Social media seizes on ‘angry Black man’ exchange during Chauvin trial

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MMA fighter Donald Williams II, who was an eyewitness to the death of George Floyd, leaves the Hennepin County Government Center after testifying in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin on March 29 in Minneapolis.
SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

BY LIBOR JANY
STAR TRIBUNE/TNS

MINNEAPOLIS — Twitter briefly erupted Tuesday when a Black man who witnessed George Floyd’s dying moments took the stand after Derek Chauvin’s defense attorney intimated through questioning that the man was “angry” and threatening to harm officers at the scene.

An attorney for the defense listed off the obscenities that Donald Williams II, who in the viral video of Floyd’s death yelled at Chauvin and fellow officers to get off Floyd.

At one point during his cross-examination, the attorney, Eric Nelson cited an interview Williams conducted with investigators, in which he was asked to describe what happened.

“In that statement, you said that, ‘Like, I really wanted to beat the (expletive) out of the police officers,’ you said that,” Nelson said, reading from a transcript of the interview.

“Yeah, that’s what I felt,” Williams responded.

“So again, sir, it’s fair to say that you grew angrier and angrier.”

“No, you can’t paint me out as angry — I would say I was in a position where I had to be controlled, controlled professionalism, I wasn’t angry …” Williams said, before being interrupted by Nelson, who objected on the grounds that Williams was being nonresponsive.

Struck a nerve

Like so many other aspects of this widely watched trial, the exchange struck a nerve on social media. Some users blasted Nelson’s line of questioning, accusing him of playing on a harmful racist trope of “an angry Black man” as a way to discredit Williams.

“Williams is not an angry Black man just because he spoke up,” tweeted CNN commentator Keith Boykin.

“Anytime a Black man says he’s sick and tired, anytime a Black man opens up his mouth to say what he sees, they label him an ‘angry Black man,’” state Rep. John Thompson, a St. Paul Democrat, said in an interview.

Others said that Nelson was trying to demonstrate that his client was distracted and may have felt threatened by the increasingly agitated crowd of by standers.

Personal experience

Williams’ experience resonated with some Black men like Brandon Williams of the Minneapolis Foundation, who said that “as a Black man who’s 6’5,” 300 pounds from Chicago,” his frustrations are regularly misinterpreted as aggression.

He said that he often feels the meaning of his words get lost in translation.

“I would talk with the same demeanor that they had, but because I was taller, and maybe I
was looking down on them, and I was being more animated talking with my hands,” he felt unheard, said Brandon Williams, a criminal justice and safe communities intern at the Minneapolis Foundation.

Code-switch response

Some Black people respond by learning to code-switch, or changing the way they speak based on the audience, said Ferome Brown, who runs the outreach program Urban Youth Conservation.

“Being a big Black dude, and not being of a light-skinned color and being dark, I just feel like I’m always going to be looked at as a threat,” he said.

Artika Tyner, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said that Donald Williams’ was most likely reacting to the trauma of watching Floyd’s final moments.

People are still grappling with the history of looking at all of the challenges around race in America,” she said. “And it didn’t start in 2020.” 

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