When Black people ask, demand, scream, practically beg white people to show even the tiniest indication that they recognize or are even attempting to learn the Black person’s experience in this country, it’s not just for kicks. There are actual life and death consequences attached to white ignorance of what it means to be Black in America, a country that still overwhelmingly fears Black people. Case in point: A white judge presided over a murder trial in which a Black man was killed because he showed too much anxiety related to getting in the back of a tiny squad car. He was deemed a threat, and a police officer kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes, murdering him. That same judge went on to lessen the sentence of the murderer because a 9-year-old girl and three 17-year-old teens weren’t convincing enough in displaying their trauma—otherwise known as staying alive.
According to court documents posted on the Minnesota courts website, Judge Peter Cahill on Tuesday denied Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s request asking the judge to correct language in his sentencing order that references the witnesses’ trauma in seeing former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd. Cahill said in his denial that the prosecutor’s letter “mischaracterizes” the sentencing opinion and “misperceives what should be the Court’s focus in this case: Defendant’s conduct toward George Floyd.” “It is certainly possible that the witnesses experienced some level of emotional trauma from this incident, but the State failed to prove it,” Cahill wrote.
Chauvin was convicted of second-degree murder, third degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison and will be eligible for parole in about 15 years.
Ellison referenced three portions of Cahill’s sentencing order that the judge used to justify a lesser sentence for Chauvin—Cahill’s claim that the child witnesses “were never coerced or forced” by officers to remain on the scene, the judge’s conclusion that there wasn’t enough evidence of the young witnesses’ trauma, and Cahill’s description of the witnesses’ demeanor “smiling and occasionally even laughing over the course of the several minutes.”
“The Court should remove or modify the identified portions of the opinion,” Ellison wrote in his request. “Doing so will not, in any way, affect Defendant’s 22.5 year sentence but will avoid the risk of sending the message that the pain these young women have endured is not real or does not matter, or worse, that it is a product of their own decisions and not a consequence of Defendant’s.”
Ellison cited crises and psychosocial support literature from the American Academy of Pediatrics in explaining the way children process trauma in his motion. “Children process traumatic experiences in ways that may seem unusual to the untrained eye,” he wrote. “Moreover, as social science research demonstrates, for humans of all ages, giggling or smiling can actually be normal responses to stressful experiences (…)
“Additionally, and particularly relevant here, research demonstrates that ‘adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers.’ (…) This phenomenon of ‘adultification’ is unfortunately common in American society, including in the criminal justice system, and has led even careful observers to discount a young Black girl’s trauma.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a think tank on social justice, specifically mentioned Darnella Frazier, who was 17 when she recorded Floyd’s death and earned a special citation for a Pulitzer Prize because of it.
“This is an outrageous disregard for Black girls’ emotional and psychological wellbeing that cannot go unaddressed,” Crenshaw said in a thread on Twitter. “What must Cahill think about these Black girls to dismiss the trauma they experienced in watching a man plead for his life and cry out for his mother as he died? What was it about their girlhood that made committing this horrific crime in front of them a non-aggravating factor?”
She added in other tweets: “To arrive at the conclusion that witnessing this crime as a child should be irrelevant in Chauvin’s sentencing, Cahill had to dismiss Frazier’s own wrenching testimony about not being able to do enough to save Floyd, and about her worries about the wellbeing of her family.
“Beyond that, she has talked about her panic attacks, about shaking so bad that she had to be rocked to sleep. She has told the world that as a result of this, she is not who she used to be, and that she and her cousin lost part of their childhood having witnessed this crime.
“Yet, it’s a loss that Judge Cahill couldn’t value perhaps because he didn’t see Darnella as a child in the first place. Black girls are vulnerable both because they are Black girls, and because as Black girls, their vulnerability isn’t seen or valued. This is adultification.”
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