South Africa

OPINIONISTA: George Floyd trial: The echoes of apartheid ring ominously in the testimony of Dr David Fowler

It appears that no court of law or medicine is willing to tackle the role of ‘white’ brain memory embedded in experts and authority figures of all races when dealing with black bodies – not least in the case of George Floyd.

While I was driving home last week, I thought I heard a white South African accent on National Public Radio and I turned keen. South Africa. I love that fraught and beautiful country. 

I was hearing Dr David Fowler, the former chief medical examiner of Maryland, testifying at the George Floyd trial. He was contradicting Dr Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County medical examiner who conducted the autopsy of George Floyd, and suggesting that Floyd died of indeterminate causes. Fowler had been called out of retirement to testify by Derek Chauvin’s defence.  

For an honorarium, Fowler testified that I was mistaken as a witness. I had not seen a murder. Officer Derek Chauvin was merely restraining Floyd due to his display of belligerence. I did not hear Floyd’s pleas for breath or cries for his late mother, nor had I seen the crowd crying out to the police officers to desist from snuffing Floyd’s life out. No, I was gravely misled, according to his expertise in forensic pathology.  

There was the police car, after all. The carbon monoxide from the exhaust, Floyd’s enlarged heart, or it could have been the drugs that Floyd was ingesting. Fowler implied that there were plenty of causes that forwarded this black man’s body to his death. But it was certainly not the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Derek Chauvin took to pin his knee deeper and deeper into the neck of George Floyd that I had witnessed. No deed was done. George Floyd died due to unspecified reasons and that was that.

The expert doctor has built up a profile. In his previous life, Dr David Fowler belonged to multiple generations of South African doctors who practised their medicine in a society constructed on the basis of sociopolitical segregation and race-based discrimination. 

As Keymanthri Moodley and Sharon Kling, academics from Stellenbosch University, wrote in 2015: Apartheid seriously corrupted the moral fibre of South African society in a manner that permeated and broke the core ethical covenants of the medical profession. Separation between the profession and the state became opaque and ambiguous.” (1) 

The political prisoner, Steve Biko, fell famously into this corrupt vice between the medical profession and the interests of the apartheid state. As Barney Pityana wrote, “… the Biko affair marked a moral threshold in public life in South Africa. The reputation of the medical profession had never sunk as low. Confidence had evaporated. It was no longer just a matter of moral wrongdoing by a few medical practitioners. Through the actions of Masa and the SAMDC, the whole organised medical profession became implicated in that wrongdoing [9].” (2)

You have to put the black man down, plant your foot on his neck, and keep him that way forever, lest he spring up and slit your white throat,” was the founding rationale for South Africa’s apartheid and modern state, according to memoirist Rian Malan (3)

After the dismantling of apartheid in 1994, I learnt that some of these doctors, along with some white policemen, committed suicide. Is it possible that they were consumed by their misguided loyalties? With the coming demise of apartheid in the 1990s, many white South Africans emigrated to countries where they could still be white and carry on with their professional practices. Here in the United States, Dr Fowler seems to be operating incognito.

In Maryland, where he was the chief medical examiner, Fowler has had a record of defending deaths in police custody. Thirty percent of deaths in custody have been designated as indeterminate, on his watch. 

Anton Black’s family has filed a lawsuit against this doctor for concealing the role of law enforcement in the death of their son.  Anton, a black teenager, was killed by three white Maryland police officers and a white civilian in 2018. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland released a statement this week saying that under Fowler’s leadership, the Maryland medical examiner’s office has been complicit in creating false narratives about what kills Black people in police encounters”. (4) It is a practised South African art for Dr Fowler. He is now a custom-made expert for America’s defence lawyers. 

While there are questions these days about how the policewoman Kim Potter could have slipped up on her muscle memory and mistaken her gun for a taser as she shot Daunte Wright, or how the policeman Derek Chauvin could have persisted with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, it might help to check with the power of brain memory in our society.  

It appears that no court of law or medicine is willing to tackle the role of “white” brain memory embedded in experts and authority figures of all races when dealing with black bodies. 

George Floyd’s body was large and threatening to Chauvin; Daunte Wright was a menacing figure for Kim Potter – the crowd that gathered near Floyd as passersby appeared intimidating to the police. The poor and minority populations become omnipotent and omnipresent in the eyes of law enforcement and provide sufficient grounds for deadly restraints in the cultural protocols. 

The practice of American law and science precludes taking into consideration social factors when explaining violence and death. The apartheid government of Fowler’s South Africa understood the power of the brain’s reflexes around racial differences. In fact, they counted on its success quite efficaciously.  

Somehow America is holding out by appealing to its notions of “due process”, “beyond reasonable doubt”, its colour, class and gender “blindness”, and leaves its institutional racism lodged as reflexes in the American brain intact. 

That the bodies under question are disproportionately black seem extraneous to legal and medical sensibilities. Consequently, fields of law and science constructed around objective European conceptions regularly fail in the court of humanity where cultural imagination and fact are close cousins in daily operations.

I hurried home to learn more about Dr David Fowler whose tone hearkened back to the tones of doctors in witness boxes in the apartheid era. There, in South Africa. Here, in America. We live in one vast circulatory system looking for an exit. 

This week the US is preparing to deal with the Chauvin trial verdict. DM  

(1) Read here.

(2) Ibid

(3) Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart, (Vintage, 1990) p.29.

(4) Read here.

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