Comment: Right-wing media’s ‘no angel’ narrative needs to end

Implying Derek Chauvin’s innocence by blaming George Floyd for his own death is a long-practiced trope.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

In an appalling bit of shorthand, the riveting courtroom drama in Minneapolis has come to be called “the George Floyd trial.”

Floyd died in police custody last spring and is obviously not the one on trial. It was a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for more than nine unrelenting minutes, who now faces second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges.

But some in right-wing media keep doing their utmost to make this tragedy about Floyd’s drug use and troubled life, in what seems like an attempt to absolve Chauvin long before the jury reaches a verdict. In effect, they are putting Floyd on trial.

It feels all too familiar. This is the “well, he was no angel” narrative, obliquely blaming the victim for his fate. It’s a narrative all too often applied to Black men who die at the hands of police.

It might remind you of the way that women who make accusations about sexual assault are so often portrayed as crazy or promiscuous (and just look at how short her skirt was!).

When teenager Michael Brown got the same “he’s no angel” treatment after he was shot to death in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Mo., the author Touré was one of many who objected. “It’s as if a black person must be a perfect victim to escape being thuggified,” he wrote, “an angel with an unblemished history in order to warrant justice.”

In a recent opinion piece for Town Hall entitled “Derek Chauvin, Human Sacrifice,” outrage-stoker Ann Coulter went so far as to misrepresent the basic facts. “The chief medical examiner’s report establishes that, however else Floyd died, it wasn’t from Chauvin’s knee,” she wrote.

Simply untrue: The Hennepin County medical examiner ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, as did a private autopsy. The county called the cause of his death “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law-enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”

“Two autopsies of George Floyd differ on exactly what caused his death,” The Washington Post noted in a deep look into the case last year, “but they agree on this much: The 46-year-old African American man was a victim of homicide.”

Experts did note the high level of fentanyl in Floyd’s body, which Coulter, who specializes in nastiness, claimed was “enough to bump off an entire team of Budweiser Clydesdales.”

Fox’s bigfoot prime-time host, Tucker Carlson, has been on board with this campaign for months.

“There was no physical evidence that George Floyd was murdered by a cop,” he confidently told his audience in February. “The autopsy showed that George Floyd almost certainly died of a drug overdose, fentanyl.”

Carlson returned to the topic in a lengthy segment in March as jury selection was underway. He dismissed the idea that Floyd represented every Black man who gets unfair treatment from the American criminal justice system. Showing video of Minneapolis in flames, he mocked the racial-justice movement that followed Floyd’s death: “Because he died, we have something called ‘equity.’”

In fact, Carlson believes the unfairness runs in the opposite direction. “It’s likely that Derek Chauvin won’t receive a fair trial,” he declared, using words like “mob justice.”

Carlson also found it necessary to go through Floyd’s previous arrests. These have exactly nothing to do with Chauvin’s murder trial; except that they nicely fit the “no angel” narrative: Whatever happened, it’s his fault.

Last week, Fox’s trial coverage got the same point across in slightly more subtle ways: “DARK PAST DETAILED” blared a headline after Floyd’s girlfriend described her own struggles with opioid addiction as well as Floyd’s. Even Fox’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, the former Washington Post reporter who is usually a relatively fair-minded voice, saw fit to use the coded language.

“George Floyd was not an angel,” Kurtz said on air last weekend. “He was a drug addict, who initially resisted arrest. Yet I’m not seeing too many commentators saying Derek Chauvin is getting a raw deal in being charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.”

It’s hard to see a clear connection between Floyd’s past and the supposed need for more sympathetic media coverage of Chauvin. But, then again, this kind of thing goes back many years. In 2000, when 26-year-old security guard Patrick Dorismond was killed outside a New York nightclub after shoving undercover officers, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani sniffed that Dorismond was “no altar boy.”

Whatever that was supposed to mean, it wasn’t factual. To Rudy’s chagrin, it turned out that Dorismond had, in fact, been an altar boy.

Two decades later, not much has changed, but it needs to.

The “no angel” narrative, and its variations, are racist smears. Unlike George Floyd, they deserve to die.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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