It can be hard to remember that behind the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin handed down yesterday—a verdict that represents an important and (sadly) surprising step toward greater police accountability at a time when it’s sorely needed—there is a murdered man named George Floyd whose life won’t be restored or redeemed by a jury in Minneapolis. We know the horrible details of the case, of course, and we know Floyd’s name, but the relief we feel at the judgment has a way of clouding our vision of what it cost. Nancy Pelosi lost sight of this, with her unintentionally crass remark about Floyd’s “sacrifice”:
Pelosi may be right that a side effect of George Floyd's murder will be a higher standard for police officers that results in fewer unnecessary deaths, but the way she phrased it—thanking him for his death—evoked such a negative reaction because it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of what happened that day. George Floyd wasn't an activist; he wasn't Martin Luther King Jr. or Bobby Sands; he didn't sign up to die for a cause. His death was a completely avoidable tragedy, and to treat him as a martyr is ugly in ways that are tough to articulate but deeply felt. Even though she didn't intend it this way, it seemed like she was saying that his death was worth it for the greater good.
And yet, if you're generous to Pelosi, you can also argue that this is a forgivable blunder, if only because her heart is (arguably) in the right place. A few other reactions we saw on social media Tuesday were less forgivable, and far less respectful of George Floyd's life, in the naked opportunism of their attempts to chase clout in the aftermath of the verdict. A tweet by the Las Vegas Raiders, which has still not been deleted, became the most notorious example:
It's worth analyzing why this felt so offensive; on the surface, the intentions seem to be similar to Pelosi's in that it's a celebration of a verdict that is clearly worth celebrating. Look, closer, though, and it gets easier to understand why the first instinct of most readers—that this is, in fact, a gross display—was the correct reading.
First, there is the cinematic nature of the presentation. An all-black background, the words “I CAN BREATHE”—a play on Floyd's desperate cries at the time of his death—and the drama of the date, which is used to indicate that we've just witnessed history. This is all very showy; designed to draw attention to whoever created it, rather than to Floyd or the verdict or anything more pertinent. It's easy to imagine that the person or people who made this thought to themselves, in the moments before sending, “people are going to think this is really powerful.” But the worst part is the Raiders logo at the bottom—a dead giveaway of why this was done in the first place. It's about the brand. Or more precisely, it's about superficially associating that brand with social justice. There's nothing wrong with that in the grand scheme, but here the association is made through a vacuous act—a Twitter post—that is trying to seek clout and prestige through the tragic death of a man who is entirely unrelated to an NFL team in Las Vegas.
Again, they have forgotten or ignored the fact that behind their ostentatious display of clout-chasing, a man has died. You can go deeper on this, and talk about how the NFL was virulently opposed to displays of social justice (like Colin Kaepernick's knee) back when it was controversial, and how jumping into the game with both feet now represents something cynical rather than aspirational. You can point to the leeching nature of capitalism, which has the audacity to feign concern over these matters when it has created the circumstances in which racial and economic inequality thrive.
All of that is legitimate, but at bottom the most frustrating part of it all is how a meaningless symbol—the theatrical Twitter post—is used to virtue signal in service of a brand, and how all of this melodrama stands in for actual activism or even genuine human concern. The tackiness gives them away; it reveals that it was all about them.
What do we call that? Shallow symbolism in service of naked opportunism. It's the opposite of caring about George Floyd.
Of course, you don't need to be a massive corporation to go wrong. David Axelrod, former Obama advisor and current CNN talking head, proved that with a tweet of his own (which he later had the good sense to delete):
Now, don't mistake me—I'm not criticizing any individual who celebrates the verdict, or expresses their relief in any way they choose, on Twitter or otherwise. Still, there's something glaring about the responses that go beyond that natural expression and into the realm of gauche attention-seeking. Here, with Axelrod, we see the same exact beats as the Raiders example—the play on words, the intentional use of drama, the sense behind the words that the author is very impressed with himself. There is no corporate logo this time, but there doesn't have to be; the name, David Axelrod, is the logo. This is self-promotion rather than brand promotion, but it's the same exact beast. It's the same pattern of using George Floyd's death for self-serving purposes. The showy presentation allows for no other interpretation; this is about directing attention back to the writer, about making the Chauvin verdict about him. (And I'll admit that picking on the Raiders and Axelrod is tough, because they weren't the only guilty parties; it was quite widespread. They just happened to be two of the most prominent entities.)
We call this clout-chasing, whether it happens on the individual or corporate level, and the aim is to increase one's status. And sure, we all want status, and we all chase it to some extent. Many of us have been guilty of crassness in service of that desire, whether we're public figures or a private citizen virtue-posting on Facebook. But there's something uglier, something worse, about standing on the back of a murdered man to grab at that brass ring. And, undeniably, it's worse when it comes from a massive organization with a shoddy record on social justice, or a white man who has no business putting himself front and center on such an issue.
As a counter-example, a public figure like Bernie Sanders would be expected to have a response to the verdict, and when his time came, he showed a nuanced understanding of the issue, and a sense of propriety in his response:
To be clear, we should be grateful for this verdict. Anyone can praise it, of any race. A company can praise it, if that’s what they want, although the praise is better and more meaningful when it’s understated. None of this is meant to say that we should reserve commentary or keep our opinions to ourselves; on the contrary, it’s important to express approval at Chauvin’s conviction, because it’s the right thing to do and because widespread support makes it more likely that the new standard has real traction and starts to change certain dynamics in our country. All of that is fine and good.
What’s not fine is outing yourself as a shallow opportunist who sees something like the Chauvin verdict as a chance to bolster your own profile, to signal your own virtues, and to burnish your bona fides as a caring, compassionate liberal. That, at least to me, represents a kind of sociopathic behavior, and it makes the cause and everyone who supports it look worse by association. Derek Chauvin’s conviction, it has become necessary to say, is not about you. George Floyd was an ordinary human being who was murdered, and it would be wise for certain people and certain institutions to remember that fact before they clamber on his corpse to seek a share of the spotlight.