Bless the Witnesses: The Humanity on View at the George Floyd Trial

Here’s to the witnesses. Here’s to the ordinary Americans who, happening upon a grisly scene — the life of a defenseless man, George Floyd, being slowly snuffed out by a uniformed officer of the law — reacted in ways extraordinary for our cold-hearted times: They reacted with humanity. Recognizing another human being was in mortal danger and in desperate need of help, these human beings wanted to extend that help, they wanted to intervene, they wanted to save his life.

For that human impulse alone, at a time when simple fellow-feeling in the body politic is almost nil, these witnesses deserve our gratitude. Called now to testify in court 10 months later, they recall vividly, and tearfully, their relationship — human to human — to Mr. Floyd, a man whom they had never met.

There is Charles McMillian, 61, first on the scene, in court breaking down uncontrollably when viewing video of George Floyd’s last minutes of life, necessitating a recess to the proceedings. There is the young girl, 17 at the time, Darnella Frazier, who testified that, since that awful day, there have “been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more.” Her effort to help — to document the heinousness she was witnessing — was the video that went viral around the world. There is Ms. Frazier’s 9-year-old cousin, who testified she could see Floyd was “hurting.” There was Donald Williams, 33, a former mixed martial arts instructor, trying to intercede with the officer — Derek Chauvin, now on trial for murder — warning him that his knee to Floyd’s neck was a “blood choke”; afterwards Williams (pictured above) “called the police on the police,” dialing 911. There was Genevieve Hansen, 27, an off-duty firefighter, who pleaded with Officer Chauvin to take Mr. Floyd’s pulse, start CPR: “I was desperate to help.” In a testy exchange with Chauvin’s lawyer, Ms. Hansen defended the crowd in their becoming upset: “I don’t know if you’ve seen anybody been killed, but it’s upsetting.”

Human, too, was the common feeling expressed at trial: that of helplessness in the face of overpowering force, here the force of the state. Mr. McMillian expressed it for all the witnesses when he said, between sobs, “Oh my God, I couldn’t help but feel helpless.”

Again, the humanity of the witnesses, reacting at basal level to the spectacle of another human being in extreme distress. And their helplessness.

While all the world knows that George Floyd was a Black man; and while many white Americans saw in Officer Chauvin’s nonchalance not only white supremacy at work on Black America but his expectation he’d escape criminal accountability; and while this trial is being viewed as another verdict on racial justice and accountability in America, the witnesses themselves — tellingly — did not underscore the Black aspect of this whole troubling event. Instead, as cited above, it was the human note they struck, over and over and over. (All the above-cited witnesses, except Ms. Hansen, are Black.)

Ms. Frazier, the teenaged videographer, did touch on Blackness, and the vulnerability inhering therein, when she said: “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad. I look at my brothers. I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they are all Black. I look at how that could have been one of them.”

Media coverage has stressed the emotional tenor of the trial’s first week. Commentators have reminded us that Justice focuses solely on objective (as opposed to subjective) facts; it is not obliged to factor into its balance the feelings of those touched by a crime or their ensuing trauma. Since the citizen-witnesses, we have been hearing from the institutional witnesses — members of the Minneapolis police force — who, from the Chief of Police on down, have been critical, some sharply so, of Officer Chauvin’s use of force (also here). It is good to see representatives of state power disregard the fabled “blue wall of silence” requiring absolute fealty to the badge and the institution — and show their own deeper humanity.

As for Officer Chauvin’s humanity, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni puts it aptly: “Chauvin’s inhumanity is indisputable.” Speaking of the citizen-witnesses, Bruni notes the impact of Chauvin’s inhumanity: “the depth of the mark that it left on the people who intersected with it has been heartbreaking to behold.”

However the jury’s verdict ultimately goes — and we must remind ourselves that, for Black America, too often Justice has disappointed, fallen short (also here) — let us remember the humanity on view in this trial. And how refreshing, and inspiring, it is to see it.

Because: We are still reeling from the nasty — and inhuman — tone of public discourse set by four years of the Insult-Artist-in-Chief, tweeting invective — some of it blatantly racist — from the White House. With President Joe Biden, in office three months now, we are once again getting used to a human being in charge, a deep and kind one; it is good to recall Candidate Biden, at the time of George Floyd’s death, issued a ringing statement — “We are a nation furious at injustice.” But the harsh hangover still exists — in the breath-takingly nasty and inhuman tone of the vox populi reflected on social media. In the cultural defining, for several decades now, of humanity downward, to pathology and dysfunction and just plain weirdness. In the media’s dismissal of “human interest” in favor of “hard news.” In the general doubt of altruism in humankind.

Again, here’s to the witnesses. We have heard your human response to another human being in peril, and we hear your helplessness, we hear your tears. If it helps, recall the words of English poet John Milton’s sonnet, which begins “When I consider how my light is spent” and which famously ends with: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” While you may despair that you could only stand and wait, consider how your light was spent, or more to the active point, how you spent it: You replenished the moral pilot-light we all need to repair a hurting America, to get to Justice, to get to that “more perfect Union.”

For that, dear witnesses: Thank you.

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