Part of the training I received—like thousands of other American boys during the Vietnam era—while doing my basic combat course at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in 1970, was hand to hand fighting. The course was based, we were told, on a combination of karate, kick-boxing and street-fighting. Our instructor, who was a one hundred forty-five-pound, five-foot-eight-inch African American Airborne Ranger from Springfield, Ohio, was as fast and skilled as he was small. He was what Mickey Goldmill (the crusty old trainer brilliantly played by Burgess Meredith in the now classic boxing movie Rocky) would have called “a very dangerous individual.”
This sergeant’s job was to train us to use a minimum of blows and force to immobilize and kill our enemy in close-quarter combat. The skills he sought to teach us were based not on knowing how to throw the hardest and most punches, but how to throw the least and most accurate ones, to use our heads as well as our bodies, to strike where we could do the most damage in the least amount of time, since the longer a fight went on, the greater chance we had of losing...and dying. It was, in short, a course designed to be an “equalizer”, to make men of all sizes, shapes and dispositions as uniformly dangerous as possible in given situations.
|Go for the throat|
Kicking another combatant in the solar plexus, smashing his knees, crushing his testicles, fracturing his nose bridge or gouging out one of his eyes were methods used to slow him down long enough to finish the job with a bayonet. But in order to deliver a killing blow, we were taught to concentrate on the throat, specifically seeking to crush the windpipe and deprive the opponent of the ability to breathe. This was, the sergeant drilled into us over and over again, the great equalizer. Whether with hands, feet or blade, go for the throat, and go for it right away, before the enemy could go for yours. You only needed, he said, five pounds of pressure per square inch to crush the trachea and block airways to the lungs and brain. And without air, no matter how big or how well-trained your opponent was, he was going down. There was, in short, a reason that the idiomatic expression “go for the throat” was used to describe ruthless disregard for the life of an opponent.
In the days since George Floyd was wantonly murdered—before multiple witnesses and on multiple cameras—by a Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin, I have repeatedly recalled this training. The reason it has come to mind is that reiterated attempts have been made by apologists for bad law enforcement to argue that Floyd’s death can be blamed on “insufficient training” for police officers. This argument has been combined with the almost ludicrous proposal by the local coroner that the throat of the victim showed no sign of trauma and that he might have died of pre-existing medical conditions exacerbated by excessive force employed by the police.
To my mind, the first of these arguments is implausible, while the second is preposterous and reminds me of when the notorious former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Daryl Gates, argued that black men were more susceptible to death resulting from strangleholds because of some genetic defect. According to Gates, in a statement he made in 1982, “We may be finding that in some blacks when (a stranglehold) is applied the veins and arteries do not open as fast as they do in normal people.”
The posit of the coroner’s report seems to me to justify Floyd’s family’s decision to commission an independent autopsy (which, logically enough, concluded that the victim had died of asphyxia). While the idea that a policeman, no matter how minimal his training has been, wouldn’t know that kneeling on a man’s throat for eight minutes would kill him—especially when the victim repeatedly and desperately told his aggressor that he couldn’t breathe, when the victim in his final moments begged for his mother, and when, for over two of those eight minutes, the victim was unresponsive—is simply impossible to believe.
Why impossible? Well, if in standard Basic Combat Training for the US Army, the purpose of which was to give me my first eight weeks of instruction in the “art” of effective killing, I learned that the throat was the most vulnerable part of a human being in a quick-kill survival situation on the battlefield, how could a big-city police officer’s training be so utterly deficient that he wouldn’t know that pressing a handcuffed, defenseless man’s neck with all of his weight on his knee for eight minutes would result in the detainee’s death. I have consciously known this, as I say, since I was twenty (and, in all fairness, knew it even before I joined the Army, as do, very likely, the majority of children over, say, the age of ten) after only the most standard and basic of eight-week combat courses—the purpose of which, let me reiterate, was to teach me to kill people. I have known ever since then that a blow to the throat or a lethal stranglehold is not something you apply in a scuffle following a fender-bender or as a way of settling an argument, or if someone disrespects you. It has only one use: killing an opponent in a life and death situation.
