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The look in Derek Chauvin’s eyes | The Triangle

The look in Derek Chauvin’s eyes

What America does, the world sees.

The trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was broadcast internationally, and it was not simply an American audience, myself included, that was spellbound in horror at what the digital recording by Darnella Frazier revealed about nine minutes and 29 seconds of our national life. Equally horrific things go on around the world in one way or another every day. Some of them directly or indirectly involve us; for example, the wedding parties or funerals in places like Yemen and Afghanistan that get bombed to smithereens by our drones. Some of them go virtually unnoticed or at least unacted upon, like the recent civilian massacres in Tigray on the contested Ethiopian-Eritrean border. Some of them are slowly being enacted in real time. Vladimir Putin has his knee on the neck of the imprisoned Alexei Navalny as surely as if he were physically present to do it, and if Navalny dies, the crime will be all of Russia’s to avenge. And sometimes the larger crime is the failure of an entire judicial system to hold a hate murder to account, as in the case of the killing of a 65-year-old Frenchwoman, Sarah Halimi, tortured and thrown to her death from the window of her apartment for the crime of being Jewish.

It’s America the world looks at, though. That’s partly because we are rich and powerful. But it’s more importantly because we were the one nation to emerge from the 18th-century Enlightenment, whose preeminent ideal was—summed up in the words of our first lawgiver, Thomas Jefferson—that all men were created free and equal.  

Jefferson belied his own words in uttering them as a slaveholding plantation owner, which he remained to the end of his days. But he knew, at least, that what he inherited and would bequeath was a curse that he felt would undo the nation he and his fellow founders had made. He was very nearly right, and it took 700,000 lives, North and South, to lift the curse. More than a century and a half later, we have not dealt with its legacy. Yet, contemporaries in Europe still looked at our Civil War as not only the trial of a distant country, but as something on which their own hopes and futures were staked. That’s why, a quarter of a century later, the French gave us the Statue of Liberty to stand in the harbor of our greatest city. It was meant to remind us, and them, of the promise we had given.

Because our promises were great, our sins seem greater.

Which brings us to Derek Chauvin’s eyes. 

There were a lot of eyes at the scene where George Floyd was crushed to death. Floyd’s own, thrust against the police tire where his face lay, his head striving vainly for air, unable to see the man who was taking his life.

There were the eyes of Chauvin’s fellow officers, holding down Floyd’s legs or scanning the bystanders who slowly assembled on the sidewalk opposite to stare and beg for Floyd’s life. There were the passersby who walked or drove by, and merely glanced.

It’s because of the steady gaze of Darnella Frazier’s camera, though, that we can see Derek Chauvin and his eyes directly from first to last.

Prosecutor Stephen Schleicher, in his trial summation, said over and over again to Chauvin’s jurors that they could believe what they saw with their eyes. That’s not always the case, or enough of it.

But the weight of the evidence was, finally, the weight of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, minute by minute until the end, and even after.

We all saw the act, and the law told us what to call it.

What we have no name for, no name that begins to be adequate, is what appeared in the eyes of Derek Chauvin himself. The counts against him—second and third degree murder, and second degree manslaughter—do not accuse him of intentionally causing Floyd’s death. It could not be said that, as the law would require, Chauvin meant to purposefully kill Floyd while he did so, except in the sense that his whole life and career, and our entire national history, stood behind it.

The prosecution had a photograph, labeled Exhibit 17, showing Chauvin in the act of causing Floyd’s death. You see in it the effort and concentration to keep his knee applied to Floyd’s neck, but also (so to call it) a certain abstractedness too. Part of it was the confidence of a man physically in control of a situation he had created and determined that no one would challenge it. Chauvin was doing what we know he had done before; for instance, another man was similarly treated by him, face down in a puddle of water and also begging for air.

That episode had lasted 10 minutes and had not been fatal. Chauvin thus knew from experience (and how many experiences?) that he could do to others what he was doing to Floyd, that he could walk up to the line without stepping over it, or necessarily facing any consequences for it if he did: the initial report of Floyd’s death had mentioned only a “medical incident” in the process of an arrest. Chauvin knew that he could act with impunity, and that the power of life and death was in his hands. And when he threatened the bystanders opposite him with mace if they gave him difficulty, it was with the knowledge that they, too, could not impede him.

But it is through the entirety of Frazier’s recording that we can scrutinize the full panoply of expression on Chauvin’s face, above all in his eyes. The human face is a wonder of expressiveness, the moment to moment register of a life. The nearly nine minutes and 29 seconds of it captured by Frazier that coincided with Chauvin’s taking of a life is remarkable both for what is there and what isn’t. Chauvin’s body is fully engaged in what it is doing: his features, beyond the level of consciousness required for the performance of any deliberate act, are not. He is doing what he has done before and will do again, knowing himself invulnerable in the moment—his control of the situation, as he knows, is total, and all he needs to project to onlookers is precisely that self-knowledge. He can, in this moment, permit himself a certainty, a lassitude, such as a king might feel when he has uttered a command he knows will be obeyed. The command, when given, exists in a different realm, no longer a part of the king’s will but of the subject’s obligation. Chauvin, of course, is not only giving the command but executing it for himself as well. In this sense, he is more than a king: He does not need subjects, only (if they are present) witnesses who observe but are powerless to intervene.

You cannot do such a thing without at some point becoming robotic yourself. That is what I saw in Chauvin continuing to kneel on Floyd’s unresponsive and finally lifeless form for a full three minutes after he had ceased to breathe. It was the paramedics who had to pull him off Floyd; he could not release him. Morally, he had entered the realm of death himself.

Derek Chauvin is not a monster. He is a man we have permitted to become monstrous, and the question is whether we will continue to permit others to be so too. It is a question of whether we want to continue not only as a democratic society, but a civilized one.