The Jury’s Answer in Minneapolis

George Floyd

at his death was 46, two years older than

F. Scott Fitzgerald

when he died in Hollywood. Fitzgerald was born across the river from Minneapolis, in St. Paul. Both men had bad habits—addictions. Floyd was poor and black. Fitzgerald was white, privileged and occasionally rich; or anyway he consorted with rich people and dreamed about them. Both men were known to smash things up (as Fitzgerald wrote of Tom and Daisy Buchanan) and then to retreat into their “vast carelessness.” In the 1920s, Fitzgerald would get drunk at Gerald and Sarah Murphy’s Villa America on the Riviera and break their expensive crystal. Floyd served four years in prison for a 2007 robbery and home invasion.

It’s obviously absurd to compare Floyd to Fitzgerald. And yet why not compare them? Each has a place in America’s folklore—two sides of the nation’s coin. In each, you behold a complicated American life and a common denominator of tragedy and waste and relatively early death. And which of those two imperfect lives will prove to be more consequential? Which is more representative—or says more about their imperfect country?

Derek Chauvin’s

trial became a melodrama of American themes: racial grievance, rage, rebellion, justice and injustice, revenge. It became historic American theater, up there with Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, Alger Hiss and

O.J. Simpson

—that last one a circus and a travesty and a showcase of the idea of jury nullification, the principle that appeals to what the pioneering black lawyer

Dovey Roundtree

called “justice older than the law.”

During the Chauvin trial, a rumbling of the idea of jury nullification—a huge, credible threat of mayhem if the jury didn’t deliver what President Biden called the “right verdict”—passed through the streets of nearly every city in the country. Mob nullification proclaims that it doesn’t matter what the law says, not when you come down to the fiercer basics. The Ku Klux Klan also embraced the tactic; it isn’t a principle that a country can afford to indulge very often. But Minneapolis stirred a memory of

Nat Turner’s

slave rebellion, too.

Smartphone videos were decisive in the Minneapolis morality play. Floyd had already established that he was claustrophobic. He was placed in a prone position on the pavement, pinned by knees on his neck and back, which intensified the symptom a claustrophobe most fears: I can’t breathe! That was the crux of it: the sadism—the gratuitous and, one might say, thoughtful cruelty. Maximize the suffering; test the helpless man’s limits. I once wrote a book about evil, and found that one of evil’s signature qualities is its weirdly intelligent and speculative gratuitousness, as if it were saying, “I wonder what will happen if I . . .”

The revelation of cruelty and sadism on the streets of Minneapolis seemed to connect to several centuries of American history and thus acquired a representative moral power.

What if Derek Chauvin had taken the stand? What if he had wept and begged forgiveness? Would that have been enough? Would it have persuaded the jury, or the public?

In an earlier America, I saw a morality play of something like forgiveness unfolding in Alabama when I covered

George Wallace’s

last campaign for governor, in 1982. By then he had been in his wheelchair, in great pain, for more than a decade, having been shot and paralyzed by a would-be assassin while he campaigned for president in Maryland.

As I went among the Wallace supporters, I was amazed to find not a few black people, who—because Wallace had apologized, sort of, for his earlier racial politics, and because he had suffered, and because they said he had done a lot for Alabama’s blacks by way of community colleges and such—were inclined to forgive him his earlier sins. I remember coming away from a sweet Labor Day picnic among the Wallace people in Noccalula Falls—the crowd numbering many blacks as well as whites—with a feeling that there was hope in that sort of transcendence.

But then again, Wallace had suffered, had been through the fire. That is a sort of theological necessity. In the eyes of those who would be asked to forgive him, Derek Chauvin doesn’t qualify.

The country in 2020-21 has the worst case of the American jitters since the late 1960s—with mass shootings, riots, Covid, creeping civic hysteria. I sometimes think that the famous final words of “The Great Gatsby” have their most pertinent application in reference to race in America: “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

When, we wonder in the 21st century, will the past ever end? And aren’t we sick of it by now?

Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”

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