I hesitated publishing this because 10 days after the fact, some will consider it “old news.” The article started out as a summary of my second experience in court during the Derek Chauvin trial. Yet the outcome was a profound awareness of the real heroes in this story. That’s the part I hope you will most appreciate.
As a photojournalist I usually let pictures and videos speak for themselves, without voicing too many of my own opinions or observations. That’s because the understanding, passion and eloquence of those on the frontlines of the Social Justice Movement speak volumes already. However, my reporting had to change as part of the reporter pool. Other than Court TV, only one person from the media is allowed in the courtroom and is responsible to describe what is going on to other reporters who are in a media center. My responsibility was to capture what the cameras can’t, such as the facial expressions of jurors upon hearing witness statements.
I was the designated media representative once during jury selection and then again on Tuesday, March 30. That particular day several of the youngest witnesses took the stand. This journalistic experience was totally different than the first. I’ve been reflecting for more than a week, and the enormity of it is still sinking in. I went there to do my job… to share information. But when I looked straight into the eyes of witnesses, hearing their painful testimony, watching the intensity of the jurors, and grasping how much the murder of George Floyd involved systemic racism, I could not even imagine how painstakingly torturous the experiences were for our ancestors. I conjured up images of the 60s Civil Rights Era, including vivid photos captured by Gordon Parks, which only reminded me that nothing much has changed. The constant battles that people of color have endured continue on a day-to-day basis. Being in that courtroom a second time, I related to everything that was happening as a Black man, as a compassionate and dedicated father, and as a person compelled to civic duty.
The first thing I noticed when arriving to the courtroom that day was Derek Chauvin in casual conversation with the court reporter. Something about that seemed odd. Do you think a Black officer like Mohamed Noor would have gotten the same privilege to approach a stenographer while on trial for murder?
The proceedings began around 8:45. Judge Cahill noted that the feed to George Floyd’s family had technical issues, but it had been resolved. The State then filed a motion asking that no witnesses under 18 be seen on TV and that to protect their identities, they only be referred to by their first names.
The first witness was Donald Williams, who returned for cross examination from the previous day, being questioned by defense attorney, Eric Nelson. Donald was using his voice as his only weapon to get the attention of all the police officers, especially Derek Chauvin, as he was kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. Chauvin was cocky and confident, adjusting his position on George’s neck, using his foot to guide his body into a comfortable pose. Mr. Williams was so frustrated for being ignored, he called the officers some unpleasant names and stated that he wanted to beat them up for their inhumane treatment of an unarmed man. However, he knew that wasn’t a viable solution, so he called 911 to report Chauvin’s behavior, referring to him as Officer 987, the number on his badge. Williams described to the 911 operator that he had just witnessed the murder of a Black man by police officers.
As Eric Nelson questioned Mr. Williams, his hands moved with expression. I could see initials monogrammed on his shirt sleeve. He tried to discredit Mr. Williams’ knowledge and experience in martial arts while inquiring about choke holds. He also tried to belittle his boxing career, taunting him that the number of bouts he won or lost could be looked up on the internet. Attorney Nelson wasn’t able to take Donald Williams off his game, for even when the level of his voice raised a bit, Williams remained focused and clear. He refused to be badgered and stated that he could not be made out to look like an angry Black man. His poise and dignity was like that of magnificent leaders of the past like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Although jurors are instructed not to show emotion, the power of Mr. Williams’ statements could not be denied. Juror #1 looked shocked as he spoke power to truth. Juror #2 was keenly attentive, shaking her head as if she was feeling the pain. One must ask how anyone can follow this trial and not be impacted!
The second witness, Darnella, was a high school student at the time and arrived at Cup Foods with her cousin around 7 pm on May 25, 2020 to purchase snacks. They stumbled upon George Floyd being detained. Darnella made sure she got her cousin in the store because she didn’t want a young girl to witness what was happening. But something didn’t seem right to Darnella, so she turned around and started recording. Her video went viral after his death, but now she was being questioned by Attorney Blackwell about what she had observed. Darnella said George Floyd was crying out for his mama, saying that he was in pain and reiterating that everything hurt, and that he repeatedly expressed not being able to breathe. He also said he was sorry.
