Derek and George: What Lies Beneath
When you dig deep, you’ll find that both victim and perpetrator were fighting silent battles
When I was 22, I spent a night in jail for credit card fraud. I was a mother to six-month-old twins, unwed, and an undergrad in college. My former partner and the father of my children had not paid child support in months, and I was struggling financially. So when I was issued a credit card under his name and purchased $300 worth of diapers, clothing, and other necessities for the babies, I was doing what I thought necessary for our survival.
While the arresting officers were kind to me, I was met with swift disdain by the officers at the jail. The suggestion of my crime garnered the dismissal of my humanity. No one looked me in the eye, and I remember being left in a cell for hours after I requested a tampon because my period had started. In a moment of frustration, when I raised my voice in defense, the correctional officer retreated and drew a weapon. In this time and place, I was a shell of a woman that didn’t have a face.
Tuesday, a jury delivered a guilty verdict on all three charges against former police officer Derek Chauvin. This came after they, along with many of us, watched riveting videos and heard meticulous testimony surrounding the death of George Floyd — whose murder last May ignited police brutality protests around the world. The verdict drew a smooth exhale for many after weeks of struggling to breathe, watching a murder trial like it was a spectator sport. An iconic decision, it is an answer to the countless murders of black people at the hands of law enforcement that went unpunished. Here, Chauvin and Floyd are the archetypal villain and victim representing a pivotal moment in American history that confronts the injustice between the powerful and the powerless. Finally, this black life mattered.
In an ironic reversal of roles, I imagined Chauvin holding his breath beneath his mask as the verdict was read — himself, now the criminal, held to account for his own dismissal of the law. In contrast to the boldness and strength he exuded on that ominous day with his knee on Floyd’s neck, there in the courtroom, he looked fragile, anxious, even fearful.
I always seek to consider a whole person. After all, none of us are just a snapshot of our lives. When you dig deep, you’ll find that both victim and perpetrator were fighting silent battles, regardless of who is who. Love and pain is never a legal issue. People and events are interconnected, informing their lives, their experiences of the world, and their own moral compass.
George lived colorfully. His story could ignite a breadth of emotions if told in a two-hour feature film. He was one of four children in a single-parent household, a talented athlete, and the first in his family to attend college. It is true that life, love, or the lack thereof presented obstacles for him, and on his journey, he stumbled, shuffling back to his feet each time and making it part of the dance. Like many people journeying to and through adulthood, he spent his twenties feeling around in the dark, searching for a foothold to find out who he was. In his lowest moments, he abused prescription drugs. He made poor decisions. He went to jail. He lost his mother and folded for a time because life and death are hard. In his highest moments, he was a community organizer and a youth leader devoted to ministry. In his gentlest, he loved a woman, whose life met his during a time in her own story where love was scarce. He lived a textured life, because none of us is just one thing.
Like George, Derek was once a child raised between two homes and unmarried parents. That’s rarely an easy thing, and who we become on the other side is the result of a complicated equation. He did not finish high school but later obtained a GED. Enlisted in the Army. …Loved a woman.
His wife once said, “Under that uniform, he’s just a softie. He’s such a gentleman. He still opens the door for me, still puts my coat on for me. After my [previous] divorce, I had a list of must-haves if I were ever to be in a relationship, and he fit all of them.”
Both men’s stories collided in the Twin Cities. And because fate is such a show-off, their paths crossed in an earlier time while both worked security at the same Minneapolis nightclub.
Derek was awarded four medals for bravery and courage. He was also investigated on complaints of “overkill” and prejudice because two opposing things can be true. Two days after George died, and he was fired, his wife filed for divorce. I let that sit, being intimately familiar with feelings of abandonment while lying in a soiled bed that I made.
Are any of us completely bad or completely good? Perhaps we are all more layered than that. Everyone has a backstory. Everyone is going through their own personal journey. Everyone is doing their best at their own level of consciousness.
Life is a fierce dance where the good and the bad often wrestle with each other to see who might come out on top. I’m convinced that if you look hard enough, you can always find a reason to hate anyone. Likewise, if you look hard enough, you can always find a reason to love anyone. So the question becomes, what are you looking for?
Since my own arrest 14 years ago, I’ve repaid this debt, finished two degrees at NYU (where I am currently employed), traveled the world, wrote a book, and raised my children into adolescence as a single mother. In my darkest moments, I’ve known, deeply, need and desperation, and in my weakest moments, I have given in to violence, jealousy, and temporary pleasures to ease the pain. I have been the perpetrator, acting out of ignorance, greed, and unjustified fear. I am grateful these moments never resulted in another’s death.
I don’t know what haunts Derek Chauvin in the middle of the night. I don’t know if he feels any remorse. But still, my heart grieves for the many affected in the aftermath of this tragedy. While I find a kind of relief in the verdict, I lift my glass — not in celebration of justice that came after nearly a year of pre-trial discovery, three weeks of testimony, and 10 hours of deliberation to convict a man of a murder we all saw on tape, but rather to creating change that saves lives before they’re lost.
I pray George Floyd is resting comfortably in power. The words that replay for me over and over are him pleading moments before his death, “I’m not a bad guy.” Indeed. Just a bad ending to a very human life.