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Bystanders To George Floyd's Death Feel More Guilt Than Derek Chauvin — And There's A Reason For That

Photo: Court TV
Derek Chauvin Trial

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's ongoing trial for the murder of George Floyd has brought up many psychological questions and debates.

Why did he do it? (Besides the obvious: racism.) Why did he think he could get away with it? (Also racism.) Was it intentional? (Well, it clearly wasn’t an accident!)

The first week of the trial saw the testimony of several eye-witnesses. With the Chauvin trial broadcast on live TV, we watched bystander witnesses break down on the stand while recounting the experience of watching Floyd suffocate under the ex-officer’s knee. 

These witnesses expressed feelings of helplessness and guilt as they recalled the horrific event.

However, in the time since Floyd was killed, Chauvin himself has expressed little remorse or doubt about his actions. The accused killer continues to plead innocent, blaming the victim and others around him for Floyd’s death. 

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In light of this disturbing discrepancy, a question has been gnawing at the American psyche: Why have the bystanders called to speak in court displayed more guilt over Floyd’s death than the officer responsible?

Of course, no one can fully answer this question without consulting Chauvin himself, and any attempted explanations, however accurate, are necessarily categorized as conjecture. Nonetheless, we can attempt to understand the phenomenon through the sciences of sociology and psychology.

Multiple witnesses attest to feelings of guilt following Floyd’s death

Christopher Martin worked as a cashier at Cup Foods, where the confrontation began after Martin noticed that Floyd had paid for his cigarettes with a suspected counterfeit $20 bill. In his March 31 testimony, Martin admitted that, in hindsight, he felt “disbelief and guilt” for his indirect role in Floyd’s death.

Witness Charles McMillian cried on the stand as he recalled how he had been “trying to help” Floyd but was unable to make a difference.

The bystanders responded to the event and its aftermath with rage, shock, and despair, while according to their testimony, the defendant remained unmoved.

Donald Williams, who took the stand on Tuesday, March 30, called 911 on the police officers shortly after witnessing Floyd’s death. He said that this was largely motivated by the fact that Chauvin seemed to feel “no remorse” during or after the alleged murder. The witness also cited Floyd’s apparent compliance in the 911 call, which was played in court, saying that the subject “wasn’t resisting arrest.”

Williams, too, wept in court when he heard the recording.

Derek Chauvin’s defense team continues to blame Floyd’s death on his drug use and underlying health conditions, maintaining that their client did nothing wrong. 

However, the three other cops present at the scene were quick to turn against Chauvin in their own defenses, and Chauvin’s supervising officer, Chief Medaria Arradondo, testified on April 5 that Chauvin had broken procedure and should face retribution for his actions.

It is unusual for law enforcement officers to testify against one of their own 

This abnormal response was likely brought on by the public outcry that followed Floyd’s death.

Some reports have made reference to the so-called “blue wall of silence,” a prevalent code of misconduct that prevents exposure within police departments. According to this common unofficial rule, fellow cops are expected to lie on the stand to protect their colleagues. 

This attitude of casual corruption likely contributed to Chauvin’s confidence in his crime.

Such practices create an “us against them” mindset within the ranks of police that can be harmful to outsiders, causing certain groups to be alienated and demonized.

This mentality is evident in George Floyd’s death, as the officers stood by one another while disregarding their victim and the voices of bystanders.

However, according to NBC News, "the 'blue wall of silence' is crumbling", with at least five officers sharing testimony last week that appears damning to Chauvin. 

Derek Chauvin displays evidence of narcissism

Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by excessive self-importance and disregard for others. Narcissists have difficulty regulating their emotions and sympathizing with those around them. They tend to seek power, and often refuse to recognize their own flaws.

In a YouTube video, Dr. Todd Grande, a licensed professional mental health counselor, analyzes Chauvin's behavior. Grande stated that the officer showed signs of narcissism, sadism, and psychopathy.

“It became a matter of proving his absolute control and domination of that situation, and of Floyd specifically,” Grande says.

The doctor cites Chauvin’s “casual” body language as evidence of his emotional absence and desire to assert dominance over both his victim and the audience present.

