What would have happened if the murder of George Floyd had not been filmed? Nothing. Nothing would have happened.
That is the terrible suspicion of many Black Americans and other U.S. minorities. A country that did not abolish slavery when it became independent in 1776 – its original sin – has still not met its promise of equal treatment for all. The fear is that, if there’s no one recording, police can abuse you – or even kill you, like George Floyd – just because of the color of your skin.
Decades of slavery, followed by decades of discrimination, show the United States has been unable – and unwilling – to get rid of its sadly racist past. There is a long and sad list of Black Americans killed in recent confrontations with police, and we must say their names: Daunte Wright, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and George Floyd. His case is the one that concerns us today.
On May 25 of last year, Minneapolis police arrested a 46-year-old Black man after a store employee reported he had bought a pack of cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. What followed may well be one of the most-watched murders in history.
Handcuffed with his hands behind his back and face down on the street, with policeman Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, George Floyd said it more than 20 times. “I can’t breathe.” The video of his death lasts an agonizing nine minutes and 29 seconds.
The video was filmed on her cell phone by a Black 17-year-old girl named Darnella Frazier. And this is what she said when she testified in Chauvin’s trial. “It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” she said. “But it’s like, it’s not what I should have done, it’s what he (apparently Chauvin) should have done.”
The victim of murder this time was George Floyd, but it could have been any member of Darnella’s family. “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’re all Black,” Frazier said. “I look at how that could have been one of them.”
In these times of fake news on social networks, of bot and troll farms – paid by governments or organization – and hyper-reality – when faces on videos can be easily altered – we have been trained to doubt what we see. How do I know that the images I see on my cell phone of a protest, an accident or a war are truly about the country and date they claim. But in the case of George Floyd video, everything we saw was true.
“Believe your eyes,” prosecutor Steven Schleicher told the jury in the trial of the policeman who killed Floyd. “This case is exactly what you thought when you saw that video. It’s what you felt in your gut. It’s what you know in you heart.”
And what we thought was this: that policeman killed George Floyd before our very eyes. The jury agreed. Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder and will be sentenced in June.
The murder of George Floyd was so cruel and brutal that even in the middle of the pandemic it triggered massive protests in many U.S. cities. The video also forced police around the world to change the way they treat a person arrested, especially when they are being filmed.
“We have 18,000 police departments (in the U.S.) and I cannot guarantee the community that those 18,000 police departments are not going to authorize putting a knee on the neck,” Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo, who was well known in his previous job as chief of the Houston police, told me in an interview. “But I do know that the departments that are professional did not allow it before and will not allow it now.”
Something else that changes with the Floyd murder and the video of his death is the idea that we are all required to intervene in some way if we see a crime or abuse. Silence and neutrality are not options in the presence of injustice.
Cell phones, which have turned millions of citizens into reporters and first-hand witnesses, are the most powerful weapon we have against police brutality anywhere in the world. What policeman is going to dare to put a knee on the neck of a person arrested if they know they are being recorded?
And everything started with Darnella daring to point her cell phone at a policeman and pushing the record button. As she said during her testimony at the trial, she will always ask herself if she could have done more to save George Floyd’s life. But thanks to her moral and mental clarity, she is going to save many lives in the future. With the new technologies – and a courageous witness – almost no one can hide. You have to believe what you see with your own eyes.