The phrase “Black Lives Matter” hasn’t cropped up frequently during the actual trial of police officer Derek Chauvin, who is facing manslaughter, second-degree murder, and third-degree murder charges over the death of George Floyd. But in many ways, the proceedings at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis mark a subtle sea change in how racial biases are treated in the courtroom, and show the profound impact that a year of protests challenging the police violence that Black people disproportionately face has wrought on the American legal system.
I am a scholar of juries, and my research has focused on the way citizens develop an acute understanding of their civic power when they serve on juries. I’ve paid close attention to the Black Panther trials of the 1970s, the Central Park Five trials, the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, and recent cases in which Black Lives Matter has come up in jury selection. So seeing the ways in which racial bias has been approached during the Chauvin trial jury selection, and judging from the testimony of key witnesses—during a trial of a police officer no less—I’ve taken away a sense that something new is happening in this courtroom.
In many ways, the shifts are easy to see across our political culture. A Pew Research Group Study conducted in September of 2020 found that 55 percent of Americans supported the BLM movement, a slim but notable majority in a country not historically welcoming to racial justice movements. Democratic candidates for president addressed the protests for Black lives on the campaign trail, and President Joe Biden has already committed to expanding the powers of the Department of Justice to address systemic misconduct in police departments.
During jury selection for the Chauvin trial itself, all potential jurors were asked about their view of Black Lives Matter and the responses were strongly positive. More importantly, it was not unusual to hear jurors state plainly that they thought that Blacks and whites were not treated equally under the law. Rather than using these responses as a basis for dismissal, Judge Peter Cahill found them, in conjunction with other answers about the juror’s willingness to respect the norms of the trial, to be consistent with the constitutional protection for the defendant of a fair and impartial jury. While both sides are allotted a certain number of peremptory strikes to dismiss any jurors who they think will not be favorable for their side and this was used by the defense against some potential jurors of color, the judge’s bar for “qualified” jurors set the tone in the courtroom. Put simply, he did not see support for BLM as an ideological position at odds with the responsibilities of being a juror. In fact, he seemed sympathetic to potential jurors who were distraught at how George Floyd’s death fit a pattern of abuse by the police. While he guides jurors to focus on the evidence presented in the courtroom and not on the media coverage of the incident, he also says they should use their judgment and common sense when deliberating to reach a verdict—these are attributes of the jurors’ worldviews that might be strongly influenced by the concerns of the BLM movement.
It’s important to emphasize how unusual this is. In the past, judges have treated Black Lives Matter as an extremist group that condones the destruction of property (People v. Silas, California), or treated even thoughtful reflections by a juror on the pattern of police violence as a worrisome sign for the juror’s ability to be impartial (State v Holmes, Connecticut).
During the Chauvin trial, Genevieve Hansen, the firefighter who desperately tried to assist the officers by volunteering to take Floyd’s pulse, seemed to have the history of police killings at the front of her mind when she approached the scene. Not only was she, a white woman, motivated to help Floyd because she recognized how acutely vulnerable he was in the moment, but she testified that she remained at the scene because she was worried what might happen to the Black witnesses when they interacted with the officers who remained in the area.
Some of the most startling testimony so far—not for its content but for its source—has come from Medaria Arradondo, chief of the Minneapolis Police Department. It is quite rare for a police chief to testify against an officer on their force; more often, department chiefs can fall back on the standard defense that an officer perceived a threat and acted accordingly, or was putting public safety above all other concerns. But Arradondo didn’t take those tacks—instead, the movement for Black Lives provided an alternative compelling narrative that the chief was able to access. When asked what professional policing means, Arradondo responded, “It’s really about treating people with dignity and respect, above all else, at the highest level. It’s that we see each other as necessary, we value one another and it’s really treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve.” Platitudes, sure, but coming from Arradondo, who himself is Black and once sued the MPD for discrimination, these words had a different impact in the courtroom. By invoking respect and dignity repeatedly, the very qualities that Black Lives Matter supporters say is fatally lacking in police dealings with Black Americans, his testimony revealed how the ethos of the movement has subtly pervaded the trial.
Compelling evidence of this influence came when the prosecution showed the jury footage from the officers’ body cameras of when the officers first appeared on the scene to investigate the counterfeit $20 bill. The jury saw an officer approach Floyd’s car with pistol drawn, pointing it at Floyd’s head in the driver’s seat. In the video, Floyd begs, “Please don’t shoot me” over and over again. As a country, having watched the footage of Philando Castile, killed by another Minnesota police officer in 2016, or of Rayshard Brooks, shot in the back by an Atlanta officer last year, or of Walter Scott, shot as he ran away from a North Charleston officer in South Carolina in 2015, I don’t question Floyd’s fear. The recent killing of Daunte Wright in his car by a police officer, apparently the result of a mix-up between a Taser and a Glock, shows just how present this reality is for Black Americans.
This cycle of the viral video showing black death, the outrage that follows, and the apparent return to the status quo in policing is exhausting for all and traumatic for many Black Americans, who do not want to expose themselves (and their children) to such devastating material again and again. Yet one implication of this cycle is that many people on their way into Cup Foods were concerned enough to stop and pay attention. Some of them recorded what was taking place. Others, like Charles McMillan, tried to de-escalate the situation and advocate, not solely on George Floyd’s behalf, but on behalf of the community that the police are commissioned to serve. There was something devastating in watching McMillan, a Black man and an elder to Floyd, counseling him to acquiesce to the commands of the police, despite knowing the many ways such custody could go wrong. Even when Donald Williams, another bystander, beseeched and heckled Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd’s neck—”You’re a bum, bruh”—which the defense tried to paint as a volatile threat to the officers’ safety, Williams was ultimately deferential and focused on the issue at hand. On the stand, Chief Arradonda said that officers receive training that makes explicit the right of bystanders to film the police discharging their duties and that this transparency is necessary for accountability and trust. That the bystanders all did as much as they could to voice their concern, and that it had no impact on the outcome, reveals the stark reality of what can happen when the police are the only ones who have the authority to use force.
Taken together, these telling moments of the trial suggest a new normal when it comes to the public’s expectation for justice in police killings. An awareness of the patterns of racial violence at the hands of the police has pervaded American public life in a way that is unprecedented. What has been obvious to many Black Americans and racial justice activists for a long time is now obvious to many more. There is no going back.