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Drug Use Isn't A Capital Offense — But Chauvin's Defense Argues It Was For George Floyd

Photo: Lev Radin / Shutterstock
George Floyd protest

This week, defense lawyers work to sway jurors in favor of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis PD officer charged with the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Their claim: Drugs killed Mr. Floyd. Not asphyxiation. Not excessive force.

According to Chauvin’s team, the nine minutes and 29 seconds that George Floyd lay with their client's knee jammed against his head and neck are immaterial.

So there you have it — "don’t do drugs, guys," as Chaunvin's fellow former officer Tou Thao said to bystanders pleading for Floyd's life. Don’t have preexisting conditions. And don’t get overly excited.

Because a run-in with the police might cause your (likely black or brown) body to just up and quit.

It’s faulty logic. Insulting, even. Video evidence paints a different story — one of abuse, harrowing fear, and centuries of racism and violence imposed on a man who’d long since gone still, who pleaded and cried for breath and received none.

Apparently, choking was not so much a factor as "illegal drug use, heart disease, high blood pressure and the adrenaline flowing through [George Floyd's} body."

These factors, which included with traces of methamphetamine and fentanyl, combined to induce cardiac arrhythmia, listed Floyd's official cause of death.

Which raises the question: would drugs have killed Floyd that warm spring day had Derek Chauvin not flattened his neck for nine minutes?

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Claims of drug use are a legal lodestar for police work gone wrong.

It was a botched drug-trafficking raid that led to Breonna Taylor being shot five times in her sleep.

A doctor, writing for the New York Times, once argued that police should utilize high-caliber guns when dealing with Black men who take cocaine.

The fact of the matter is that using, or being in possession of, drugs is never (read: never) justification for deadly force.

Using drugs is neither a capital crime nor grounds for the death penalty.

Even so, drug arrests make up the largest such category in the US, and those numbers are far from equitable.

Black and Native Americans, whose communities are policed more heavily than white ones, are “more likely to be killed by law enforcement" due to "draconian" drug laws.

Add to this that police officers rarely face consequences for the killing of BIPOC on drugs, and the narrative spun by Derek Chauvin’s defense team falls flat.

To be clear, George Floyd is not on trial. He is gone. He suffered, suffocated, begged for his life, and then died like so many people of color before him.

The idea that Floyd’s drug use played a role in his death is misdirection.

That common refrain, the argument that Chauvin is a respectable man faced with a “volatile situation,” ignores a grimmer reality: George Floyd was “completely passed out,” and yet Derek Chauvin remained, “knee on the neck, knee on the back.”

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It mattered little that Floyd was on drugs; his stillness, captured on video, is absolute.

Regardless of whatever struggle came before Darnella Frazier started filming, the outcome was deathly final.

Had Floyd been given the leniency afforded to white Americans when dealing with the police, his lungs could have filled with air, his heart could have beaten more easily, and there’s a good chance he’d be alive today, playing with his daughter.

To say Floyd deserved a chance to get clean, to give up whatever drugs were involved in his life, reaffirms a legacy of brutality, usually centered on communities for whom any misstep could spell disaster.

So what? He used drugs.

Odds are, you or someone you know does, too.

Derek Chauvin, along with the other officers involved, must be held accountable for their actions.

We must show the world that the United States is the “standard-bearer when it comes to liberty and justice for all.” For all — not just for the sober.

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Joseph Heiland is a writer whose fiction has appeared in Lumina Journal and Eastern Iowa Review. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.