The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 set off a nationwide surge of protests over police brutality against African-Americans.  Derek Chauvin, the police officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, has been charged with murder in the second degree.  Worldwide attention to Floyd’s death has focused on racial disparities in the United States as well as on the specific issue of racist police brutality.

But we must consider a different possible motive for the killing. Chauvin and Floyd had worked as contract security guards at a Latino club.  A co-worker told CBS News that they had “bumped heads.”  They quarreled.  There might have been insults, threats, or shoving.  Chauvin might have somehow been humiliated.  The two might have become sworn enemies.

Then suddenly an opportunity arose for Chauvin to get revenge, under the guise of law enforcement.  This would explain Chauvin’s egregious conduct, including pulling Floyd out of the squad car onto the sidewalk, positioning himself with his knee on Floyd’s neck, rejecting two suggestions by Officer Thomas Lane that they turn Floyd onto his side, and persisting even after Floyd had ceased to move and had in fact died.  One does not treat a former colleague in this way, unless one is consumed by hatred for him.

This conjecture seems to fit the evidence.  At a minimum, it should give us pause about judging whether the death of Floyd should be characterized as racist police brutality against any African-American male or as a personal revenge killing.

Why is it important to get this diagnosis right?

  1.  It could help ensure that the trials of the four former police officers are as just as possible.
  2. An incorrect diagnosis of the killing could lead to legislative mistakes.
  3. The gruesome image of a white man’s knee on a black man’s neck can fuel racial hatred, and that in turn can harm the innocent.  Plenty of other cases of racist police brutality show why every decent person should abhor it.
  4. The exceptionally graphic specter of racist police brutality arising from the killing has exacerbated depression and anxiety among African-Americans.
  5. If we have to change our interpretation, we might become less likely in the future to move too quickly to judge.
  6. A nation with a correct shared view of its history is better able to face its future.

*****

Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian who writes on science, medicine, and history.  See the biosketch at About Us and his The Knowable Past (2nd edition, Washington, D.C.:  Scientia Press, 2019).  See also Reparations That Bring Us Together:  A Plan.

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