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We saw George Floyd die on screen. We need to see this too.

The power of televising Derek Chauvin’s trial

The trial of Derek Chauvin wasn’t going to be broadcast. Minnesota trials never are. It took a pandemic and a decision by Judge Peter Cahill to change that over the objections of the prosecution. Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office argued that televising the hearings live might intimidate the witnesses, making them hesitant to testify. A coalition of news outlets, the defense, and, ultimately, Cahill disagreed.

Members of the public usually have the right to observe courtroom proceedings. It’s typically also safe for a crowd to gather peacefully in a courtroom, or in an overflow room with closed-circuit TVs. But we’re not living in normal times, and this is not a normal trial.

In requesting the change to the Minnesota court system’s standard procedures, news outlets argued that “given the enormous public interest in this trial, the limitations imposed by the pandemic, and the options created by modern technology, meaningful access equates to remote access.” Essentially, they said Chauvin’s trial is not just about what happened in Minnesota. It’s about what is happening across America.

Chauvin, a former officer in the Minnesota Police Department, is charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd.

Floyd’s death ignited months of protests and unrest across the country and around the world, and for some, it marked the first time they were moved to take to the streets. The footage that emerged was damning. It was devastating. And it evoked an emotional response in a way that news reports, no matter how hard-hitting or well-edited, sometimes can’t: Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, 29 seconds. We know because we saw it happen. We saw the video.

Or did we? The footage we saw showed Chauvin pinning down Floyd for eight minutes, 46 seconds. That precise span of time, established by a widely circulated video a bystander shot with their phone, has become such a symbol — of the horrors of police brutality in general and of Floyd’s death in particular — that it has its own Wikipedia page filled with examples of politicians, corporations, activists, and entire cities using the number to commemorate Floyd and raise the alarm.

The New York Stock Exchange paused trading for eight minutes, 46 seconds. Google held an eight-minute-and-46-second-long “moment” of silence for its employees. Music streaming services paused special programming. Legislators took a knee. Long stretches of silence are uncomfortable; they spur people into a contemplative state. And while eight minutes, 46 seconds can be a short time, it’s an eternity if you’re staring mortality and brutality in the face.

But it turns out Chauvin forcibly restrained Floyd even longer than most people thought. Prosecutors revealed the full extent of their encounter during the first week of the trial — nine minutes, 29 seconds of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck — and the revelation was shocking. Reality was worse than the footage.

It is a succinct embodiment of this moment in history that a number drawn from a video — shot on a phone, uploaded to the internet, and seen all over the world by viewers frozen in place by a virus — became such a profound symbol.

Before Cahill’s decision allowed TV cameras into the courtroom for Chauvin’s trial, the situation was already mediated to us through phone cameras and Twitter, through videos of protests and unrest, each one putting a frame around Floyd’s death and the events that followed, each one with a narrative in mind. Every video told a particular part of a story — some spotlighting the size and passion of peaceful crowds, others zooming in on property damage — and as the protests raged on, sometimes those stories conflicted.

But sometimes the stories harmonized. As other video emerged (from nearby security cameras, for instance), journalists worked to widen the frame, to fill in the picture of what happened to Floyd. New angles and voices entered the story; the meaning of the events on May 25 became clearer. We can now witness bystanders screaming, hear what they said, understand their helplessness, and see more clearly how Floyd was treated at the hands of police.

The result is that, while almost none of us were there, it may feel as though we were. That’s not new. We have seen videos of police brutality before, as far back as the beating of Rodney King in 1991. With time and technological advances, such videos have picked up force and clarity. Reading about beatings and brutality is one thing — seeing them happen is something entirely different.

Smartphones have turned citizens into reluctant documentarians. Major catastrophic or violent events are increasingly caught on camera. There’s almost always one snapping nearby, on someone’s phone or within a surveillance system, and from there it’s just one click to virality. Floyd’s death was recorded, but so are those of many others, and they have been for a long time. We’re all everywhere now, seeing everything. And what we’re seeing adds to an increased awareness of systemic racism and injustice.

So it’s a little jarring what we don’t see while watching news footage of Chauvin’s trial. In his ruling that the trial should be televised, Cahill gave strict instructions: Floyd’s family and any witnesses who are minors could not be filmed without their consent. The cameras are not permitted to zoom in on the tables where counsel is seated, meaning no one can shoot close-ups of Chauvin or either set of attorneys. No cameraperson can create meaning by capturing reaction shots during testimony, the way you would in a cinematic courtroom drama.

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