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Derek Chauvin is the murder defendant. Don’t put George Floyd on trial.

Justice is so elusive for Black Americans that dread is more common than hope with another police brutality trial.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after his arrest last May.Brommerich/Associated Press

Last Memorial Day, Derek Chauvin clamped his knee for more than nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck. Bystanders begged the Minneapolis police officer to stop as Floyd gasped, “I can’t breathe.” In his last moments, Floyd cried out for his dead mother, conjuring as he died perhaps a final comfort from the woman who gave him life.

On Monday, jury selection begins in Chauvin’s murder trial. Yet some media outlets have already dubbed it “the George Floyd trial.” For those of us with more of a sense of dread than a sense of justice in America, this is not an accident. It’s not even subtle.


“That is how the underpinning of white supremacist ideology, and its progeny racism, works in these subtle ways to subvert the narrative,” said the Rev. Emmett G. Price III, pastor of Community of Love Christian Fellowship in Boston. “By calling it ‘the George Floyd trial,’ you swap the seats in the courtroom. That’s very intentional.”

Floyd is not the defendant. That distinction belongs solely to the man accused of murdering him.

For weeks, I’ve wrestled with metastasizing unease. Yes, some of these feelings can be chalked up to the grind and disorientation of the past year. Yet I also recognize the mental toll of a recent confluence of heartbreaking commemorations. Feb. 23 marked a year since Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down while jogging and shot to death by three white men in Georgia. A few days later brought the ninth anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s killing by George Zimmerman, a self-styled vigilante, in Florida. And March 13 will be a year since Breonna Taylor was killed after Louisville police officers broke into her apartment and opened fire.

These are our stations of Black grief. Now we must endure Chauvin’s trial.


“I feel a sense of fatigue and emotional exhaustion — that’s the best way I can state it,” said Price, co-host of “All Rev’d Up,” a WGBH podcast about faith, politics, and culture. “It’s one of these situations like 9/11. You not only remember where you were when you first heard the news, but the imprint of that moment is so vivid in my mind that I can’t shake it.”

Three other former Minneapolis officers — Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Keung, and Tou Thao — also face various charges connected to Floyd’s death. They will be tried separately.

Netia McCray, executive director of Mbadika, a Boston-based STEM education nonprofit, described feeling “heaviness in the air” about Chauvin’s trial. In 2013, she was in South Africa when Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Martin. She recalled that her hosts were surprised by her muted reaction.

“I told them, ‘I expected this,’” she said. “Even though you have hope, you always have to gauge that hope up against who’s on the jury, and what evidence is presented. And George Zimmerman was never on trial.”

Not long after Martin’s death, right-wing trolls combed through his social media posts in an attempt to indict the Black teenager for his own killing. “Seeing how [Martin] was being portrayed,” McCray said, “you already knew they were setting it up for mainstream America to be comfortable with [Zimmerman] being acquitted.”


In death, Floyd has also been smeared, including by the former president of the United States. Approaching Chauvin’s trial, I can’t help but wonder how justice might again be denied.

“The judicial system leaves you no room to have faith in it,” Price said. “It’s like peeling layers and layers of onion skin. Every layer that you peel, your eyes get more teary to the point where you can’t peel anymore because your eyes are so watery. You’re literally weeping, and the Bible talks about this, until you have no more strength to weep.”

Being Black in America feels like swinging on a pendulum between strength and tears. Chauvin’s trial, and the probable distortion of Floyd’s memory, will probably exhaust both. If Chauvin is acquitted, “It will be the end of hope for me that the current system can be salvaged at all,” McCray said. “I think I have less than a five percent chance that I will not be disappointed.”

Still, she clings to that sliver. “It sounds like a murder charge and a conviction isn’t complete justice because George Floyd lost his life,” McCray said. “But in a system where we have seen no consequences, it could at least be a sprinkle of hesitancy to other officers. It’s not just about Derek. It would be about all the unknown Dereks in the system realizing there are consequences.”

At least this positive consequence has already come from Floyd’s death: The House recently passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a wide-ranging reform bill that would, among other things, ban chokeholds; prohibit racial and religious profiling; and modify qualified immunity to make it easier to sue police for misconduct. Its success in the Senate, of course, is far less certain.


We all saw the excruciating video of Floyd’s death. Yet we’ve also seen how white supremacy works in a society conditioned to perceive an officer’s badge as an immunity shield. Justice may again prove elusive, but this truth will remain self-evident — Chauvin won’t be the only defendant in that courtroom. America itself will be on trial.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.