We have likely torn several cities apart because a lifelong drug addict swallowed a drug after he was already high on another drug (methamphetamine), in order to prevent officers from discovering him with it and charging him with a narcotics violation that would violate his parole terms and return him to prison. Mr. Floyd likely chose to risk death by taking one narcotic on top of another, rather than risk returning to prison.
(Part 1 in a series.)
In the court of popular opinion, the officers in whose custody Mr. Floyd died have already been tried and convicted of manslaughter, if not murder. Fortunately for said officers, we have a judicial system in this country in which a jury of their peers—not public opinion—will decide their fate. I do not have any personal acquaintance with any of the officers or with the late Mr. Floyd, and I have never been either a law enforcement officer or a criminal (Mr. Floyd had been previously imprisoned for armed robbery and narcotics violations), so my interest in the matter is not personal; I am interested more in how the event has been reported and received (and with the consequences of those reports and how they were received).
In 1922, Walter Lippmann published Public Opinion, an influential book whose basic thesis was that people’s behavior is not influenced by events, but by the reports of the events; that our conduct is not merely the result of our actual environment, but by the reported environment, which he said was sometimes a “psuedo-environment,” anticipating what we now call in the 21st century “fake news” (and which Daniel Boorstin, in 1962, called “psuedo-events”). As a nation, then, we have had about a century of discussing the sometimes-imperfect relationship between actual events and reported events; I think we have an imperfect relationship here also.
Digital reports travel rapidly, without time for much investigation of background, context, and other details that might shape our understanding of an event. When rapid dispersing of reports is the primary consideration, there is no time for the previously standard journalistic criteria of who-what-when-where-why-how. Before television, news was slower, travelling in newspapers at a speed of twice monthly, once weekly, and then later, once daily. When unusual deaths occurred, there was no visual image of the deceased deceasing, and by the time the report was made public, ordinarily an autopsy had been performed which shed light on the unusual death. In Mr. Floyd’s case, many/most of us merely saw a six or eight-second video clip of Mr. Floyd saying “I can’t breathe,” while a police officer knelt on his neck. I assumed—and believe many others assumed—that he died of strangulation, that the knee cut off his windpipe.
When the autopsy (and, later yet, the nearly-30-minute bodycam footage) appeared, I revised my understanding of the event, because Dr. Baker (the coroner) declared that Mr. Floyd had not died of strangulation or asphyxiation; his respiratory system was neither blocked by a foreign substance nor was it collapsed. Indeed, in the bodycam of the event, Mr. Floyd said “I can’t breathe” even before he left his vehicle, and said it several other times before he was on the ground and before Mr. Chauvin arrived on the scene (the audio was imperfect, but I think I heard him say it eight times). At least from Mr. Floyd’s perspective, then, his breathing problem had nothing to do with anyone’s knee. By the time the knee was on his neck, “I can’t breathe” was a refrain he had repeated somewhat frequently. Indeed, what appeared on the 6-second video report as indifference by the police to his statement was more likely their “tuning out” something he had been repeating since even before he left his vehicle or had any physical contact with the police.
Mr. Floyd was obviously not in his right mind; viewing the bodycam, one would deduce either that he was mentally ill or high on something. He resisted putting his hands on the steering wheel, he resisted getting out of his vehicle, and he steadfastly resisted (physically) getting in the police cruiser, asking instead if he could “just lie on the ground,” which request the officers acceded to. Because of his state of mind, it is hard to determine why he kept saying “I can’t breathe;” perhaps he was so far under the influence of methamphetamene and Fentanyl that he didn’t even know what he was saying. There is another possibility.
