“When honor and the Law no longer stand on the same side of the line, how do we choose?” –Anne Bishop, Heir To The Shadows
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” –Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
I just finished watching the video of George Floyd’s murder again. Now that a couple of weeks have passed and the edge has come off of my initial burst of rage and sorrow, I wanted to see if the footage would somehow make any bit of sense to me this time, that maybe I would uncover some clue that would make it seem less like pure Evil and Corruption. It didn’t.
That is the number that has haunted me from the beginning of this nightmare. Eight minutes, 46 seconds: the length of time Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of a handcuffed and subdued George Floyd. How can that be explained???
Last weekend, I went with my wife and kids to a local, student-led protest of racial injustice and police brutality. It was peaceful in nature, with the many young speakers sharing authentic words of pain, anger, advice, and inspiration. It reminded me of the Good in the world and of the immense value of every human being, but especially of those whose lives and freedoms are in danger each day they attempt to simply live.
We had had the discussion in our home in the preceding days about the importance of protest and of using your voice to bring positive change to the world, so my children were eager to experience the event. The night before, I cut up some cardboard boxes and got out markers, crayons, and construction paper so we could all make our own signs. My 9-year-old son wrote “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on his. My 11-year-old daughter made a creative version of “kNOw JUSTICE, kNOw PEACE.” My wife wrote “JUSTICE FOR GEORGE.” As for me, after much deliberation, I finally wrote exactly what had been hanging like a dark cloud over me for days: “8:46.”
A little over halfway through the two-hour rally, one of the leaders asked that we all stand, raise our signs or a fist, and take a moment of silence in honor of George Floyd. But not just a typical 30ish-seconds “moment” of silence. The moment she called for was to be exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds long.
I had been at work and missed Mr. Floyd’s funeral service on TV earlier in the week, but my wife had told me that Reverend Al Sharpton had led a similar moment during his eulogy and that she had been deeply moved. I believed her, but her story didn’t prepare me for what I was about to experience. Along with the couple hundred other people spaced widely in the crowd, I raised my arms and my “8:46” sign and fell silent. And I thought.
I thought SO MANY THINGS.
First, I thought about all the Black people I have had in my life, the ones I have loved or that have been special to my family. As I considered each one, I sent them the best energy I could muster, wishing them strength to live in a world that has never been as kind to them as it has to me. I started with my wife and kids, of course. Then I thought of my mother-in-law and (deceased) father-in-law, who grew up in the Deep South in times worse than these. I thought of my sister-in-law and two brothers-in-law, who all grew up Black in a town almost completely White. Next I thought of my nieces and nephew, our family’s future. I thought of all of my wife’s cousins and aunts and uncles around the country. I thought of the two young women, Nicole from Ghana and Peré from Kenya, whom we have hosted during their years at a nearby college. I thought of colleagues from the past. I thought of Joi, who presided over my wedding, and all the other dear friends my wife has brought into our home and family over the years, including Myra, Ramon, Maddie, Sedric, Demetrius, Suzanne, Harry, and Joan, to name a few. I thought of her sorority sisters. I thought of all the young people and families in the children’s group my kids belong to that is centered around their Blackness. I thought of my kids’ Black teammates and school friends and their families. I thought of all the Black kids I interact with in the school where I work and the light that they bring to my life.
I thought of all of those people. It was quite a process to conjure those faces and really feel their energy and give them mine. And at the end of that long exercise, I was painfully aware that I still had a ton of time left on that 8:46.
I thought about George Floyd and the countless other unarmed Black people who have been killed by White police officers, lynch mobs, slave patrols, and other vigilantes throughout America’s sordid history. And I thought about their families. I still had time.
I thought about how tired my arms were getting holding up that sign–that little, flimsy piece of cardboard–and peeked around to see other people clearly struggling to keep a fist or a sign raised. Then I thought of how minuscule our pain and struggle were compared to what George Floyd felt with those three officers pinning him to the dirty pavement and a knee driving hard into his neck. I did some crying.
Next, I thought about the world I want my kids to grow up in and the improvements I hoped we could make (no small list).
A few different times I also caught my mind drifting, and in my moment of reminding myself to stay present and focused on the topic at hand, I also thought, “Dang, this is a LONG TIME!” And it was. But I still had more time.
And as I was thinking of those hopes for a more just and equitable future, the speaker called an end to the time. The first thing I thought was, “Wow, my mind covered A LOT of territory in 8 minutes and 46 seconds! Emotions were fully felt and processed, tears were shed, and I got to think hard and clearly on some important topics.”
