Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Look of Impassivity

I am haunted by the image of Derek Chauvin's impassive face as he kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.  That’s a long time—try this. Stay silent for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It’s a long time.

And yet through the whole time, the face of the policeman was impassive, unmoved, almost bored in appearance. Keep in mind, under his knee a fellow human being is struggling, attempting to breathe and PLEADING for his life –“I can’t breathe.”

As the video was played, replayed and replayed, I could not keep watching it. Floyd was dying, and Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck the whole time. So many things haunted me, but what struck me the most was the look on Chauvin’s face. Looking around. Not registering any feeling as to common humanity. Bored. 

It struck me because I had seen that look before. And then I remembered where.  When I was in my last job, teaching composition at the local community college, I had a classroom full of (mostly bored) students. Composition is the last course most students want to take but the one they ALL must take. It was not uncommon to lose the students’ attention. Usually, with my “teaching skills,” I was able to reconnect them (most of them) with the topic at hand.

But, one day I realized that bit by bit all of the students were not paying attention. It started with the row of students closest to the window. They began looking intently out the window at something that had them captivated. Then the next row, and the next until practically the whole class were out of their seats looking down from our 2nd story classroom to the green quad outside. So, I gave up and joined them.

There under a magnificent huge tree was a hawk. It was sitting on the ground, and held in its talons a squirrel. The squirrel was struggling mightily, trying every which way to escape. But the hawk held fast. And while it did, it leisurely looked around. Head swiveling slowly one way, then another. All the while the squirrel struggled and the hawk seemed utterly indifferent. This battle continued for minutes—no idea how long, but it was clear the class was done. Finally, I suggested that we regather and continue whatever the lesson was. Reluctantly, many students turned back to their desks. I, however, could still see out the window. And I knew the struggle continued.

After minutes—maybe 8 minutes and 46 seconds—the squirrel ceased struggling. It lay on the ground motionless, still held in the talons of the hawk. After a brief respite, the hawk leisurely spread its wings, clasped its prey and flew off. The now dead squirrel dangled pathetically, its tail waving in the breeze.

The image of that hawk—predatory, seemingly disengaged from the struggle under it—that’s where I had seen a look like Chauvin’s before.