House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had months (and months) to ponder what she would say if and when former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd. Which makes what she did say on Wednesday – in the immediate aftermath of the Chauvin verdict – all the more baffling.
“Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice,” Pelosi said at an event with the Congressional Black Caucus shortly after the verdict. “For being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that,” Pelosi said during the news conference. “And because of you … your name will always be synonymous with justice.”
Clearly, this is a poorly constructed line. Floyd didn’t want to “sacrifice” his life. Pelosi’s comment seems to bizarrely suggest that Floyd had some choice in the situation, when in actuality he had zero say or control over whether a police stop would end in his death.
While Floyd’s death sparked a national movement aimed at examining and reforming race and policing, the best outcome for Floyd and his family would be that he was still alive. That Chauvin hadn’t kneeled on his neck for nine-plus minutes as Floyd said, repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.”
And while the verdict reached Tuesday gives his family some sort of closure after such a heartbreaking and terrible year-long ordeal, racial profiling by police remains a huge and unacceptable injustice in this country.
The utter tone-deafness of Pelosi’s comments – her first since the verdict was announced! – drew immediate reaction, especially on social media, where people wondered what the heck she was talking about.
“You have to imagine Pelosi tried that line out on people around her earlier and they nodded along as if it wasn’t one of the most offensive things they’d ever heard,” tweeted Ryan Grim, the DC bureau chief of The Intercept.
Pelosi sought to clean up the mess she had made. She took to Twitter, writing this:
“George Floyd should be alive today. His family’s calls for justice for his murder were heard around the world. He did not die in vain. We must make sure other families don’t suffer the same racism, violence & pain, and we must enact the George Floyd #JusticeInPolicing Act.”
Which, well, yeah. But why didn’t you say that – or anything close to that – the first time around?
Look. Moments like this – when the country is literally on a knife’s edge waiting for a verdict on a cop’s role in the death of a Black man – are deeply fraught for any public figure. Everyone is watching. Tensions are high. Emotions are higher. Saying the wrong thing – or trying to say the right thing and still saying the wrong thing – is going to get lots and lots of attention.
Speaking of trying to say the right thing and still saying the wrong thing: Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis took responsibility for tweeting, “I CAN BREATHE” following the verdict from the team’s official account. Davis said he was unaware that the phrase was one used by people supporting the police in the aftermath of the death of Eric Garner in 2014 at the hands of the police. He said that he meant the tweet as supportive of Floyd’s family, citing Floyd’s brother who, after the verdict, said that “today, we are able to breathe again.” Said Davis: “If I offended the family, then I’m deeply, deeply disappointed.”
And Pelosi’s comments – while WAY off – should not eclipse the fact that she is uniquely situated to push legislative measures to work to ensure that deaths like Floyd’s never happen again. Or that she has a long record of working for racial justice in Congress and the country.
But what she said is still very much a head-scratcher. Especially when you consider that these were, I assume, carefully considered comments during a massive cultural moment. That no one in her orbit said, “Madam Speaker, maybe the whole George-Floyd-as-noble-sacrifice theme isn’t the way to go,” should raise a little bit of an alarm. Ditto the fact that Pelosi herself, one of the most skilled and accomplished politicians of her generation, didn’t hear just how bad it sounded herself.
Pelosi’s comments will be a historical footnote to the broader story of Floyd’s death – and what it meant for the country. But that fact doesn’t excuse her from coming off so tin-eared in such a big moment.