers try to convince him to get in the car, Floyd says he’d rather lay on the ground. He also says several times that he’s “going to die” and that he can’t breathe — all before he was on the ground. He ends up on the ground because he either falls or pushes himself out of the other side of the police cruiser as officers struggle to get him inside. From that point, the scene unfolds as we all saw on the initial video two months ago.
As previously stated, none of this conclusively exonerates the officers of any and all wrongdoing, but it does establish a few facts that might mitigate their culpability:
1. George Floyd was not fully cooperative and clearly intoxicated.
2. The officers were calm and reasonable for most of the interaction.
3. George Floyd claimed that he couldn’t breathe and was going to die well before he had a knee on his neck.
4. The officers never did or said a single thing that any reasonable person could construe as racist.
Point three in particular warrants further consideration. Floyd said he was too claustrophobic to get in the police car and that he might die and couldn’t breathe, even though he’d just been sitting in a car. He was screaming out in pain even though the officers at that point weren’t doing anything that could have caused him physical harm. We should note that he also said his mom just died even though she’d been dead for two years. The officers wouldn’t have known that latter detail, but the point is that cops hear nonsense like this from suspects all day, every day. This can create a “boy who cried wolf” situation where it’s harder to tell when a suspect is actually in distress. When Floyd was on the ground saying he was going to die, it was no different from what he was saying while he was standing, or what he was saying in the car. These facts may not be exculpatory but they certainly are relevant.
The narrative, as it was originally presented, does not take any of these details into account. It demands that we see the event as nothing more or less than a wanton act of random cruelty, with nothing precipitating it and with not even an ounce of blame or responsibility to be shared by Floyd himself. In reality, Floyd may still be the victim of some degree of negligence, but it seems that the murder charge will be difficult to prove. The truth just isn’t that simple. It rarely is. And that’s a lesson we would all do well to remember for the future.