“His authority could not be questioned,” Grande observes of Chauvin, and “even the most reasonable and sensible pleas from the bystanders were ignored. They were almost taken as threatening. In Chauvin’s mind, those bystanders weren’t good enough to tell him what to do or to give him advice.”

Furthermore, “Chauvin did not consider Floyd of even the most basic human dignity.”

According to Grande, this mindset is both narcissistic and sadistic.

If Derek Chauvin did have narcissistic tendencies, there are several reasons why they may have been triggered in this scenario. 

Floyd, who had worked as a bouncer, stood at six-foot-four and weighed over 220 pounds. His large size was likely interpreted as a threat to Chauvin’s perceived self-superiority, leading the officer to assert his dominance.

The role of racism, undeniable in this scenario, also backs up the narcissism theory. Racism is a doctrine of superiority, thus Chauvin used his whiteness to provide fuel for his inflated self-image. 

And it was not only his own likely narcissism that convinced Chauvin that he would not face consequences for his actions: the deeply rooted racism in our society may have made him confident that he would get away with killing a Black man.

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These characteristics would further lead the perpetrator to absolve himself of guilt, as he believes himself to be above responsibility. 

The excruciating nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds over which Chauvin retained his fatal hold on Floyd should have been enough time for the officer to reflect on the action and recognize his own wrongdoing, but if this awareness was then blocked by mental factors, it makes sense that it should remain absent in the following months.

At the time Grande’s video was posted, just 10 days after the incident, he noted that “we see no evidence of remorse.” This is still true, further evidencing the counselor’s theories.

Analysis of these psychological phenomena reveals an inherent contradiction in the institution of law enforcement. 

Narcissistic tendencies may enable someone to step up and “defend” their community, and give them the confidence necessary to wield a weapon and preside over the law, but they may also prompt the subject to abuse that power once it is bestowed. The desire for power may also lead sadistic, psychopathic, or otherwise malicious individuals to enter police work with the intention of using their position for their own gain, at the detriment of public safety.

The stakes are high for Chauvin during the trial

Chauvin has incentives to hide and repress any responsibility he may feel in order to avoid going to prison and perhaps further validating the public hatred with which he is already faced. 

Any narcissistic tendencies he has would also lead him to become increasingly defensive in this scenario, intent on proving himself to be “above” the millions who demand his penitence. Thus Chauvin is unlikely to show any evidence of remorse.

The bystanders, on the other hand, had a normal human reaction to witnessing the scene: they were horrified. 

“I don’t know if you’ve seen anybody be killed,” said witness Genevieve Hansen, a trained firefighter who begged to be allowed to perform CPR on the unconscious George Floyd, “but it’s quite upsetting.”

This bit of common sense makes it all the more shocking that the officers involved appear so stoic and unaffected. 

Watching innocent bystanders take the guilt upon their own shoulders further emphasizes the divide between the attitudes of these police officers and the instinctive, natural human reaction to their actions.

Of course, there is no literal blame to be placed on those who witnessed the death of George Floyd. 

Many tried to intervene, but the officers refused to hear their pleas, and taking physical action would have placed the witnesses in danger of assault themselves.

“There really wasn’t anything I could do as a bystander,” pointed out Alyssa Funari, a teenager who was present at the scene. They wanted to do something, and they tried, to no avail.

“I feel helpless,” Charles McMillian said.

Feelings of helplessness are not confined to the moment of Floyd’s death

They represent a potent microcosm of the American experience as we stand by and watch people in power perpetuate violence and racism; as our broken justice system punishes the disenfranchised, again and again.

We all wish we could have done something, but in actuality, we know our presence likely would have changed nothing. 

George Floyd’s death spurred a movement because it was not unusual. Smartphones and social media have made the broad scope of such incidents publicly accessible, and shed light on their sheer prevalence in our society. Millions of citizens feel the guilt, rage, and thirst for justice that comes with witnessing racial violence and police brutality. 

Individual action, though possible, can feel futile when faced with such powerful, systemic prejudice and corruption; when the necessary change is so enormous and the steps towards it so agonizingly small.

Now, as this historic trial unfolds, we are all bystanders as we watch and wait for justice. As we pray, please, let it be different this time.

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Allie McGlone is a writer who covers a variety of topics for YourTango, including pop culture and entertainment.