There’s one comment from a friend of mine (whom will remain anonymous) that I haven’t been able to get off my mind from the George Floyd saga:
Did you catch that little two-step? My dude didn’t watch the trial, yet is nevertheless confident that the accused (now convicted) Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin would be acquitted for having killed George Floyd. I’m sure you’ve seen 100 comments like this one – I know I have. How could someone think like this?
This same dude was all over Facebook last summer with comments on what kind of person George Floyd was (bad), whether anyone should have rioted in defense of him (no), and whether Officer Chauvin should be held accountable for his death (naw) based on whatever pre-trial information was floating around in the media – including that awful video.
All of which is to say, I thought my friend had enough energy invested in this one to plug into the trial…but he didn’t. Why?
Well, because it turns out he wasn’t invested in this one – not really. What he was invested in was the status quo, which happens to agree pretty nicely with the world of his own narrow self-experience. That’s his, after all, and who exactly are you to tell him his life experience is wrong?
Our (incomplete view of) reality
I grew up together with this guy, and we had quite a bit in common. We were both rural kids, white, middle class, taught to revere the police, and neither of us ever had a negative police interaction that might make us question that reverence. It was impossible for kids like us to understand why anyone would view police with suspicion.
As we grew older, like so many childhood friendships, we moved in different directions (Facebook is now our primary method of staying in touch, which is equal parts blessing and curse). As our experiences began to diverge, so did our opinions on how life works, and should work. And you know what? That’s ok! That’s normal.
There is only one reality, to be sure, but nobody can see it. Not all of it. It’s too vast; there are too many angles. To have any real knowledge of the world, sooner or later you have to look beyond your own narrow set of experiences. This isn’t controversial, right? It’s why we read books, go to school, watch the news, even talk to other people. So I continue talking to my friend, even though it drives me nuts to disagree.
“Choosing your own adventure”
Here’s the problem. We have a near-infinite media landscape waiting for our eyeballs and our clicks to help us figure the world out. How do we choose? Well, we may think we’re interested in learning about the world, but what we’re really interested in is hearing we were right all along.
Over time, that confirmation bias is the gravity that pulls us toward whatever news tells us what we think we already know. Nobody does this maliciously or even intentionally. We do it because that’s what “feels” true!
When events don’t line up with our preconceived notions, though, we’re faced with a test. Will you seek out information that could lead to adjusting your worldview? Or will you sprint to the safe confines of an outlet that either ignores the issue altogether or dresses it up in some clumsy costume that looks like what you wanted to see if you squint hard enough?
For our conservative friends, the Derek Chauvin trial was that test – or should have been, if they hadn’t skipped school. Faced with the complete set of facts, statements like “defense made enough points to be reasonable doubt of cause of death” would have vanished, revealing behind them an officer indisputably and intentionally snuffing the life out of a man whom deserved no such fate.
Others will say, “Of course there are a few bad apples. Chauvin was just a bad apple. Don’t blow this one thing out of proportion.” How I wish this were true. Even setting aside the avalanche of similar deaths of unarmed Black men that were initially swept under the rug only to be reconsidered following the release of video footage – and it is an avalanche – this case offers so much more than just Derek Chauvin.
Take the initial Minneapolis Police Dept. statement from the day of George Floyd’s death.
“Officers…noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.” Three officers not named Derek Chauvin stood by him, watched him kill this man, did not intervene, then assented to this statement.
The statement is a lie. It uses the badge as a shield to protect Chauvin and his uniformed accomplices of murder. It assumes that a Black man on drugs will be no match for the team of officers linking arms and keeping their story straight – contradictory video evidence be damned. It makes the job of every good apple so much harder.
If Chauvin was a rare bad apple, and this encounter was a rare occurrence, would all of the other officers be willing to lie for him in this way? That seems unlikely to me. As an engineer, my workplace culture of safety requires me to report any potentially unsafe condition, regardless of the fallout. That is not what I see here.
This statement is prime evidence of a broader culture problem, and has made me reluctantly rethink my previously held view that the police are here to protect and serve with honor and integrity. It shows that these specific officers would rather protect their own than serve their community. Are they alone? Or could the Black crowds my fifth grade eyes saw on TV cheering the OJ verdict have had some validity that eluded my own personal experience?
These are the questions I want my friends to wrestle with. Without their willingness to confront these tough issues, these issues will remain intractable, lacking the public support for change. Without their willingness to step out of their bubble, the cycle will continue. Will they? I doubt it – and on this one question, I would really, really, love to be wrong.