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The police officer who was seen kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, the black man who died in custody on May 25 following the exchange with police, was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter on May 29. Derek Chauvin was fired following the incident, along with three other officers. A bystander video captured Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, despite his pleas that he could not breathe.
The account from Darnella Frazier, who filmed the now-viral video showing part of the police encounter and said she watched Floyd being suffocated, differs from that of the police, who said Floyd was stopped because he matched the description of a suspect in a forgery case, resisted arrest and then suffered “medical distress.”
The incident has prompted investigations from state and federal authorities, an apology from the city’s mayor and comparisons to other uses of deadly force against black Americans, particularly the death of Eric Garner. It has also sparked thousands to pour out into the streets of Minneapolis and across the U.S. to protest. The gatherings have been a rare sight amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has kept most people in some form of isolation for weeks.
Here’s what we know so far.
In a video she posted on Facebook, Frazier said that she was on her way to see friends on May 25 when she saw Floyd outside of a grocery store on the south side of Minneapolis. Police had him pinned to the ground by his neck, she said. In her telling, Floyd’s face was being pressed so hard against the ground by the officer that his nose was bleeding.
She said she began recording the encounter, and that Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck until he stopped moving and then later carried his motionless body away on a stretcher. She later posted the 10-minute video on Facebook.
The video begins with Floyd lying on the ground with Chauvin’s knee pressed onto his neck. A voice, seemingly from a bystander, says “You’re going to just sit there with your knee on his neck?”
Floyd can be seen and heard voicing distress and saying repeatedly, “Please. Please. I can’t breathe. Please. I can’t move.” A bystander’s voice can be heard telling police, “You got him down. Let him breathe.”
Minutes later, Floyd appears motionless on the ground. A bystander again addresses police saying, “Bro, he’s not even f—— moving!” Another voice is heard saying, “Get off of his neck!” One person asks, “Did you kill him?”
Floyd’s eyes appear closed and his head lies on the ground. An ambulance arrives and Floyd is loaded onto a stretcher and into the ambulance.
“The police killed him, bro, right in front of everybody,” Frazier said on video posted on Facebook. “He was crying, telling them like, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and everything. They killed this man.”
According to a Minneapolis Police Department statement released on May 26, two officers responded to a report of a forgery in progress in a South Minneapolis neighborhood shortly after 8 p.m. The statement says that Floyd “physically resisted officers,” was handcuffed, and then “appeared to be suffering medical distress.” The statement said he was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance, and “died a short time later.”
The Minneapolis Police Department also announced that body cameras “were on and activated” during the incident. That footage has been turned over to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), a statewide criminal investigative office. The BCA and FBI are now investigating Floyd’s death.
In a press conference on the morning of May 26, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced both officers involved in Floyd’s death were on “relieved of duty status,” meaning they had been removed from any law enforcement activity while the investigation unfolds. On the afternoon of May 26, four responding officers who had been involved in the incident were fired. Mayor Jacob Frey wrote on Twitter that the firings were “the right call.”
On May 29, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office on May 29 released the criminal complaint filed in his arrest. It details that Chauvin “had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in total. Two minutes and 53 seconds of this was after Mr. Floyd was non-responsive. Police are trained that this type of restraint with a subject in a prone position is inherently dangerous.”
The family of George Floyd commissioned an independent autopsy, which found on June 1 that he had died due to asphyxiation from sustained pressure on his back and neck. “What we found is consistent with what people saw. There is no other health issue that could cause or contribute to the death,” Dr. Michael Baden, one of the medical examiners on the team, said in a statement released by the Floyd family and their attorney, Benjamin Crump.
“From all the evidence, the doctors said it now appears Mr. Floyd died at the scene,” the statement said. That finding contradicts what was stated in the criminal complaint which said the Hennepin County medical examiner saw “no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.”
