Commentary: Whether It’s Floyd’s Death or an Opioid Crisis, When the Defense Relies on Victim Blaming, Racism and Stigma Persist

Black Lives Matter demonstrations such as this one in Morgantown, West Virginia, in June 2020, took place across the country following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2021 by Minneapolis police officers. Derek Chauvin, one of four police officers involved in the incident, knelt on Floyd’s neck and back for about 9 minutes. Chauvin was found guilty of all three counts against him after a three-week trial on April 20, 2021. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

I was standing in my mom’s kitchen in April listening to The Daily’s report on the trial of Derek Chauvin. The podcast from the New York Times was discussing the primary argument of Chauvin’s defense team: They were going to attempt to prove that George Floyd was not killed by Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, but rather his “illicit drug use and existing heart condition.” 

The decision by Chauvin’s defense to suggest Floyd didn’t pass due to a lack of oxygen felt laughably bad, but only for a second. After the second passed, I remembered the villainization of a Black man is intrinsic to our judicial system. Of course they would try to pile blame onto Floyd’s legacy, even as he is still being mourned. 

As their defense played out, Chauvin’s lawyers fixated on Floyd’s words from the video clip, in which they claimed he said, “I ate too many drugs.” Prosecutors asserted Floyd said, “I ain’t do no drugs.” Why would Floyd tell these officers that he had done drugs, as his life was being threatened? And even if he had, what about this sentence justified Chauvin’s conduct? What I heard on the tape was Floyd telling the officers that he hadn’t done any drugs because he was trying to placate their extreme reaction; a last attempt to claim his innocence, though he was not granted this basic right.

It was a sinister move by the defense to reduce the harm their client faced. Chauvin had no case besides this antagonistic portrayal of Floyd’s character, and though they tried to deflect Chauvin’s guilt in other ways – such as their factually inaccurate suggestion that the exhaust from the police car could be to blame for his death – it was this discussion that reminded me of how people who use drugs and people with substance use disorders are portrayed by our society: as deviant, criminal. But these portrayals lack the necessary historical context. 

The country’s War on Drugs and its demonization of BIPOC who use drugs or have substance use disorders have permeated our legal system so much so that people who use drugs or have an addiction are not considered with the empathy and forgiveness we reserve for rich, white people with the same attributes, but rather with jail time and fierce dehumanization. It was a white doctor, Dr. Martin Tobin, who had to confirm for the court in Chauvin’s trial that Floyd didn’t have fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, in his system. “There isn’t fentanyl on board that is affecting his respiratory centers,” he said. “It’s not having an effect on his respiratory centers.” 

The Chauvin trial ended last month with a guilty verdict, but I was reminded of this unsuccessful, legal finger-pointing when the word “pillbilly” popped up on my Twitter feed just a few weeks later. Three of the biggest opioid distributor companies —  AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — are currently on trial in Charleston, West Virginia, for their role in pushing opioids to create the largest drug crisis ever suffered by Appalachians. It turns out knowingly contributing to their deaths was not weighing on the consciousnesses of top executives at AmerisourceBergen. Instead, they were laughing. 

An email submitted into evidence by the government reveals a song written to the tune of “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme that tells of a “poor mountaineer named Jed” and his attempt to secure more Oxycontin. It’s a hard email to swallow, as the people who are characterized as “pillbillies” are deprived of any humanity. As if the song wasn’t already deplorable enough, a message at the top reads: “I sent this to you a month or so ago — glad to see it recirculating ?.” That smiley face is something out of a Hollywood depiction of these kinds of shadowy executives; it’s too evil to be real, yet there it is. Evil as they come. 

The victims in this case – the groups bringing the charges against the companies – are the City of Huntington and Cabell County, in which the city lies. These communities became defined by the deaths caused by drug overdoses over the past decade. 

The city lies on the Ohio River near the state’s border with both Virginia and Ohio, and it should be known for its scenic mountains, for the West Virginia that is “Wild and Wonderful” and “Almost Heaven.” Instead, the community is having to engage in a legal battle for financial retribution. They’re having to hear defense attorneys for the opioid distributors characterize their town and their people with a classist notion of Appalachia.“It’s impossible to look at the epidemic without focusing on doctors, on Purdue, on the failure of government agencies and a host of socioeconomic factors and criminal behavior,” said Robert Nicholas, a lawyer for AmerisourceBergen. 

There’s that narrative again; the one that faults the victims of drug marketing and economic greed for their “criminal behavior,” as though they were born with it. Or as if they inherited addiction, not from the pill bottles pushed by these companies, but instead because of their county’s economic devastation. To claim “a host of socioeconomic factors” and to ignore the lines of the executive’s sick entertainment, “Pain clinics, cash ‘n carry, a bevy of hillbillies,” is an unveiling of their absent defense, as they are not just distributors of opioids, but they’re also distributors who took advantage of an economically struggling community.   

I am left angry at this classist portrayal, where the victims who lost so much are just subjects in a legal battle with “criminal behavior.” So I must point to a photography exhibit I saw in the fall of 2018 at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, that gives people with a substance use disorder a space to be understood with a clearer sense of humanity. It was Beth Macy, author of “Dopesick,” and Josh Metzer presentation of  “Portraits from the Frontline of the Opioid Epidemic.” 

The intersection of art and addiction in the Taubman that day showed me what I’d been suspicious of for a long time; directive exercises in understanding narratives around addiction should be done with empathy, and it’s ultimately a measure towards justice. Museum attendees are commonly the least likely to have exposure to the darkness of opioid addiction, and if we can successfully continue to push towards the stories of Appalachians who have their lives wrung out and decided by Big Pharma, we can start asking what else can be done.  

Elliot Van Noy is a graduate of the University of Virginia’s class of 2021 with a double major in Literary Prose Writing and American Studies. She is originally from Floyd, Virginia, where her home sits two miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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