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The Murder of George Floyd: The Longest Running Play in America

To strangle George Floyd with his hands, officer Derek Chauvin would have had to look him in the face... The knee was a brutal coward's knee.

A protester faces off with Minnesota State Police officers on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. - Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was seen in an explosive video pressing his knee to the neck of handcuffed George Floyd for at least five minutes on May 25, was arrested earlier on May 29, said John Harrington, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. (Photo: Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images)

A protester faces off with Minnesota State Police officers on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. - Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was seen in an explosive video pressing his knee to the neck of handcuffed George Floyd for at least five minutes on May 25, was arrested earlier on May 29, said John Harrington, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. (Photo: Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images)

"The great evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude, but rather the narrative of racial differences we created to legitimize slavery. Because we never dealt with that evil, I don't think slavery ended in 1865, it just evolved."  —Bryan Stevenson 

Think of Derek Chauvin’s knee. The weight of it. The sadistic centuries deep applied weight of it. It’s brutality. It’s power. It’s ball bearing like, skull like, stone like shape. How the knee’s deadly utility must have given him such pleasure. How George Floyd’s pleas for life must have sharpened that pleasure. (Why else would he have crushed George’s life so slowly?) How this knee was his personally but also the blunt instrument of history, how it did the work his meaty hands could have done strangling George Floyd. But to strangle George Floyd with his hands he would have had to look him in the face, seen his human face. The knee was a brutal coward’s knee. 

"How can we defend the rule of law when the law is a racist murderer? How can we defend democracy when democracy is a corporate plutocracy on one end and a noose on the other?"

What was Derek Chauvin thinking? Or, in what part of his brain was he thinking? What reptilian brainstem part? Was he thinking in the same part as the white sailor on a slave ship who chained Africans in the hold and refused them water as they died? Was he thinking in the same part as the slave breaker Edward Covey who savagely beat the teenage Frederick Douglass for having the effrontery to demand the dignity of manhood? The same part as the grinning white Klan members as they hauled another struggling black man into a poplar tree by his neck, then lit a fire under him? Then posed for photos. Was he thinking in the same part as the mounted police in Selma as they charged the peaceful Civil Rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge? Was he thinking in the same part as the killers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Erik Garner, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Aubrey, etc., etc., etc.? etc. 

Which is to say Derek Chauvin was not thinking at all. His knee was not thinking. Derek and his knee were playing their part in the same morality play being performed in America for 400 years. He knew his part—no new lines to memorize— in the longest running play in our history. Every other day the curtain goes up on this play as it is staged in another city or town. The line of cops waiting to audition for leading roles stretches like a blue highway around the neck of this country. But who buys the tickets? Who fills the theater? Whose will is being done in this tedious, blood-curdling, repetitious, racist drama? 

What white suprematists don’t seem to realize—all those white suprematists in our family tree from Jefferson, Madison and Washington to Donald J. Trump—is that the greatness of this country—if it has any—has been the responsibility of people of color who have demanded that America live up to its own ideals. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, John Brown (not black, but might as well have been), W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, Malcolm X, Rev. King, Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes, Charles Hamilton Houston, Rev. Wiliam Barber, Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson—to name a few. What Derek Chauvin’s knee never learned is that those people not only strove to save the humanity of people of color but the humanity white people, too. Or, is that what his knee knows and resents so profoundly? 

I, for one, am sick of this play. I want the theater shut down, bull-dozed, and buried. I’m sick of analyzing the persistence of racism in America. The simple fact of it has eaten my soul. I want every gratuitous murder of a black person answered with a life sentence for the killer. How can we defend the rule of law when the law is a racist murderer? How can we defend democracy when democracy is a corporate plutocracy on one end and a noose on the other? It’s not that I can’t breathe. It’s that I’m ashamed to breathe the racist air. 

And what was George Floyd thinking? In his fear and pain and suffocation, he may not have been able to think at all. But if he was, it may have been the clarity of one thought that had haunted him for 46 years: finally American racism, like a drone missile, had found him.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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