“For Chauvin to leave his knee on George’s neck despite warnings and evidence that his life was in danger — and to continue that course for many minutes — demands a first degree murder charge,” Crump said in the June 1 statement. “What we know is this: George Floyd was alive before his encounter with Derek Chauvin and his fellow officers, and he was dead shortly after that. The tragic cause of this death is incredibly clear, and we are fiercely committed to justice for his family.”
The call for a first degree murder charge echo earlier statements from the Floyd family. Following the May 29 charges against Chauvin, the Floyd family and their lawyer, Crump, said that the moves are a “welcome but overdue step on the road to justice,” but added that they “expected a first-degree murder charge. We want a first-degree murder charge. And we want to see the other officers arrested.”
“For four officers to inflict this kind of unnecessary, lethal force – or watch it happen – despite outcry from witnesses who were recording the violence — demonstrates a breakdown in training and policy by the City. We fully expect to see the other officers who did nothing to protect the life of George Floyd to be arrested and charged soon,” the statement said.
In a May 27 conversation with the NewsHour, Rodney Floyd, Floyd’s brother, and their cousin, Shareeduh Tate, said that they want to see the officers involved charged with murder. “The firing of the officers is a start, but ultimately we would like to see them charged, arrested, charged and convicted of murder,” Tate said.
Tate, 49, also said that after she initially saw the video, she didn’t realize the man who appeared in it was her cousin. “I remember saying to myself, ‘what a horrible day this is going to be for the family who finds out that their loved one was killed like this,’” she said. She added that it was only after she got a text message telling her it was George Floyd did she realize that it was him.
Crump, who also represents the families of Michael Brown and Ahmaud Arbery said in a statement on May 25, “We all watched the horrific death of George Floyd on video as witnesses begged the police officer to take him into the police car and get off his neck.”
“This abusive, excessive and inhumane use of force cost the life of a man who was being detained by the police for questioning about a non-violent charge. We will seek justice for the family of George Floyd, as we demand answers from the Minnesota Police Department. How many ‘while black’ deaths will it take until the racial profiling and undervaluing of black lives by police finally ends?”
During a May 27 interview with the NewsHour, Crump said that the release of the bystander video on Facebook will help serve justice in Floyd’s case. “Not only do you have the ocular proof that it was excessive, but you also have the public who is right there in real time telling them, you know, ‘take your knee off his neck.’ And the police refused.”
Crump added that he hopes a conviction will be easily attained. “I think any jury looking at this evidence is overwhelming,” he said. “Evidence has to say at some point when they ignore his pleas, their intent informs. And once you have intent to cause serious bodily harm, even if you never met the cause of death, that could be a probable proximate cause for a conviction of murder.”
George Floyd, 46, was a bouncer at a restaurant at the time of his death. His family said he played sports for years and was a “gentle giant.”
His younger brother, Rodney Floyd, 36, told the NewsHour that the older Floyd was also a local rapper who once contemplated a career playing professional basketball. “He was a great human being, a great brother, great father and great friend,” Rodney Floyd said. “He gives out plenty of good energy, good vibes. He’s happy. He’s smiling all the time.”
He added that George Floyd’s demeanor is apparent in the video showing his encounter with police. “I hate to go back to that video, even when he’s handcuffed, you see him complying with handcuffs hurting him,” he said. “You see that wonderful spirit he had. I mean you can feel that energy.You know, most people in that position, they’d be kicking and screaming because it’s hurting so tight. I know those handcuffs were tight. But he just laid on that ground complying.”
Jovanni Thunstrom, the owner of Conga Latin Bistro in Minneapolis, told The New York Times he employed George Floyd as a bouncer at the restaurant, and was also his landlord. “No one had nothing bad to say about him,” Thunstrom told the paper. “They all are shocked he’s dead. He never caused a fight or was rude to people.”
Yamiche Alcindor is the White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; the moderator of Washington Week, the weekly public affairs show on PBS; and a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. She often tells stories about the intersection of race and politics as well as fatal police encounters. She is currently covering the administration of President Joe Biden and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Amna Nawaz serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour.
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