Did stigma kill George Floyd?

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If George Floyd had an “acceptable” disease instead of an addiction, would he have been treated differently by the police?

If he carried a portable oxygen tank and breathed through a mask, would he have been thrown to the ground and crushed by police officers for nearly 10 minutes? Throughout the ordeal, police speculated as to George Floyd’s impairment. “He’s got to be on something!” “What are you on?” We found a weed pipe on him!” The officers surmised that the “shaking of the eyes” was caused by PCP. “Where their eyes like shake back and forth really fast?” At no point did they regard George Floyd as a human being in severe distress — rather, he was seen as “just another guy on drugs.”

As the trial in Minneapolis progresses, I am reminded of the many lessons I’ve learned as chair of the On Island initiative here on the Vineyard. I have long understood that addiction is a physical disease — now I see that it’s stigma that sends people into a hopeless spiral of isolation and despair, often leading to overdose and death. We learned from George Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, that before his own death he had relapsed following the death of his mother. Ross described him as being devastated by grief, “kind of a shell of himself,” and “he was broken.” It’s not surprising then, that Floyd may have been misusing on the day he died, even though he was lucid and in a cheerful mood — until he was terrorized by officers with guns drawn.

When Officer Chauvin was confronted by Charles McMillian, an eyewitness to George Floyd’s killing, he excused his lethal actions, saying that he thought George Floyd was under the influence; “probably on something” and “it would appear that he was high.” To Officer Chauvin, George Floyd wasn’t a man, he was a series of symptoms.

The dehumanizing stigma of substance misuse is something we are striving to confront through the On Island initiative. Anti-stigma campaigns are springing up across the country as people become better educated. We are changing attitudes about substance use disorder through simple love and understanding, but in Officer Chauvin’s mind, it provided an acceptable rationale for him to kneel on George Floyd’s neck until his life drained away from him and flowed out onto the streets of the entire world.

Chip Coblyn is chair of the On Island Public Health Committee at M.V. Community Services.

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