Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Some thoughts about the death of George Floyd

I was not going to post about this. I am a woman, I am English, and I am white; it seemed not my prerogative to address this highly charged event that has rightly triggered such an outpouring of outrage and grief.

But then yesterday on Facebook I was drawn into a conversation that changed my mind. I had not realised how much misinformation there was on this topic. Although I don't know everything and I get a lot wrong, I know a little more than the person with whom I was conversing. 

Here are some of the key issues, that emerged in the exchange, I thought it might be important to clarify. Someone made the following assertions:
  1. George Floyd was an armed robber and drugs dealer.
  2. The poor shop-keeper was being robbed.
  3. The policeman was heavy-handed but by no means was it his intention to kill this violent criminal. 
To address them in order.

Reading around about George Floyd's life, I saw that he did have a history of taking drugs (I don't know if he sold them), that he had a number of burglary convictions and one for armed robbery. 

There are several considerations here. Firstly, given the track record of American justice and policing in respect of the Black community, one should perhaps retain some caution before automatically accepting as justified any allegation or conviction of a Black man. Institutional racism is at such a level (in the UK as well as in the US, as my social media conversant's assumptions make clear) that one can no longer trust the courts or the police in these matters.

Then, even if he had a history of convictions and drug involvements, that had no direct bearing on the occasion when he was arrested.

And whatever his demeanour or his criminal history, the police still have a duty to treat every person with respect and not hurt them. To restrain a violent person is clearly necessary at times, but not in such a way as to injure them. And George Floyd was not behaving violently, not resisting arrest, and was handcuffed and prone on the ground, incapable of struggle, when Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck.

In general, many voices have been raised calling George Floyd a gentle giant, and speaking with admiration and respect of his life and conduct; I'm not overlooking that, just responding to what was said to me on social media. But it is worth noting that the person with whom I was talking — a white, middle-aged man — did overlook absolutely everything good about George Floyd, focusing only on Floyd's criminal record as well as including some fabricated elements.

Moving on, then to the second point — "the poor shopkeeper was being robbed". No, he was not. 

George Floyd paid for his purchases in the usual manner, and walked away. The (inexperienced, teenage) cashier in the store mistook the money given as a counterfeit note, and followed the recommended procedure of the store in such circumstances — calling the police. Later, both the proprietor (who had not been present) and the cashier expressed sadness and regret about the events that unfolded as a result. To be clear: whatever he had done in the past, George Floyd was not behaving aggressively or violently, was not robbing anybody, paid for his purchases with legal tender, and did not attempt to do anything dishonest or criminal. The cashier made a mistake.

The third point made by the man I encountered on social media was that "the policeman was heavy-handed, but by no means was it his intention to kill this violent criminal".

There are two things wrong with that. Firstly, to include "this violent criminal" imports crimes from Floyd's past into the present situation as if he were being violent and engaged in criminal action in this most recent encounter — which was not the case. There was no need to be heavy-handed with a person who has made some purchases at a store, paid for them with legal tender, and is now walking away; regardless of what he may have done in the past (if that was even known to the police officer).

Secondly, the assertion that Derek Chauvin did not intend to kill George Floyd is not supported by the evidence. It should not escape our attention that while the man I met on social media was anxious to import Floyd's past into his present as a condemnatory factor, he did not do the same with Derek Chauvin, who had 18 complaints against him on his police record. 

I have not watched the video of George Floyd's death, though I believe it is very important that it was made and is in the public domain. Of course it is essential viewing in establishing justice, but I have an instinct that for me — an elderly woman living in England — to watch it would be as intrusively disrespectful as it would be distressing. But I have listened carefully to those who have seen it, I have seen the main photograph taken from it, and I have read the transcript of George Floyd's words.

What George Floyd said, especially given the circumstances, would have alerted anybody to his extreme physical distress and trauma. When he went silent and limp, it was beyond doubt that what Chauvin was doing had to stop. The intention to injure him is very evident, and to continue after Floyd went silent and limp strongly suggests an intention to kill him.

But there's more than that. Someone else on social media pointed out something I would have overlooked left to myself, about the image of Chauvin and Floyd.

This second person said that the images show Chauvin's left knee on Floyd's neck and Chauvin's left foot pressing against the ground, while his right foot is looser — indicating that Chauvin is applying the pressure of all his body weight to Floyd's neck. Further, that his left hand is in his pocket to apply the pressure of that hand to his thigh, and that the veins standing out on his left arm indicate that Chauvin is applying all the combined pressure he can muster to the neck of this prone and handcuffed man.

I pointed out these things to the middle-aged white man on Facebook. One might have thought he would see the situation differently, realising that he had been misinformed. But he was not interested.

Here's what he said:

"I've stuck by everything I said from the start. You lot are the twisters."  ["You lot" being me and my daughter]

"Please get a life."

"Whoops. Hit a nerve, have I?"

"Internet bullies, please go away! I get so sick of your pointless banter and complaining."

His initial objection had been that the Black Lives Matter protests arising just at this time were inconsiderate and a public health danger because of the pandemic. At some point in the exchange, he posted a photograph of a hooded Ku Klux Klan member, saying that this would be the mask he wore if he attended one of the protests. 

"Black lives matter?" he said: "All lives matter. Demonstrations when there is a virus going round is ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as the people who go."

