‘I Was Failing’: Bystanders Carry Guilt From Watching George Floyd Die
Their pain has been mostly hidden for the last 10 months. But over the first week of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, it spilled tearfully into the open as witnesses testified to their shared trauma.,
MINNEAPOLIS — 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 with murdering George Floyd, a clearer picture has emerged of what transpired at that intersection beyond the gruesome, widely circulated video of Mr. Floyd crying out that he couldn’t breathe.
As the nation watched this 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 Mr. 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 week. Some said they can’t stomach ever going back to the place where it happened. Others, including some who didn’t appear in court, still can’t stop second-guessing what transpired.
“It was difficult because I felt like there wasn’t really anything I could do as a bystander,” said Ms. Funari, 18, who testified on Tuesday and can be seen in police body camera footage standing just off the curb in a white tank top, filming Mr. 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’s 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 Mr. 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 the 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 Mr. Floyd had used to pay for cigarettes, setting in motion the events that led to the confrontation with the police. Testifying on Wednesday, his voice steady but strained, Mr. Martin explained that he was overcome with disbelief and guilt last May as he watched Mr. Chauvin and two other officers on top of Mr. 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 Mr. Martin came to him in tears after Mr. Floyd had died and said it was his fault.
“I told him, ‘Stop it, that’s nonsense,'” said Mr. Abumayyaleh, who was not called to testify.
Mr. Martin stopped working at Cup Foods, telling Mr. Abumayyaleh that coming to the neighborhood gave him bad energy.
Mr. Abumayyaleh himself sometimes wonders “What if?” He was the manager on duty the night Mr. Floyd died and had instructed a clerk to call the police after Mr. Floyd twice refused to return to the store after using the fake bill.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”
Raykel Neubert, who works in the store’s cellphone section, also did not appear in court. She rarely discusses what happened on May 25, but the trial has forced her to relive it. She had shown up to work the day of Mr. Floyd’s death excited to be sporting the red Air Jordan III sneakers she had purchased earlier that day. That feeling would be completely upended hours later when she stood just feet from Mr. Chauvin as he knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck.
On Wednesday, she broke down in the store, where she still works, when the prosecution played surveillance footage in court from inside Cup Foods on the day of Mr. Floyd’s death. It was the first time she had seen that footage, in which she appears.
It reminded her of the day’s innocuous, playful moments. People joked with Mr. Floyd about his size, and he did push-ups to show off his strength, she recalled.
A short time later, she was yelling at the police officers to get off Mr. Floyd.
“I just was in a panic,” she said. “It didn’t make sense why he was on the ground like that. He did nothing wrong enough for him to be treated like that.”
Her mother, Kelly Neubert, said that when her daughter returned to the intersection a few days later to visit the growing memorial, she saw the police in the distance, causing her to scream and run. Her daughter is not as open as she used to be and has become short-tempered, she said.
“I think the feeling of being helpless and watching that and not being able to help just ate right through her,” she said.
The growing desperation of bystanders as they realized what was happening was evident in court throughout the week.
On the stand, Ms. 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 Mr. Floyd grew angrier and more urgent as he went motionless.
A 17-year-old high school junior at the time, Ms. 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.
For 10 months, these bystanders went on with their mostly anonymous lives, living with their guilt on their own. The trial has suddenly thrust them into the spotlight, where they were asked to work through their feelings before not just a jury but also their neighbors and a country riveted by their words.
Among the most powerful testimony came from Mr. Williams, 33, a mixed martial arts fighter who works as a security guard and became among the most animated bystanders. He stepped off the curb several times and was once pushed back by one of the police officers.
He warned one of the officers that they too would be haunted by their actions, and that the officer would want to kill himself for what they did to Mr. Floyd.
As he spoke in court, it was clear that Mr. Williams was still struggling with what he saw. He recalled on the stand how seeing Mr. Floyd become lifeless reminded him of watching a fish he had caught earlier that day gasp before dying.
“The more that the knee was on his neck and shimmies were going on, the more you saw Floyd fade away,” he said in court. “And like a fish in a bag, you saw his eyes slowly pale out and again slowly roll to the back.”
The youngest person to take the stand, Judeah, 9, recalled how her trip to get snacks with her cousin, Darnella Frazier, who recorded the video of Mr. Floyd that was widely seen, turned into something that will stay with her forever. In the plain-spoken manner of a child, she said seeing Mr. Chauvin on top of Mr. Floyd made her mad and sad.
“It felt like he was stopping his breathing and it’s kind of, like, hurting him,” she said.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.