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Thursday, April 01, 2021

Opinion: Bystanders could not save Floyd’s life, but their testimony can shape his legacy

Opinion: Bystanders could not save Floyd’s life, but their testimony can shape his legacy

Mementos dedicated to George Floyd are on display at the Chicago Fine Arts Gallery near George Floyd Square.

“But Floyd might still be alive had Chauvin listened to the pleas of about a dozen bystanders who happened upon the horrific scene last Memorial Day. It has been clear from their testimony this week, and the videos they recorded on their phones last May, that these citizens were both serving justice and risking retribution when they yelled at the four officers on the scene.

Their righteous anger toward law enforcement and their refusal to stay silent must be celebrated, and emulated, as we try to learn from what happened in Minneapolis a year ago.

Off-duty firefighter Genevieve Hansen, 27, was walking home from a community garden when she saw Floyd pinned on the asphalt. She immediately identified herself as a firefighter and offered to help but was told, not kindly, to step away by one of the officers. The defense attorney tried to portray Hansen as angry and profane as she demanded to know Floyd’s pulse. “I was desperate to help,” she explained in court, grabbing a tissue to wipe back tears while wearing a crisp uniform with a gleaming badge. “I don’t know if you’ve seen anybody be killed, but it’s upsetting.”

Security guard Donald Williams II, 33, had observed the holiday in the most Minnesota way possible: Fishing with his son. They caught three bass. Williams then headed for the neighborhood market to get some air and something to drink. He never made it inside the store after seeing Floyd’s eyes bulging out. “He reminded me of my fish in the bag,” Williams said.

A former wrestler who practices martial arts in his free time, Williams warned Chauvin that he was using a “blood choke” on the handcuffed man. “It’s the only time he looked up,” Williams testified. “We looked each other dead in our eyes. When I said it, he acknowledged it.”

According to his testimony, Chauvin then “shimmied” to shove his knee harder and deeper into Floyd’s neck. Nelson, the defense attorney, pressed Williams on the string of profanities he screamed as that happened. Williams conceded that, yes, he referred to the officers as bums 13 times, but he stepped onto the sidewalk when directed by an officer.

Floyd cried out that he could not breathe. “I’m through” were among the 46-year-old’s last words.

Videos show the crowd’s screams grew louder as Floyd went silent. Darnella Frazier, who was 17 in May, told the jury that she does not normally yell, but she felt like the man she saw on the ground could just as easily have been her father, brother or cousins. “I have social anxiety so it’s really outside my comfort zone . . . but when I see what I saw, I was loud,” Frazier said. “We all knew it wasn’t right.”

Compare the reaction of these Minnesotans to what happened in Manhattan on Monday. Three bystanders inside a luxury condo building’s lobby did not make any effort to intervene as a man viciously assaulted a 65-year-old woman on the sidewalk outside as she made her way to church. As the assailant fled, one of the men — a security guard — closed the door of the building on the victim. The company that manages the condos said staffers had been suspended, and New York police made an arrest early Wednesday. The union that represents the guard says he flagged down a patrol car.

Yelling at officers carries different risks than wading into the middle of violence, but the truth is that many people look the other way when help is needed. Psychologists coined the term “the bystander effect” to describe how, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is one of them will help a person in distress.

Since the 9/11 attacks, government agencies of all kinds have urged Americans who “see something” to “say something.” That is what the Minneapolis bystanders did. Confronted with officers betraying the police department’s motto — “To protect with courage, to serve with compassion” — they spoke out. More of us need to follow their example. Silence in the face of any abuse of power, as King implied, is complicity.

Williams, the wrestler, called 911 that night to report Chauvin. “I did call the police on the police,” he testified. “I believed I witnessed a murder.” Hansen, the firefighter, also called 911 to complain that the four officers did not “do anything to save a man.”

The screams of bystanders did not save Floyd’s life, but their testimony has already indelibly shaped his legacy.

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