When my daughter objected to his posting the image on her Facebook page, he responded, "It's a joke! Christ, I don't believe you lot!"
Later, he deleted the post.

On reflection, I thought this showed with such absolute clarity how fierce and shameful and taken for granted is racism in UK society — this man on social media is just an ordinary bloke who expected to find easy acceptance of his views — and how easily misinformation and misconceptions have been passed on about the murder of George Floyd, that I would post about it here.

As for George Floyd himself — though his cruel and needless killing has been the spark that has finally set aflame the relentless persecution over centuries of black people by white people, even if social change comes about as a result (and I hope it does), still he is gone for ever. As a result of an act of violence and injustice, an absolute and disgraceful abuse of power, he will never again walk upon the earth; his life is lost. I think that is entirely heartbreaking. I am so very, very sorry.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Memory eternal. And may change come.


Bean said...

Excellent post.


greta said...

thank you for posting this, pen. we need more voices like yours, voices of wisdom and sanity. people often say things after a tragic death like this, 'he did not die in vain.' but, in this case, i believe that to be true. george floyd's tragic death has set in motion so many calls for change, so much soul searching in the white community and, most importantly, actual changes being made. my prayer and my hope is that his death will be a real turning point for our country (and quite possibly others around the world!) and that good will come out of this. may this come to pass.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thank you, Bean, thank you, Greta — so may it be.

Sandra Ann said...

Thank you for posting Pen and for challenging the comments made on the face book post xx

Pen Wilcock said...



Anonymous said...

Thanks Pen, for your generosity in sharing this. When the heart is heavy and you, like so many of us, feel so futile about it all you really would have had to draw on inner strength in Him. Mairin.

Pen Wilcock said...

As we continue to look steadily at the atrocities performed by white people upon black people, it does indeed take us down to a very deep and sulphurous place.
Yesterday, as citizens in various places topple statues that should never have been raised, I read that King Leopold of Belgium's statue had been taken down. He of the Anglo-Belgium India Rubber Company in the Congo, which exacted the most dizzyingly awful brutalities and mutilations on so many men, women and children. Sharing about it on social media sent me back to finding the photographic record of some of what they did. They are here, if you have the stomach for it, but be warned — these will burn themselves into your memory like fire and you may wish you had not seen them: https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/father-hand-belgian-congo-1904/

It is rightly said that an integral part of saying 'sorry' is making amends, making it right again, and I think that's true. The trouble is, violence and violation and trauma leave indelible marks; reparation is not realistic. And when it is racial, and extreme, and on a grand scale, it's like being given a teaspoon and set to work levelling Mount Everest. I do not know how we can ever put this right, but I am at least glad so many people want to make a start.

Gerry Snape said...

Thankyou Pen...I'm north of Ireland, white, female...but I;ve just googled the history of slavery re. my city..Belfast and wasn't surprised that some of the prominent citizens had money in the Carribean plantations...however also thankful that there were many many who stood up and said ...NO..so must we white women too..love G

Gerry Snape said...

By the way through your posts I have made at least two friends..Sandra..a few years ago in Beetham Garden Centre and today out of the blue.Janet Tanner ..who just happens to live close by...thankyou.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Gerry

Yes, every single one of us is tangled into history of slavery. To take one simple example, the only thing that made possible the production of sugar (in the form we now know it) was slavery.
I find that particularly interesting, because sugar enslaves us and kills us — from its roots grows the tree.

I'm so glad you made good friends, coming here. xx

Julie B. said...

Thank you so much for this post, dear Ember.

Pen Wilcock said...


Lovely to see you.

Megs said...

Thank you for posting this. Your thoughtful perspective is appreciated. As someone living in the States, I am heartened to see most people finally realizing what a house of cards we are built on. I am glad you tried to calmly engage the person. I’ve given up here, with the occupant of the White House feeding into his white supremacist base, I feel like we’re on an out of control train. This too shall pass, and I am so inspired by the young folks marching!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Megs. Take heart. We are indeed on the train and it is moving, but though it is out of *our* control, it is not out-of-control. Something has been set in motion that will go clear through to its rightful conclusion, and nothing can stop it now. It's begun.

It's what the prophet Habakkuk said:
"For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay."

Interestingly, the verse after it says:
"Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith."


Anonymous said...

What I have noticed about several of the recent deaths is that the men were apparently 6'4" and taller. I wonder to what extent any of these incidents are police just overreacting terribly to an individual they may find intimidating or feel to be dangerous merely on his physical size. As the wife of a man 6'5" tall (who is a blue-eyed white guy), I have experienced in several encounters with police or security the way they seem to target on him for NO reason whatsoever, becoming aggressive against him there standing still! as if he's the incredible hulk or something.
Well maybe in their training or experience they know more than I do about how the differences play out when a man that much larger than average does decide to attack. I feel so sorry for police officers forced to make split second decisions which are going to involve shooting the person, but George Floyd was not that, but was sadistic little punks getting a charge off of having a big strong man subdued on the ground under them.

Pen Wilcock said...

That's a very interesting observation about your husband. I can readily imagine what you say.

George Floyd and Derek Chauvin knew each other, of course, and had formerly been colleagues. Thinking of other recent and fairly recent deaths, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin etc, I form the impression that race is the issue. But I do see what you mean!