Thanks to the constant pressure of a knee on his neck, it took just minutes for George Floyd to stop breathing while in the custody of Minneapolis Police Department officers on Monday night.
In a viral video of his death shared on Facebook Live in the wee hours of Tuesday morning by 17-year-old witness Darnella Frazier, millions of us watched a handcuffed Floyd lying face down, begging to breathe. He cried for his mother and repeatedly screamed, “I can’t breathe.” Officer Derek Chauvin kept kneeling into his neck with what appeared to be brutal force.
Chauvin kneeled into Floyd’s neck so hard he bled from his nose. He eventually became motionless and silent after about four minutes. Still, Chauvin kept pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for at least three more minutes.
Frazier and other bystanders, including a trained off-duty first responder, begged Chauvin to stop even as they were threatened and prevented from helping Floyd. They begged the officers to check Floyd’s pulse but the officers did nothing to preserve Floyd’s life.
An ambulance would later arrive and paramedics would remove his body from the scene on a gurney. The Star Tribune reported that Floyd was pronounced dead about 90 minutes after this encounter but he looked already dead to witnesses on the scene.
“This is so freaking crazy bro. They really killed somebody at Cup [Foods],” Frazier would later recall in a follow-up video.
“The police killed him bro right in front of everybody. … They killed this man bro. He was crying, telling them, ‘I can’t breathe’ and everything. They did not care bro. They killed this man. That was like my real first close-up death ever witnessing. … I’m shaking ‘cause it’s so crazy. I never witnessed something so close,” she said.
I was shaking too. I felt like I could not breathe. My heart raced. I couldn’t keep tears from rolling out of my eyes and I wasn’t sure what to do.
Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness, described the exact feeling I was experiencing this way: “I'm numb. The kind of numb that doesn't mean you can't feel anything but that you feel all the things at once and don't know how to name it or what to do about it.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a police killing on video. There were other recorded police killings like the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016 and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, in 2014 but Floyd’s killing felt different and I couldn’t articulate just why yet.
Usually, when things trouble me deeply to the point that I get overwhelmed and nothing seems to help, I turn to God and I pray. I couldn’t find any new words for God on this issue. The only thing I could do at this point was weep like Jeremiah.
"Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" Jeremiah lamented in the first verse of chapter nine.
Just a day earlier, another video much closer to home in New York City where I live had made me shudder. A white woman, Amy Cooper, now famously known as "Central Park Karen," called the police on black birdwatcher Christian Cooper because he asked her to leash her dog in a section of Central Park known as the Ramble. She pretended she was being attacked on the 911 call and manufactured feelings of distress while stressing her attacker was an “African American” man. I imagined what the outcome could have been for that black man if police officers were introduced into the mix believing what she said was true.
I tweeted about both videos and decided I wouldn’t write anything about them because I wasn’t hopeful. Evangelicals never really seem interested in many things concerning racial justice and it was all just really too painful. It was too much working to parse through the knots of pain I felt on the inside. But the videos, especially images of the killing of Floyd and his frantic cries for help, kept dogging my thoughts in little explosions.
And slowly, I began to come to terms with why Floyd’s death troubled me so. It was the way in which he cried out for his dead mother when his cries for help seemed to fall on deaf ears.
I remember more than a decade ago when I was still reporting on crime for the New York Post how I secretly cried for my own mother hours after I was arrested and briefly locked up by two NYPD officers. It’s a memory I have tried and failed to bury into oblivion and that like a ghost refuses to go away.
The two officers had accused me of trying to steal my own car and kidnapped me from a dark sidewalk without so much as verifying that I was just three houses from where I was living at the time.
Like young Christian Botham Jean, who was mistakenly killed by off-duty officer Amber Guyger inside his Dallas apartment in 2018, I was seen as a criminal and treated like one.
Like Jean, I too was raised Christian in the Caribbean. I hadn’t been fully baptized in the black American experience and I hadn’t fully understood how racially divided the Kingdom was as well. I had just months earlier finished graduate school at Columbia University and I truly believed — like the typical unaffected white person — that as long as I followed the law and worked hard, everything would be fine and justice and fairness would prevail.
I quickly realized that night, however, that one false move and I could have been dead. Once the officers slapped handcuffs on me, I shut my mouth and sat in the back of the squad car. I felt God’s powerful presence keeping me calm despite multiple explosions going off in my head and the sirens blaring through the Bronx on a cold fall night.
For the first and only time in my life I would briefly find myself behind bars until I was forced to reveal that I was a reporter for the New York Post. I was quickly released and I walked home from the precinct in the cold for about two miles feeling nothing.
I also went to bed feeling nothing but the next morning, I woke up in tears crying for my mother. I imagine it was the same utter feeling of helplessness that Floyd must have felt as he begged the officers to let him breathe. How he desperately struggled to show his humanity to these officers that they refused to see.
The police gave me summonses for “disorderly conduct” and “making unreasonable noise.” Both charges were lies but I was forced to defend myself in court and a judge threw them out with the help of some pretty good lawyers.
I would go on to write about my experience and raise my voice in media interviews but there are many more people of color in America who have suffered through far worse. Some have lived to tell their stories and many others have not. For those that live, the trauma lives with us and we simply learn to cope while praying and pushing for a more perfect union in America.
There are many evangelicals who don’t seem to understand how deadly racism is and I get it. Before I got arrested for trying to steal my own car, I didn’t realize just how dangerous non-white skin is in a system where minorities are constantly devalued. But I was forced to learn because my life depended on it.
I believe in this moment that God is calling His people to repentance on the issue of racism in America and if we all listen closely, God has a path to powerfully constructive and redemptive change that can foster respect for our common humanity.
Evangelicals are pro-life people and I strongly believe if nothing else, standing against anything which threatens the life of our brothers and sisters in Christ must also be treated as a pro-life issue.
We have all been witnesses to a killing that leaves very little doubt about why it happened. Let’s stand for justice in the name of Jesus.