What Really Killed George Floyd?

As I write this, a court in Minneapolis has just completed the process of seating a jury in the matter of Derek Chauvin, the first of four former police officers set to stand trial in the case of the death of George “I Can’t Breathe” Floyd.

Chauvin — as shown in that notorious and widely distributed video — kept Floyd on the ground, his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes, as Floyd pled for his life; some five minutes in, he became unresponsive: Chauvin kept the pressure up for close to another three minutes.

The city, the state of Minnesota, and — to some degree — the country as a whole are watching and waiting: for the trial, for the verdict, for the response(s) the verdict will trigger.

Understandably, security is . . . tight: with more than 2000 National Guard troops activated to backstop the 1000+ law enforcement officers called in from across the region.

“The Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis [is] . . . encircled with concrete barricades, several layers of fencing and a long, rusty coil of razor wire,” according to NPR reporter Matt Sepic.

To ask what killed George Floyd might seem something between ludicrous and obscene, but there are some who are not only asking the question but providing what we might view as an “alternative facts” answer: drugs — along with a history of cardiac problems and a recent bout of Covid-19.

And — whether you see that “answer” as being given in good faith or not — Floyd’s post-mortem tox screen, at first glance, lends support to that theory: the tests revealed the presence, in Floyd’s blood, of the narcotic Fentanyl, the stimulant methamphetamine, marijuana, caffeine, and nicotine — we might boil this down to a speedball, a joint, a cup of coffee and a cigarette — at potentially lethal levels.

“I am not saying this killed him,” said Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker, who formally declared Floyd’s death a homicide, but, if Floyd had been “found dead at home alone and [there were] no other apparent causes,” it would have been “acceptable” to call his death an overdose.

So . . . how do we “justify” or explain this?

How could a cocktail of substances at the recorded levels not be fatal?

Here’s the thing — aside from the nicotine? — Floyd’s test results could be my test results, from the random drug testing to which I have been subjected for more than a decade: I’ve been using a 50 mcg. Fentanyl patch for more than a year; taking Adderall (amphetamine salts) for decades; and I vape marijuana at night, to help with pain, insomnia, and muscle spasms.

All of that is being done under medical supervision; everything that I am taking is being legally prescribed (at the state level, at any rate, for the marijuana).

For more than three decades now, narcotic pain medication has been the only treatment that renders me at least borderline functional and, as a consequence, I have a very high tolerance for narcotics and for sedating substances generally.

Just how high a tolerance?

A few years back, in the wake of the second of three shoulder surgeries, one of my physicians noted that, “If I were taking the level of pain meds I’m giving you, I’d be dead.”

What he was giving me? Was just enough to keep me from spending most of my “recovery time” writhing on the floor in agony.

Absent context?

“A lot” or “too much” or “a potentially fatal dose”?

Those are meaningless phrases!

Cut the Fentanyl patch I’m wearing into thirds, and stick each portion on an “opiate naïve,” five-foot-tall, ninety-nine-pound patient?

There’s a good chance you end up with three dead patients.

For me? It’s just enough — enough to make the pain bearable, not so much that the medication itself becomes a functional problem.

But . . . if I were to trip at the top of a staircase, tumble down, crack my skull and die?

And my insurance company, before paying off my wife, required a tox screen, to determine how much what happened was an accident and how much of it might have been my fault?

My tox screen would look very much like that of George Floyd — the only thing I would be missing is evidence of nicotine usage — and some (medically ignorant) people might be inclined to think that what had happened to me was “obvious,” a consequence of my “abusing” drugs.

In fact, some have argued that our sense of “the opioid crisis” has been distorted in part because, in many jurisdictions, a tox screen that looks like mine — or that of George Floyd — automatically tags the death as “drug-related.”

I don’t know what explains the various substances in Mr. Floyd’s blood when he died: Were they legally prescribed? Was he self-medicating? There is testimony from friends and family that he had a substance abuse problem.

I don’t care.

It doesn’t matter.

I have not been able to bring myself to watch the video of George Floyd’s death — it’s . . . too much — but I can say with some authority, from long and very personal experience: the idea that his tox screen represents “cold hard numbers,” or a “clear fact set,” the implication that it makes him “dirty,” and, by extension, makes former officer Chauvin “clean,” providing an alternate explanation for how Floyd died?

No.

No.

Just . . . No!

George Floyd was murdered — an “assault under color of authority,” a cold-blooded, broad-daylight, execution, committed by Derek Chauvin, witnessed, and abetted, by a number of other “peace officers,” caught on video, observed by a crowd of civilians — as he begged for his life and cried out for his mother.

Yelling Black Man on Drugs! changes that reality not at all.

Not this time.

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