That’s not the only reason that the “insufficient training” argument doesn’t fly as an excuse for the killing of George Floyd. If the City of Minneapolis website is to be believed, the city’s police officers go through intensive training. This training includes, among other things, defensive tactics, community orientated policing, firearms, defensive driving, report writing, ethics, traffic enforcement, crime scene investigation and physical training. It lasts from fourteen to sixteen weeks—at its maximum duration, twice the time devoted to our basic combat training when I was in the Army. And once recruits graduate, which they must in order to become Minneapolis police officers, they are then required to submit to a six-month on-the-job training period with a veteran training officer.
Derek Chauvin is no rookie whose fear and inexperience led him to make a mistake. At the time of his dismissal and subsequent arrest, he had been on the Minneapolis police force for eighteen years. Indeed, he was a veteran officer who had surely been in no few situations like the one he faced in taking George Floyd into custody, allegedly for trying to pass a phony twenty-dollar bill—the summary penalty for which ended up being torture and execution.
But here, perhaps, a little context is in order. It would appear that Chauvin isn’t just a cop who was having the kind of bad day Michael Douglas had in the movie Falling Down, and, inexplicably, took it out on a detainee. Use of force reports indicate that Minneapolis police officers have applied neck and throat restraints no fewer than two hundred thirty-seven times in the last five years. And in forty-four of those cases, those being detained lost consciousness. It would appear, then, that Chauvin’s using his knee to choke George Floyd, while three of his colleagues held Floyd down and kept at bay onlookers who were begging Chauvin to stop before he killed his captive wasn’t some momentary lapse on the part of an otherwise by-the-book officer. It seems that the use of strangleholds has been a relatively widespread practice among Minneapolis police—one of which local authorities should certainly have been aware.
It is almost impossible to come to any conclusion other than that George Floyd was intentionally and brutally murdered. And the whole thing played out across the US and the world on cellphones, social media and television. We all saw it happen. And any decent human being who was watching knew without a doubt that what he or she was witnessing was wrong. Many of us were outraged and desperate while we watched. So were onlookers who pleaded again and again for the police to stop applying what was undoubtedly lethal force, eyewitnesses that clearly saw that George Floyd was already immobilized, in custody and no longer a threat to the arresting officers.
The only people who seem not to have known that it was wrong, that what they were witnessing and participating in was what forensics experts refer to as wrongful death, were Dereck Chauvin and the three men who aided and abetted him in carrying out a gruesome murder.
Or perhaps, they knew perfectly well what they were doing and simply didn’t care.
The first tentative charge against Chauvin was “third degree murder and third degree manslaughter”. Few if any news people had ever heard of such a charge. And CNN’s talk show host Van Jones seemed to speak for many of us when he said he could think of no other homicide in which such a charge had been implemented and speculated that the idea was to start low “and then plea-bargain it down to a traffic ticket” so as to let the cop and his accomplices off scot-free.
Latest reports suggest, however, that authorities may now be leveling second degree homicide charges against Chauvin. This still, however, would presuppose that the former officer killed Floyd unintentionally, which the facts—including his continuing to kneel, pressing down with all his weight, on Floyd’s neck even long after the victim had stopped moving or talking and no longer had a pulse—seem to graphically belie.
Finally, today, June 3, it was reported that the prosecution in the case has also finally charged the other three officers, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao with aiding and abetting murder. Kueng was in custody, and authorities said they were in the process of arresting Lane and Thao. But it seems clear that the authorities have been reluctant to prosecute bad law enforcement and outright murder, since the upgraded charge against Chauvin and the first-ever charges against the other three officers have only come after a week of rioting and mass protests all across the United States.
Will justice prevail in the murder of George Floyd? It remains to be seen. But if not, it is likely that we will have reached a tipping point for the average American’s patience.