By now, we have all witnessed those nearly nine agonizing minutes when Officer Derek Chauvin snuffed out the life of George Floyd. Protests over this injustice quickly morphed into riots, with looting and destruction thrown in for good measure. Law enforcement is under attack, with deaths and casualties mounting every night since Floyd’s death.
Floyd had a history as a criminal with a long rap sheet. Before his death, he was working as a bouncer at a strip club until COVID-19 restrictions put him out of work. The Medical Examiner’s report stated that Floyd had Fentanyl and Methamphetamine in his system before Chauvin placed his knee on the back of his neck. Yet Floyd was not laid to rest as the man he was; instead, he is being memorialized as a symbol of racial oppression and an archetypal savior whose victimhood should chasten us against our sinful racism.
If Floyd were a film or literary character, Spike Lee might describe him as a Magic Negro. This trope, according to Lee, involves a two-dimensional black character who comes into the lives of white people and mystically transforms them into better examples of humanity. Lee is critical of Hollywood screenwriters, and by association, fellow directors Brett Ratner, Vincent Ward, and Frank Darabont for portraying African-Americans in “The Family Man,” “What Dreams May Come” and “The Green Mile” as slaves whose role is to save white protagonists. “The Green Mile” was particularly offensive to Lee, who remarked, “How is it that black people have all these powers, but they use them for the benefit of white people?”
In Darabont’s screen adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, black prisoner John Coffey heals Tom Hanks’ character, the guard Paul Edgecomb, as well as the warden’s wife. Even so, Coffey dies in the electric chair surrounded by the guards and warden who knew of his innocence, but failed to stop his execution. Eternal life is gifted to guard Edgecomb and Coffey’s pet mouse. Edgecomb is the caretaker of the vulnerable but immortal rodent, a role he accepts as his punishment for allowing Coffey to die, a lonely sentinel whose friends and family have passed on.
The trope dehumanizes and exonerates the culpable by portraying characters like Coffey as a blood sacrifice. The doomed prisoner works in the service of white morality. He is not a fully actualized person with a story and aspirations of his own.
In today’s circumstances, Floyd’s posthumous role has worked in a similar way to erase his humanity. Politicians, pundits, protesters, looters, and rioters see his murder as the sacrifice necessary to achieve their agendas—far removed from who Floyd was, or what he may have wanted for himself.
The scapegoat is an archetype. Hebrew priests ritually transferred the sins of a penitent onto a goat, absolving them of sin, before releasing the animal to die in the wilderness. This absolution allows the sinner to resume life as part of the community. Utilizing a homicide towards these ends is akin to sacrificing someone to guarantee a successful harvest, another literary trope borrowed from primitive societies.
June 26 marks the anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s character Tessie Hutchinson. Her fictional stoning by townspeople, in a nameless rural locale somewhere in America, is said to be for the dubious “greater good.” When The New Yorker published “The Lottery” in 1948, hundreds canceled their subscriptions, appalled that even fictional Americans were capable of such a barbaric mindset. The agents of chaos behind the continuing unrest on American streets prove otherwise.
Tessie’s race, like that of the villagers, is never specified. Readers know she was a young woman by the ages of her three children, one a toddler. But neither age nor disability immunizes anyone, and all participated in the stoning. The administrators of the lottery and many residents were aware that many other neighboring communities had abandoned the deadly ritual, and they are quick to remind the assembled that doing so puts the entire population of the town at risk. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” opines one character. He continued, “First thing you know, we’d be eating chickweed and acorns.” How is this different from the belief that George’s homicide should fertilize a violent revolution that doesn’t even remotely promise justice for him and his grieving family?
Tessie Hutchinson had been oblivious to the possible consequences and participated in earlier stonings until her ticket bore the black dot of doom. Only then does she realize her life has value for itself, even as her husband and children gather stones to end it. Those who support the violence done in Floyd’s name are just as guilty as Bill, Tessie’s compliant and complicit husband.
There is a difference between a murder victim and a martyr. The focus on Floyd’s race as an impetus for revolution instead of his homicide committed by a rogue officer devalues Floyd as an individual—the real meaning of his life is lost on the mob, but they are greedy to co-opt his brutal death. There is no doubt that his politicized memorial will further diminish his real life as these groups seek to canonize him in the name of their own causes.
Martin Luther King’s assassination by James Earl Ray in April of 1968, four years after his Nobel Peace Prize, saw him consecrated as a saint of the Civil Rights movement. In reality, like other mortals, he had flaws and vices that were gradually erased by his stature as a cultural icon of racial justice. Historian David J. Garrow, the author of a Pulitzer Prize biography of King, Bearing the Cross (1986), was excoriated for daring to suggest that some of the Hoover surveillance tapes and transcripts revealed less-than-saintly behavior. The FBI summaries, however, are over fifty years old, and undoubtedly J. Edgar Hoover sought to discredit King with evidence of communist associations and sexual licentiousness.
In 2020 we should be able to see that King’s associations and peccadillos made him human, not a devil or a saint. King was not a god whose motivations were beyond discussion or reproach. King’s leadership in the 1960s of the Civil Rights movement and his inspiring story, when paired with his shortcomings, are all the more awe-inspiring. Most people are like that. We need to understand the real person, not some two-dimensional pious characterization of him.
Derek Chauvin and his accomplices need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But George Floyd’s murder is not a symbol of racial injustice or anything else. It was a brutal killing by a depraved individual who wore a badge. It is an indictment of Chauvin and of the officers at the scene who failed to intervene, and nothing more.
George Floyd, the human being, is more than a symbol. It is a disservice to Floyd’s basic humanity to consider him a symbol or an archetype that will magically remove all racial injustice and economic disparity from society. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was supported and inspired by social justice warrior-prototype Jean-Paul Marat, editor of L’Ami du Peuple, who advocated imprisoning the aristocracy and made a career of imagining systemic transgressions against the oppressed.
Measurements determine value. There is a system to deal with Chauvin appropriately. Riots and looting won’t restore Floyd’s presence in the world. What will serve Floyd’s family and friends is restoring our faith in a system that, at its core, works. The organizational structure that allowed Chauvin to remain on the force is broken. To expect chaos and destruction in any way will help to fix it is a myth perpetuated by those who aspire to tyranny themselves.