During the two weeks that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been on trial for murdering George Floyd, the legend of John Henry has come to mind. According to the great American folk ballad, the railroad laborer was working in West Virginia in the early 1870s when his company bought a steam drill. It could dig deeper and faster than any man, they claimed. Accepting a challenge, Henry matched up against the machine and defeated it, at the cost of his life. The effort Henry expends proves fatal.
The legend has him dying from either exhaustion or his heart bursting, depending upon the telling. But the story is based upon a real person, a black man who was incarcerated in 1866 and leased to the railroad for 25 cents a day. A 2006 book by historian Scott Reynolds Nelson posited that the cause of death for the actual John Henry would not have been an exploding heart, something lethal welling up from within himself. It would have been the silicon dust, produced by those same steam drills, that infected his lungs and killed him.
John Henry is so relevant today that Duke University epidemiologist Sherman James coined the concept of John Henryism, which he defines as “strong personality disposition to engage in high-effort coping with social and economic adversity.” Especially for groups like African Americans, “adversity might include recurring interpersonal or systemic racial discrimination.” It’s the cause of death for so many of us, whether it kills us slowly or in nine minutes and 29 seconds.
That is the length of time Chauvin nonchalantly pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck and windpipe last May 25th, and expert testimony from medical and law-enforcement professionals alike over the last two weeks is reaffirming the Hennepin County medical examiner’s original conclusion: that Floyd’s death was a homicide.
Put simply, that means someone else killed him. Neither Floyd nor his body were the culprits. However, that is precisely what Chauvin’s defense attorney is arguing. Despite what we all saw, they say, Chauvin is not guilty because he didn’t actually kill Floyd. You see, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Floyd’s own body murdered itself.
Through the first two weeks of the trial, it’s evident Chauvin’s defense is almost entirely reliant upon racist stereotypes and junk science that dates back to the late 18th century. This is a moral failing, certainly, but history shows us why this is such a hazardous strategy.
Both Floyd’s death and the John Henry fable fall in line with a long history of American jurisprudence and medicine alike investing in false conceptions about racial differences. Linda Villarosa’s report in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project details this at length, tracing fallacies (such as, black people are more impervious to pain) to treatises like the one British doctor Benjamin Moseley published in 1787. He offered that “what would be the cause of insupportable pain to a white man, a Negro would almost disregard.”
Black folks weren’t invincible, though. Thomas Jefferson argued “the real distinctions which nature has made” between the races were inherent faults in black people, including a lower lung capacity. Physician Samuel Cartwright argued that capacity could be increased through forced labor. And if those enslaved tried to escape their wretched circumstances? Cartwright offered that they had a “disease of the mind” called drapetomania.
Fast forward to today, and it’s clear Nelson has been taking notes. “What was Mr. Floyd’s actual cause of death?” Nelson asked in his opening statement, disregarding the medical examiner’s conclusion. “The evidence will show that Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia that occurred as a result of hypertension, his coronary disease, the ingestion of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and the adrenaline flowing through his body, all of which acted to further compromise an already compromised heart.”
To recap: Chauvin’s defense is blaming meth, opioids, heart disease, high blood pressure — all which are rampant in poor and working-class black communities and are part of the generational wages of racism, paid with shortened black lives. Pointing to Floyd’s adrenaline — which surely had something to do with the four cops on top of him, and the knowledge that he was asphyxiating — was particularly repugnant.
Nelson would have us believe that this exonerates Chauvin, but many, such as Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist, have noted that substances like the ones Floyd had in his system that day don’t give a person super-strength. As Marino tweeted last August, they “are literally used to prevent people from feeling like they can’t breathe” — which, as we know from Floyd’s final words, he could not.
Chauvin’s defense also would have us believe that Floyd was so strong that it required every bit of resistance from Minneapolis police to subdue him. If George Floyd was Superman, however, wouldn’t he still be alive? And if he was so racked by drugs and disease that it cost him his life, why keep a knee on his neck and inarguably speed up the process?
The testimony of a Chicago pulmonologist named Dr. Martin Tobin confirmed precisely what happened. He told the court on Thursday that the combination of the restraint and Chauvin’s knees on both Floyd’s neck and back played a pivotal role in the killing. All of those assaults in concert caused Floyd to die “from a low level of oxygen,” causing brain injury well before Chauvin ever got up. Tobin added, “A healthy person subjected to what Mr. Floyd was subjected to would have died.” Lindsey Thomas, a consulting forensic pathologist in Minneapolis, testified Friday that Floyd’s death was “due to the activities of law enforcement officers,” specifically from the restraint and neck compression administered to the 46-year-old. “This was not a sudden death,” Thomas said.
Assessments like this don’t fit, of course, with the underlying argument of the Chauvin defense. “There is no question that it appears so far that Chauvin’s defense team has no problem with resorting to the use of longstanding racist tropes and dog whistles,” says law professor Ayesha Bell Hardaway, co-director of Case Western Reserve University’s Social Justice Institute (and a friend of mine for many years). “We’ve heard the defense — determined to give Derek Chauvin his day in court — reference the bad neighborhood, the concealment of illegal drugs, the angry mob, and the size of Mr. Floyd. In this way, Eric Nelson has decided to put both Mr. Floyd and the community in that Minneapolis neighborhood on trial.” The only pathway to an acquittal, says Bell Hardaway, herself a former litigator, “is to blame someone else.”
It was working for a while, perhaps without his knowledge. When Darnella Frazier was only 17 when she recorded the final moments of Floyd’s life — and for her, the footage doesn’t stop after his body goes limp. “It’s been nights, I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” she said through tears during her court testimony last week, appearing off-camera because of her age.
As indicated by his argument, Chauvin is happy to let even young people like Frazier accept the blame. Whether or not he himself is a racist, he now seeks to to excuse his own behavior by benefiting from the misconceptions racism engenders. Thankfully, Frazier, now 18, eventually came to realize the feelings of guilt and responsibility were not hers to bear. Fittingly placing the blame on Chauvin, she told Nelson that “it’s not what I should have done. It’s what he should have done.”
We’re talking about a black man killed by police on camera in America, so we cannot rely upon video footage. The history of police abuses going unpunished despite photographic evidence is too abundant to recount. Chauvin and Nelson must know this. The American legal system is not actually on trial in this case; cops across the country will keep abusing and killing even if the jury convicts Chauvin. No verdict can take the place of systemic change, but an acquittal would make things even worse. It threatens to further standardize and legitimize the use of racist tropes to excuse cops when they murder us. It would remind us all that no, the tape does not speak for itself.
However the jury decides, this remains an unmitigated tragedy. There can be accountability, but there is no justice, because George Floyd is dead. He has become the latest of our John Henrys, resisting a machine designed for his subjugation only to have it kill him in the end.
We can write ballads about people like this. I’d rather be able to talk to them.