Drugs have long been used to justify racist police-perpetrated violence, and the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the alleged murder of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street corner last May is, thus far, no different.
In his opening statement in a Minneapolis courtroom on Monday, Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric J. Nelson spoke at length about Floyd’s health problems and drug use in a clear attempt to cast doubt on the prosecution’s central argument: Floyd was killed because Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd pleaded for mercy and gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
The prosecution saw this coming from miles away. Attempts by Chauvin’s defense to blame the victim began shortly after Floyd was handcuffed and killed in police custody — an alleged murder that was captured on video before sparking mass protests against racist police violence in Minneapolis and across the nation. As Floyd struggled for life under Chauvin’s knee, another officer reportedly turned to the crowd and said, “This is why you don’t do drugs, kids.”
“You will learn that [Floyd] did not die from a drug overdose, he did not die from an opioid overdose,” lead prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told jurors in his opening statement.
Indeed, multiple medical experts have dismissed the idea that Floyd died from an overdose. Floyd lived with opioid addiction and had the opioid fentanyl in his system — a fact Chauvin’s defense immediately seized on — but Floyd’s death in no way resembled an opioid overdose, which renders a victim unconscious. Floyd struggled and pleaded for his life. Two separate autopsies found that Floyd died by homicide because his heart stopped as officers compressed his neck and chest.
According to the prosecution, Floyd no longer appeared to be breathing during the final three minutes that Chauvin knelt on his neck. Both the police and the paramedics who later arrived were equipped with naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, but there is no evidence that naloxone was administered to Floyd, according to The Washington Post.
Darnella Frazier, an eyewitness who took the famous video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd, told the court on Tuesday that she saw “a man terrified, scared, begging for his life.” In her testimony, Frazier said bystanders urged Chauvin to check Floyd’s pulse, but the former officer continued kneeling on his neck until paramedics arrived.
“If anything, he actually was kneeling harder,” Frazier said.
It may take weeks for the court to sift through all the evidence in a case that is widely seen as a litmus test for the criminal legal system’s ability — or inability — to hold cops accountable, but judging by Monday’s opening statements, it’s not just former officer Chauvin who is on trial. The jury is examining another casualty of the war on drugs and the racist police violence it foments.
Nelson’s strategy is to undercut the facts of the case and convince at least one juror that murder and manslaughter charges cannot be proven beyond a “reasonable doubt,” the legal standard of proof in criminal cases that Nelson repeatedly mentioned in his opening statement. To do so, Nelson is attempting to use to Chauvin’s advantage all of the social stigma that stems from drug criminalization, especially when the drug user is a poor Black man.
Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group opposed to the drug war, said suspected involvement with drugs — whether real or perceived — has long been used as a “cover for law enforcement to harass, inflict violence upon and even kill Black, Latinx and Indigenous people.”
“We know exactly what killed George Floyd. It’s the systems that have been created through the parasitic relationship between policing, the drug war and racism,” Frederique said in a statement. “These systems empower officers like Derek Chauvin to operate with impunity, snuff out Black life and attempt to avoid any and all accountability.”
People of color and Black men especially are targeted by police for drug searches and arrests: Black people were arrested for drugs at a rate more than two times that of white people in 2016, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. When to comes to arrests for suspicion of a crime — when a person is arrested for no specific offense and released without formal charges — Black people are arrested at a rate more than five times that of whites. Police often use suspicions about drugs to stop, harass and arrest people of color, and Black men in particular.
Every police interaction or arrest — even over the most trivial matters — comes with the threat of escalation, injury and death, and we’ve seen this over and over in deadly cases of police violence. The police-perpetrated killings of both Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two Black men, began with an initial interaction that escalated from a call about tobacco products. A store clerk called the police on Floyd because he bought a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit bill. Breonna Taylor was gunned down by police in Louisville during a botched drug raid on a house where no drugs were found.
The movement to defund the police and defend Black lives that filled the streets last summer seeks to decriminalize drugs and reduce or eliminate police interactions with the public. Activists see a direct link between the war on drugs, the violent policing of Black and Brown communities, and the brutal killings of Floyd, Taylor and many others.
In the trial of Chauvin, the defense will attempt to use Floyd’s drug use to justify the violence that led to Floyd’s death and cast doubt on whether Chauvin killed Floyd, even though it was Chauvin who knelt on Floyd’s neck for those infamous nine minutes and 29 seconds. If jurors reject Chauvin’s lawyers’ argument, they will also be rejecting the oppressive logic of the drug war, which continues to give police the power to dehumanize and abuse the most vulnerable among us.
“Until we dispense with the notion that people involved with drugs — or even thought to be involved with drugs — are not guaranteed the same right to dignity and life, we will continue to fight,” Frederique said.