Darnella was asked if she saw the man in the courtroom who had been kneeling on George Floyd. She hesitated for a moment, needing to gain her composure as tears of trauma were running down her face. As she wiped them away, she identified Derek Chauvin.
Darnella was asked if anybody became violent towards the police or seemed like they were going to cause them harm. She replied no. But as Darnella was filming and got somewhat near Derek Chauvin, he put his hand on his mace and began shaking it, making her fearful that he was going to spray her. Darnella also testified that when the paramedics came to check on George Floyd, Derek Chauvin “does not let up and does not get up.” When asked if she knew anyone else at Cup Foods that night, Darnella confirmed there was a girl she went to school with, but they hadn’t seen each other for quite some time and it was a fluke they had bumped into one another.
Attorney Blackwell asked if videotaping the killing of George Floyd changed her life. Darnella replied yes. When Eric Nelson cross examined, she was forced to relive it. It was painful, and at times she took deep breathes, as if she was having an anxiety attack. Darnella informed the world that she cries about George Floyd every night, wishing she could have done more; wishing she could have saved him and praying he can forgive her. Darnella is so traumatized, she suffers from nightmares. The experience changed her life for the bad. When she thinks about what she saw with George Floyd, she knows it could have been her father, grandfather, brother, cousin, good friend… Eric Nelson did not want the jury to be softened by her emotional sobbing, so he expeditiously stated he had no further questions.
Darnella’s deep breathes reminded me of the pauses Nina Simone so emphatically makes while singing Strange Fruits. Hear it in your head and feel it in your heart: “Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck; for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.” The agony of past lynchings being alluded to in the song is as cruel as the one faced by George Floyd. I can’t help but notice his brother’s head nodding up and down in the back of the courtroom as Darnella revisited her experience and spoke her truth. She blessed the courtroom with her grace even though she struggled having to regurgitate it. Just as Nina’s passionate signing graces our ears with the stench of spilled blood.
The next witness was Darnella’s nine-year old cousin, Judeah, a pretty girl in braids, a pink and white top, black pants, and blue jean jacket. The defense exhibit showed the two girls holding hands on May 25 outside of Cup Foods, the word “love” spelled across the front of Judeah’s t-shirt. At some point she came back outside and thus was also a witness. She responded to questions by Attorney Blackwell similar to Darnella’s testimony, adding that she was both sad and mad because George was being hurt for no apparent reason. She wanted to know why the police were harming him and why they would not get off his neck. She said the police were supposed to help people, not hurt people.
It was compelling to hear such powerful words from the innocent mouth of a nine-year old child. The jurors were fixated on her testimony and the trauma she suffered. I sensed one of the jurors ached with sorrow as she bobbed her head up and down, feeling sorry this baby girl had to witness all that. Her life changed in the twinkle of an eye.
Court went to recess. During the lunch break, I realized I couldn’t report the facts without feeling personal attachment. I thought about my own kids, especially my nine-year old daughter, nieces and nephews, kids in the neighborhood, etc. What can I say to them about unnecessary police killings? How can I help them process the African-American reality without more traumatization? How can I explain knowing this continues to happen on a day-to-day basis without any accountability?
The court was back in session at 1:25. The Floyd family chair was now occupied by his nephew, Brandon Williams. Eighteen-year old Alyssa is the next witness on the stand. As she approached Cup Foods, she saw George Floyd handcuffed, already on the ground, and four police officers. Brandon Williams cannot bring himself to look at the footage of his uncle being pinned on the ground. Alyssa’s testimony matched that of the others, stating that George was fighting to breathe, his words became less and less, and his eyes were rolling to the back of his head. She felt powerless because she could not do anything to help him. Alyssa cried, and it was clear one of the jurors was tearing up. It hit home for me too. I held back tears because Alyssa reminds me of my daughters. What if one of my children was put in this position? Witnessing the abysmal conduct of the police officers, no child’s life could ever be the same. My thoughts went to how the system chews you up, then spits you out. Thus, my commitment to the Movement intensifies. If we don’t stand for change, then history will continue to repeat itself.
