Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. 

“The forces are complex, but all are coming to the same point.”
—Dr. Martin Tobin, pulmonologist, explaining the cause of George Floyd’s death

In Buddhist thought, the ultimate cause of death is life itself. All things are impermanent, and Buddhist practice involves extending compassion for the suffering that inevitably arises. The dharma also prohibits killing: to have clear minds and hearts, we must cultivate and encourage life. Yet in the name of public safety; for the sake of law and order; and to protect and enhance private property, Americans often justify the use of force and normalize the taking of human life. 

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has put complex and sophisticated cause-of-death arguments on display. The daily push and pull between the prosecution and the defense has made for a wrenching and riveting spectacle. It is tempting to look away and to tell ourselves that we are not part of this picture because we don’t think this way or that way about the situation. But Buddhist justice-making involves doing our best to stay in the present moment, to gaze without flinching, and to connect self and other. No matter which way this trial goes, we aspire to a deeper understanding of the causes of George Floyd’s death and how compassionate action can eventually lead to justice.

Five manners of death

Prone, handcuffed, and face down on the street in broad daylight. Nearly 100 pounds of pressure applied downward against his neck. For 9 minutes and 29 seconds. All of it witnessed first-hand and recorded by a group of bystanders, among them an expert martial artist who knows what unarmed combat techniques can do and a certified emergency medical technician who can tell when someone is medically dead.  Proving that Chauvin killed Floyd in the courtroom requires working with an intricate legal system that ultimately favors and rarely prosecutes the police. 

Medical examiners use five classifications when determining the manner of death, or how a person died: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, or undetermined. The crux of the trial is on whether Chauvin committed homicide, which is defined as one person killing another person. Floyd did not die naturally of old age, and he did not kill himself. The charges—second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter—do not require the prosecution to prove whether or not Chauvin was trying to kill Floyd; to convict Chauvin, however, a unanimous jury must be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the former officer’s actions, regardless of intent, caused Floyd’s death. In addition, because Chauvin was an on-duty officer, the jurors must agree that the killing was not justified. 

Over and over again, the twelve jurors have been shown what happened that day at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. Collected from police body cameras, street surveillance cameras, and cell phones of concerned bystanders, the footage reveals: Floyd’s car and the drugs found inside it; his entrance into the Cup Foods corner store; his demeanor while inside the store; and his payment with a $20 bill. Suspecting the bill to be fake, a teenage store clerk considers replacing the fake with a real one from his own pocket. Thinking twice, he calls the police. 

Two core strategies have driven Chauvin’s defense. 

One: Encourage a doubtful mind with regard to homicide. Evidence of controlled substances and the COVID-19 virus in Floyd’s bloodstream, as shown in the autopsy report, may help sow the seeds of doubt. Since the decision of guilt or innocence must be agreed upon by all twelve jurors, if even one juror believes that Floyd died by any other manner than direct pressure from Chauvin’s knee, Judge Peter Cahill will call a mistrial. In other words: no murder or manslaughter conviction. 

Two: Argue that the use of force is justifiable under the law. To convince the jury, Chauvin’s team is painting the bystanders as an “angry and violent mob” and Floyd himself as a “large and dangerous” man so difficult to subdue that handcuffs and a single police officer were not sufficient. According to the defense, the situation escalated not because Chauvin used excessive or extreme measures but because as he applied the techniques he had been professionally trained to use, both Floyd and the crowd became increasingly more incensed and uncontrollable. From the defense’s point of view, Floyd died because the police officers themselves were at risk as they attempted to deal with a dangerous Black man and mounting threats of mob violence.

But lethal force should never be allowable on an unarmed person. The single use of a counterfeit bill is a misdemeanor that should have been ticketed, similar to a parking violation. Instead, Floyd was pinned to the ground with four armed officers using war zone killing tactics while desperate bystanders risked their own lives trying to stop them. But it’s too late to turn the clock back. The only way forward is through a justice system based on the motto “presumed innocent until proven guilty” in which even the most depraved criminal gets a fair trial.

Justifiable force as compassion and skillful means

Although the dharma prohibits killing, it is possible in extreme situations to interpret killing as an act of compassion and skillful means. A classic example in the Upayakausalya (“Skill in Means”) Sutra describes when the Buddha was a ship’s captain in a previous life, and out of wisdom and compassion—and with the rare insight of clairvoyance—he makes the difficult choice to kill a marauding pirate in order to save everyone else on the ship. While he violated the precepts, the Buddha’s mindset was clear and pure and he did not take a lower birth. 

Before May 2020, many more people would have probably accepted the story that despite the “bad optics” of Floyd’s murder, Chauvin did what police are entrusted to do: protect the public, viewed analogously to the actions of the Buddha as the ship’s captain. Is this narrative indicative of a pure and clear mindset? What would it take to foster a rare sense of clairvoyance in those who we entrust with the task of “public safety?” 

The fact is that on-duty police officers have shot and killed more than 5,000 people across the United States since 2015. A disproportionate number of those killed have been Black and Brown men. Over the past 15 years, only 35 officers have been convicted of murder or manslaughter

Here in the Twin Cities, it’s too soon to tell how things will turn out. The prosecution has offered meticulous evidence and precisely calibrated arguments. However, the defense has planted the seeds of a familiar morality tale in which Black people are natural criminals and police use justifiable violence to protect a mostly white public. What will State v. Chauvin reveal about America’s understanding of racism and social justice? In our next essay, we’ll discuss how we can engage our bodhisattva vows and push for justice through the courts, keeping in mind that the system is predicated on racism and wealth.