Sankofa Talk — The New Jim Crow Playbook, again
- Published: May 5, 2021
I am writing this just a few hours after the jury in the Derek Chauvin murder trial went into deliberations. There very well may be a verdict by the time this is published. It has been a blood-curdling experience listening to the defense attorney grasping for straws in his attempt to win the day for his client. Today I heard him cast George Floyd in the role of seemingly committing suicide while facedown and handcuffed.
While I realize it’s the defense attorney’s job to go all out on behalf of his client, listening to him was an excruciating reminder of how far off the edge of the earth people like him will go to justify a white man murdering a Black man. It is his contention that George Floyd’s death was “a natural consequence of his actions.”
He was referring to Floyd’s drug addiction, his alleged heart disease, his alleged noncompliance, alleged “excited delirium” and even the alleged presence of carbon monoxide emanating from the police vehicle that no one could confirm was running. Oh, and let’s not forget the “angry crowd,” otherwise known as a group of people passing by, who suddenly found themselves witnessing a cop choking the life out of a man on the street. We all have seen the video, all nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds of the lynching of George Floyd, who, sensing his demise beneath the knee of Derek Chauvin, called repeatedly for his dead mother, as if he knew he was about to join her. Even in his agony he referred to his uniformed killer as “Mr. Officer.” His respectful deference would neither save his life, nor keep the defense attorney from claiming he was responsible for his own death. So it was for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, John Crawford and so many others.
The defense would have us believe that Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck had nothing to do with Floyd’s death. No, don’t believe your lying eyes. It’s reminiscent of the trial of the officers who bludgeoned Rodney King. I recall watching a “use of force” specialist describe the beating while playing the video and justifying every strike of the night sticks the officers pummeled King with. He spoke with a methodical tone, like a surgeon describing a meticulous heart surgery. The officers were acquitted. All hell broke loose. People were fed up.
Out of curiosity I conducted an informal Facebook poll recently. My question was as follows:
Just curious, on a scale of 1–10, where one represents having the least confidence, and 10 represents having the most confidence, how confident are you that Derek Chauvin will be found guilty of murdering George Floyd?
The results of my semi-scientific poll are telling. Of the 60 responses I received only 12 had above average confidence (seven or above) that Chauvin will be convicted, with only four people responding with the rating of 10. Keep in mind I did not ask people to share their responses on each of the three charges available to the jury, and my sample size was small. However, knowing that the entire country is bracing for outbreaks of rioting tells me that there is not much confidence across the country that Chauvin will be convicted. According to news reports, the White House is considering mobilizing the National Guard in all 50 states. Maybe those four people who have total confidence in a guilty verdict are deluded. What is striking though, is the overwhelming feeling that even with damning video evidence, there is so little confidence that a jury will find Chauvin guilty of any of the charges against him.
After witnessing the rash of police violence against Black people, for some people there is a danger of becoming numb to it all. For others of us, it leaves us simmering. We are attuned to what I call The New Jim Crow Playbook. I’ve been watching the script play out repeatedly for too many years now. It’s systemic degradation and desecration of Black lives.
Here’s a shameless plug. The dilemma of the scripted method the criminal justice system employs to enable killer cops to go free rolled around in my head so much, I wrote a play about it. It’s called “What’s Done in the Dark,” soon to be renamed “What’s Done in the Dark: The New Jim Crow Playbook.” My friend John Fleming was gracious enough to organize and direct two performances of it just a couple weeks ago. Elias Kelley was the amazing video production manager.
There was a mystically painful element though, as we moved toward opening night. The Derek Chauvin trial began about a week before we opened. The New Jim Crow Playbook was not just a play anymore. I had a feeling it was going to be central to the trial, art imitating real life. George Floyd appeared as a character in the play, at one point, having an out-of-body experience hovering above, looking down on Chauvin bearing down on his neck after he had drawn his last breath. “For three minutes I watched myself lying there dead, but that cop just would not stop. He just couldn’t get enough of killing me.” I wonder how the jury will deal with that part of the evidence.
Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell’s final statement of his closing remarks really magnified the key element in this case, and for that fact, so many other cases where Black people have died at the hands of the police. During the trial the defense attorney had contended that George Floyd had an enlarged heart, which could have contributed to the case of his death. Blackwell turned that idea into a phrase I will never forget. “George Floyd didn’t’ die because his heart was too big. He died because Derek Chauvin’s heart was too small.
Not only does that summarize the approach to the policing of Black people, it underscores the American mindset towards Black people and paints a broad stroke across all areas of life, employment, education, law, housing, health care. The “small-heartedness” is also evident in the police killing of Daunte Wright, the 20-year-old Black man killed by police just ten miles from where Floyd was killed. The officer in that case said she thought she was reaching for her taser. She, like Chauvin was a veteran officer with many hours of training. Suppose she actually thought she was reaching for her taser, but the fact Wright was Black sent a signal to her mind that deadly force was required, causing her to pull and fire her gun instead. When you consider the frequency of the use of unnecessary deadly force against Black people, it’s not a farfetched idea.
We must continue to examine the playbook, see it for what it is, then systematically rip out the pages one by one. We can’t afford to stay in this place any longer. There are opportunities to get involved in antiracist activities all around this community. Some of us have made sure of that. Change starts with each of us. Get involved.