Social justice gains that were made since the 60s are now slipping backwards. I cannot sit aimlessly and leave my children to that kind of world, especially when I hear Alyssa describe how Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George’s neck the entire time, putting more pressure as he put his hands in his pocket, seemingly at ease and even with a smile at times. The attorney asked her if Derek Chauvin administered CPR or helped Mr. Floyd in any way, and she indicated no. She also heard George asking for his mama, saying he couldn’t breathe, that his body hurt and that he feared for his life. He also asked if could have some water. Alyssa blurted out to the officers, sarcastically asking if they were having fun. She pleaded for them to get off of George. She could see he was about to “knock out,” meaning pass out.
Alyssa pointed out that police officers should be able to multi-task. She wondered why they couldn’t check his pulse, for he was already restrained. She couldn’t understand why they weren’t trying to save his life. All the other things they were doing seemed so Tomfoolery, for George was not moving. He did not even look alive. When the paramedics picked him up, Alyssa was sure from the purple look of his face and the blood emitting from his mouth and nose that he had passed. She yelled out to officers, trying to get their badge numbers, but none would respond. Alyssa indicated that she couldn’t just walk away. She was numb in the moment, but when that wore off, she realized the enormity of the fact that she just witnessed a Black man die. This moment changed her whole life. The bad dreams. The trauma. She’s never returned to Cup Foods.
The day has been filled with so much emotion already, but I will not allow myself to go numb. Next is Kaylynn, a seventeen-year old friend of Alyssa. Her answers matched those of the previous witnesses as well. Additionally, she was asked if she recorded the incident. Kaylynn said no because Alyssa had her phone and was doing the recording. She described the position of Derek Chauvin on Mr. Floyd and had asked the officer why he was on top of him like that. Kaylynn added that the police were hostile, citing Derek Chauvin having reached for his mace and Officer Thao having pushed someone towards the sidewalk. Kaylynn confirmed that no one was trying to harm the police. The crowd was only using their voices, pleading for his life and hoping they’d help Mr. Floyd.
The last person to testify that day was Genevieve Hansen, a firefighter and emergency medical technician. She was in full uniform at the trial. Genevieve explained that when approaching Officer Thao stating her intent to check George Floyd’s pulse, he told her to get back on the sidewalk. He said, “If you were a real firefighter, you’d know not to get involved.” She persisted but was never given the chance to provide medical assistance. She was outraged and for the record, she called the police on the police, stating she was a firefighter. I share her outrage. My mind keeps questioning that silent code among officers that harbors injustice. I am scarred by the deep wounds of police brutality and the immoral conduct fueled by white supremacy. That could be felt in Ms. Hansen’s testimony as well.
What stood out in her statements was when Eric Nelson asked if people would approach her when she was trying to do her job. She said it happens all the time. He asked if they ever called her names, and Hansen answered in the affirmative. Eric Nelson questioned how well she could perform her job if 13-15 people were behind her, distracting her. Ms. Hansen replied that she would not worry about the 13 behind her but rather would be worried about the 8 people in the building that she’d be trying to save.
Overall, these witnesses remind me of the powerful lessons obtained from great Black activists and trailblazers. Imagine the risks Harriet Tubman actually took. Ponder the strength and determination inside of Rosa Parks. Can we even conjure up the intense fear faced by demonstrators in the deep-South marches who were rounded up with clubs and snarling dogs? The bystanders of the George Floyd killing were fearful of the police, yet they took the time to pay attention and document what turned out to be a modern-day lynching. They passionately fought with their cameras and voices on behalf of an unarmed Black man they never even met. None of them were violent. The knee on the neck was violence.
The witnesses have stood tall and strong. They are all heroes in my book. They may not realize it, but they are inspiring a new rise in the Civil Rights Movement. I pray their sacrifices will be a stepping stone in passing legislation, raising awareness and impacting true equality. May their names be spread globally in recognition of justice for George Floyd and all stolen lives. As the chant goes, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Therefore, we must recognize and support these heroes by any means necessary. “Right don’t wrong nobody.” Can you feel our pain, God damn Minnesota? Or will we have to keep on begging for change?