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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

‘I was failing’: Bystanders carry guilt from watching George Floyd die

The often tearful testimony has highlighted how the trauma of May 25 rippled outward, with eyewitnesses describing how they have been left not only with memories of the graphic end to Floyd’s life but also guilt that they could not do anything to save him.

By: New York Times | Minneapolis |
April 4, 2021 10:47:12 am
Minneapolis, Minneapolis news, Minneapolis homicide investigator, Derek Chauvin, Minnesota attorney general, Richard Zimmerman, us news, world news, indian expressVisitors pay their respects at George Floyd Square while the fourth day of trial continues for Derek Chauvin, who is facing murder charges in the death of George Floyd, in Minneapolis. (Reuters)

Written by John Eligon (Sheelagh McNeill contributed research)

Alyssa Funari needed a cord to connect her cellphone to the car to play music, so she pulled up to a corner store in south Minneapolis one early evening last May.

After a long day of fishing with his son and friends, Donald Williams II headed to the same store, Cup Foods, to buy a drink and clear his head.

And 9-year-old Judeah Reynolds needed some snacks, so she walked with her older cousin to the store, which she had visited many times before, wearing a teal T-shirt inscribed with the word “Love.”

On May 25, the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue was alive in its usual way, attracting a cross section of Twin Cities residents handling life’s most mundane rituals: filling up a gas tank, taking a stroll, buying dinner.

But in an instant, the lives that converged on the block that evening would forever change, drawn together by agonizing moments of anger, desperation and sadness.

A week into the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd, a clearer picture has emerged of what transpired at that intersection beyond the gruesome, widely circulated video of Floyd crying out that he could not breathe.

As the nation watched this past week, witness after witness described an acute sense of lingering pain and how one corner in Minneapolis has become a haunting presence in their lives. The often tearful testimony has highlighted how the trauma of May 25 rippled outward, with eyewitnesses describing how they have been left not only with memories of the graphic end to Floyd’s life but also guilt that they could not do anything to save him.

In their own way, each has shown the burden of being a bystander to a violent, slow-motion death and the crippling self-doubt that followed.

Ten bystanders, ranging in age from 9 to 61, took the stand in the Hennepin County courthouse this past week. Some said they cannot stomach ever going back to the place where it happened. Others, including some who did not appear in court, still cannot stop second-guessing what transpired.

“It was difficult because I felt like there wasn’t really anything I could do as a bystander,” said Funari, 18, who testified Tuesday and can be seen in police body camera footage standing just off the curb in a white tank top, filming Floyd’s arrest. Referring to the police, she added, “The highest power was there, and I felt like I was failing.”

The intersection sits near one of Minneapolis’ historic Black neighborhoods. It is usually busy, with one of the few gas stations in the neighborhood and a couple of restaurants. And Cup Foods is a place people go for a little bit of everything: to purchase snacks or something more hearty, like pizza puffs; to cash checks or wire money.

In the months since Floyd’s death, the intersection has been closed to traffic, and a sprawling memorial has sprung up. The Speedway gas station is closed, and activists have altered its sign to “Peoples Way.” They hold regular meetings around a bonfire in between the pumps. There is talk of community and healing. But there also has been a spike in crime, and city officials are at something of a standoff with activists over reopening the intersection.

Cup Foods is largely back to its normal rhythms, with regulars popping in and joking with staff members, who hold court from behind a high counter. But there is an unspoken burden that many employees carry — those who have stayed, at least.

Christopher Martin, 19, was the clerk who first flagged an apparently fake $20 bill that Floyd had used to pay for cigarettes, setting in motion the events that led to the confrontation with police. Testifying Wednesday, his voice steady but strained, Martin explained that he was overcome with disbelief and guilt last May as he watched Chauvin and two other officers on top of Floyd.

“If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided,” he said in court.

Adam Abumayyaleh, who owns Cup Foods with his brothers, said in an interview that Martin came to him in tears after Floyd had died and said it was his fault.

“I told him, ‘Stop it, that’s nonsense,’” said Abumayyaleh, who was not called to testify.

Martin stopped working at Cup Foods, telling Abumayyaleh that coming to the neighborhood gave him bad energy.

Abumayyaleh himself sometimes wonders, “What if?” He was the manager on duty the night Floyd died and had instructed a clerk to call police after Floyd twice refused to return to the store after using the fake bill.

Abumayyaleh said he had been back at work for just three days last May, following a severe bout with COVID-19. He was in the middle of a three-hour job unlocking cellphones and was distracted. Had he not been busy, he said, he likely would have been the one to go out and confront Floyd and his friends about the fake bill, and the outcome might have been different.

“If I can go back, of course I would not call the police,” he said. “Objectively, I know we didn’t do anything wrong. We are not responsible for the police being bad people.”

The growing desperation of bystanders as they realized what was happening was evident in court throughout the week.

On the stand, Funari recalled being with a friend, driving her grandfather’s 2003 Buick Century and seeing the commotion when she pulled up to Cup Foods. She soon began recording, and her pleas, sometimes punctuated with expletives, for the police to help Floyd grew angrier and more urgent as he went motionless.

A 17-year-old high school junior at the time, Funari said in her testimony that she almost decided to leave when she saw what was happening but felt compelled to stay.

“I knew that it was wrong, and I couldn’t just walk away, even though I couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.

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