Drugs.com says this about Fentanyl:
“Fentanyl can slow or stop your breathing, and may be habit-forming. Misuse of narcotic medicine can cause addiction, overdose, or death, especially in a child or other person using the medicine without a prescription.…Fatal side effects can occur if you use this medicine with alcohol, or with other drugs that cause drowsiness or slow your breathing.” (all emphases mine)
Attorneys for one of the officers (Tou Thao) have noted that, in the video of the arrest, at one point a white tablet, resembling a 2-milligram Fentanyl tablet, was apparent on Mr. Floyd’s tongue, and moments later, he had swallowed the tablet (whatever it was) and it disappeared. They argue that he swallowed the tablet to prevent the arresting officers from discovering it and charging him with possession of a controlled substance. Whether this speculation is correct (the appearance and disappearance of some tablet of some sort appears to be factual, but I suppose it could have been an aspirin or some other tablet undiscovered by the toxicology report), the following are undisputed at this point:
Mr. Floyd used Fentanyl “without a prescription.”
- “Fatal” side effects can occur if one uses this “with other drugs that cause drowsiness or slow your breathing,” and Mr. Floyd had both cannabids and methamphetamine in his system.
- “Fentanyl can slow or stop your breathing.” Whether a knee on the neck can stop one’s breathing or not is, I suppose, not yet medically proven; but Fentanyl can “slow or stop” one’s breathing.
- “The autopsy revealed no physical evidence suggesting that Mr. Floyd died of asphyxiation,” Dr. Baker (Coroner) told prosecutors, according to the memo.
- Floyd had an 11-level of Fentanyl in his system, and coroners have certified Fentanyl deaths with as little as a 3-level. The coroner (Dr. Baker) said that, if Mr. Floyd had been discovered in his home with this level of drugs, the death would have been certified to have been caused by an overdose. Only the altercation with police caused his office to consider other possibly contributing factors.
I don’t suppose anyone—including myself—wishes to conclude that all of the rioting, looting, burning, and killing this summer was due to a misreported incident, but I provisionally conclude that way. The primary cause of Mr. Floyd’s death—exacerbated by a medical history already complicated by drug abuse—was likely an overdose of Fentanyl. It caused him to behave erratically (unlike the other two black citizens in his vehicle with him, whose behavior was entirely normal and cooperative), and it was the erratic behavior that led officers to restrain him until the EMTs arrived (while not restraining the other two black people in any way). A jury will likely have the hapless duty of attempting to sort out to what degree—if any—the police contributed to Mr. Floyd’s death, but they will have great difficulty determining unanimously “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the knee was more responsible than a four-times-lethal dosage of Fentanyl, mixed with metamphetamine.
We have likely torn several cities apart because a lifelong drug addict swallowed a drug after he was already high on another drug (methamphetamine), in order to prevent officers from discovering him with it and charging him with a narcotics violation that would violate his parole terms and return him to prison. Mr. Floyd likely chose to risk death by taking one narcotic on top of another, rather than risk returning to prison. He likely killed himself.
Mr. Floyd’s death is a tragedy; but it is not the tragedy that most Americans think it is. The “court” of public opinion believes whatever it wishes to believe; a criminal court protects accused people from such speculation, and requires evidence that proves the charge “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I don’t know how the prosecution can possibly convince a unanimous jury that Mr. Floyd’s death was due to a knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, since this was a method of restraint taught in the Minneapolis Police Manual. The method would not have been in the manual if—by itself—it was regarded to be potentially fatal. An officer employing the method can hardly be convicted “beyond a reasonable doubt” of murder when the subject had both methamphetamine and a lethal dose of Fentanyl in his system, any more than an officer could be convicted if an arrested person had a heart attack after being maced (which sometimes happens also).
Some time in April (if not before), either the charges will be dropped (or severely reduced in a plea bargain) or Mr. Chauvin will be exonerated. The rioting, looting, and killing will begin again, because the public—or at least a portion thereof—does not care what really happened. Part of our public does not care that only a very small number of people (about ten) die annually in police custody (out of 10.5 million arrests), and part of our public does not care that those one-in-a-million deaths also happen when individuals physically resist arrest, and they don’t care that just as many white people as black people die under those circumstances. Their narrative of whites systemically abusing blacks is so precious to them that no amount of competing facts will shake their confidence. Those who like rioting, looting, and burning will have an entertaining Spring. The rest of us will be less entertained.
Dr. T. David Gordon is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College.