That’s when I began to think about Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao, the four police officers who took part in George Floyd’s murder. Long after he was in their custody, when he was already handcuffed and lying facedown in the street, with no other dangers and the situation totally under their control, the clock began to tick on their 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
They had all that time to think.
They had the opportunity to consider the worth of George Floyd’s existence and, even if they considered it and deemed it of no value, the opportunity to decide whether or not they could get away with killing him in broad daylight, with cameras on and other humans begging them to stop the killing. Because when you sit with the scene in your mind for a full 526 seconds, you realize that this was no heat-of-the-moment, knee-jerk reaction–no “He surprised me and before I knew it I had pulled the trigger” or “I feared for my life” situation–in which they had no time to consider their actions and what it all meant. They had 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
It is so much time! Time for clarity, time for certainty, time to ensure an absence of remorse or regret.
What was happening in that time, you ask, that might have stirred the conscience of these four men, three of whom were kneeling on him (one on his neck), the other standing idly by? Well, in one five-minute stretch of the 8:46, an agonizing George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe sixteen times. Sixteen. He called out for his dead mother: “MAMA!!!” Bystanders pleaded with the officers: “Get off of his neck!” “The man ain’t moved yet, bro.” “Check his pulse!” “Get off of him!” “What is wrong with y’all?” “Do you think that is okay?” Even after the officers had called in for medical assistance because George Floyd’s mouth was bleeding, they kept him pinned down for seven more minutes, some of those minutes after he was completely unresponsive. Even after the EMTs arrived and checked George’s pulse, Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George’s neck for another minute until the EMTs asked him to remove it.
The fact that they took the full 526 seconds so casually, so nonchalantly–Chauvin sliding a hand into his pocket like he was just hanging out on a holiday–and landed on the conclusions that 1) George Floyd’s life was expendable, and 2) we can get away with this, is just bone-chilling.
On the personal, psychological level, the conclusion that someone else’s life–someone you don’t know and whose alleged crime is passing a phony $20 bill–has no value, and that you are worthy of making that determination and also of ending the worthless life, is revealing of some seriously dark stuff inside. (Never mind that four out of the four officers working that stop came to the same conclusion seemingly without a word of debate passing between them. Is that not frightening?)
On the sociological and systemic level, the belief–again, apparently by 100% of the officers on the scene–that you can easily get by without consequences for killing an unarmed, subdued Black man on the street in front of witnesses and cameras in broad daylight is evidence of severe dysfunction in our police and “justice” system, as well as in society as a whole (because our history proves that they were justified in believing this).
But those were plainly the conclusions drawn by Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao in the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that they kneeled quietly on George Floyd and listened to him beg for his life as it left his limp body.
Dear God, that makes me sick.
How about you? What are your main takeaways from the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath? Open up your journal and your heart and explore the elements that have stayed with you in recent weeks. For me, it was obviously this issue of Time and the inexplicability of doing something so awful given all of the other options at their disposal and the extended opportunity the officers had to make a better choice. What is it for you? Have you been more hung up on the protests and violence? The other examples of police violence (e.g. tear-gassing and shooting rubber bullets at random and innocent bystanders, slashing tires, etc.)? The unprecedented momentum in the desire to make changes in society to diminish systemic racism and improve policing? The President’s combativeness throughout and his absence of any meaningful mention of race and racism in America or words of comfort to a demoralized country? What issue(s) do you keep coming back to in your mind? Why do you think that sticks with you? Do you need to dig a little deeper? Or is it just more personal to you? I invite you now to a moment of silence and reflection in honor of George Floyd. Choose your own way to do it: kneel or stand with a raised fist or sit or do something uncomfortable, but do it for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. You can choose to think about George Floyd, or you can just sit mindfully and watch all of the different thoughts your mind tumbles through and all that it has the chance to consider in that duration. Set your timer and begin…….. What did you think about? How much did you think about? A lot, right? Given your experience with it, how does it change your reflections about the thoughts those four officers might have been thinking and the conclusions they reached as they ended George Floyd’s life? Can you imagine it? How disturbing is it to even try? How easily could even one of them have changed that entire situation for the better? Isn’t that all the more heartbreaking? Do the moments that George Floyd will never have make yours all the more important and impactful? Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you choose to make of your moments of opportunity?
P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Consciousness-raising is a group activity!
P.P.S. If this type of self-reflection appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.