Report From the Chauvin Trial: Blitzkrieg at Brooklyn Center

Report From the Chauvin Trial: Blitzkrieg at Brooklyn Center

Report From the Chauvin Trial: Blitzkrieg at Brooklyn Center

Operation Safety Net, the multiagency task force created for the Derek Chauvin trial, ambushed and arrested protesters outside a suburban police station Friday night.


Brooklyn Center, Minn.—Behind the barricade, it smells like a barbecue, feels like spring. Smoke from a grill billows against the sunset. The street in front of the Brooklyn Center Police Department is closed and crowded. On the lawns of the low-rise apartments across from police headquarters, the Twin Cities Relief Initiative has set up plastic tables, which hold stacks of free food.

The police station sports a barricade of its own. Protest signs hang on the fence that surrounds it. Soldiers and tanks are sprawled around the building. Men in military fatigues huddle on the roof. Near a corner of the fence, a Black girl stands behind a megaphone that has been secured to a small stepladder. Her mask says:

i can’t breathe

She looks at the soldiers closest to the fence as she talks. “I know y’all hungry!” she yells. A few minutes later, another girl takes the mic. “Come over and talk to us,” she says into the megaphone. “We are the ones without the weapons. Don’t fear our skin.”

Last week, Operation Safety Net, the multiagency task force formed for the Derek Chauvin trial, migrated to the suburbs. Every night since Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old father, was killed by Brooklyn Center police, crowds have gathered outside the heavily guarded police station. And every night but one, armed agents of the state have waged chemical warfare against, fired upon, and/or arrested protesters.

Projectiles have marked people with gashes and large bruises; one fractured a 19-year-old’s face. All week, protesters went to George Floyd Square for care. “They not playing in Brooklyn Center,” organizer Marcia Howard said in a Tik Tok post documenting various wounds. Independent journalists like Unicorn Riot and the Neighborhood Reporter were detained and had gear damaged; a photojournalist was punched in the face.

This is not new to Minneapolis. Local activists are still calling for public officials to drop all charges for the 646 protesters kettled on a freeway last November. Aggressive tactics, from curfews to tear gas, were also used during the protests immediately following George Floyd’s death: a CNN crew in Minneapolis was arrested live on-air; a 25-year-old hit with a projectile was recently scheduled for his sixth eye surgery; a 19-year-old remains blind in one eye.

Last week in Brooklyn Center, the only night free of arrests was Thursday—the same day that Operation Safety Net swarmed Minneapolis. In the middle of the afternoon, National Guard soldiers patrolled sidewalks, their tanks parked casually on the street. The next night in Brooklyn Center, police and the National Guard rushed the crowd.

On Friday night, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott implemented a last-minute curfew. Operation Safety Net rapidly and forcefully cleared protesters from the barricaded street. Officers and soldiers ambushed protesters around 10 pm after some began shaking a fence. A hundred and thirty-six people were arrested. Others sprinted to safety, hiding in trees and getting rides home from strangers. Despite a federal injunction, police continued to target the press.

Last week, over 40 local organizations called on Governor Tim Walz and other leaders to end Operation Safety Net, citing a report that 40 percent of people hit by rubber bullets sustained head injuries. When asked about aggressive policing, Walz called the use of tear gas “thoughtful.” He added that many protesters want to be arrested. “They got their wish,” he said.

Before the sun set on Friday night, activists from a wide range of groups—from Native Lives Matter to the Black Panthers—held space outside the police station. A sign affixed to the fence read, “The climate is changing, why aren’t we?” On the side of the road, shirts were handed out that said:

stop killing black people

When the sun went down, police and the National Guard moved in. Some protesters sought refuge in a local church. Teenagers filmed themselves on Instagram Live. On the livestream, a Black girl shows where she was hit with a projectile. The phone number for the the National Lawyers Guild is pinned in the chat. People inside the church hand out snacks and supplies.

“We should stay here ’til like 11:30,” the girl says to someone off-screen. “Is your mom okay with that?”

The blitz came fast. People with goggles and gas masks were arrested. Others were ticketed. During a midnight press conference about the attack, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington wore a leather jacket and reading glasses. He, along with other law enforcement leaders, tried to communicate the operation’s zero-tolerance approach in a gentle manner. On a plastic folding table, confiscated items, from cans of beans to umbrellas, were on display to justify the authorities’ use of force.

“Our number one tool is patience,” Col. Matt Langer of the Minnesota State police told the camera.

On Friday night, the National Guard lined up around the church. The teens learned about their formation from the comments of Instagram Live. The girl filming briefly left the church when she thought the soldiers were gone, making the livestream black and bumpy. Viewers were asked to record her screen in case she encounters the Safety Net. Many urged her to return to the church, as cops could be lurking anywhere. After a few minutes, she did.

Twenty years ago, before today’s teen activists were born, the United States invaded Afghanistan. The same year, Cincinnati was put under curfew as people protested on behalf of Timothy Thomas, a Black teen killed by a white cop, according to historian Elizabeth Hinton.

Last week, President Joe Biden announced plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11. This week, the occupation of Minneapolis continues.

In Badges Without Borders, professor Stuart Schrader describes the “upgrading of ‘riot control’” as part of a broader trend of American military tactics being integrated into American policing. “Kill, jail, control: these are the discretionary options policing contains,” he says. The aggressive policing of Black communities and movements in particular is not new. In 1967, Black Panther Bobby Seale wrote, “The racist military police force occupies our community just like the foreign American troops in Vietnam.”

Arrests and incarceration have long been used to demobilize Black movements. In “Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation,” Angela Y. Davis writes: “It goes without saying that the police would be unable to set into motion their racist machinery were they not sanctioned and supported by the judicial system.” In Imprisoned Intellectuals, Joy James explains: “The United States has a long and terrible history of confinement and disappearance of those it racially and politically targets.” Since Floyd was killed, at least 93 anti-protest bills have been proposed in 35 states, according to USA Today.

According to The Washington Post, nearly 1,000 people have been killed by police in the past year alone. Most victims have been young and male. And while roughly half of those killed by the police are white, Black Americans are killed by police at double the rate. Last July, in an article called “Black Security and the Conundrum of Policing,” law professor Monica Bell concluded: “Clinging to the dream of a racially equitable system of policing as currently constituted might be more utopian than abolition.”

According to Daunte Wright’s mother, he was pulled over for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. The white officer who killed him during the traffic stop claims she mistook her gun for a Taser. On the fence around the police department, protesters have hung air fresheners and gold locks. On the locks, names have been written with Sharpies: Daunte Wright. Adam Toledo. Kobe Heisler. Jamar Clark.

Similar locks previously dotted the fence around the Minneapolis courthouse where the Chauvin trial is taking place, but police cut them down.

Closing arguments for the trial are scheduled for today. Six weeks ago, just after jury selection for the trial commenced, third-degree murder was added back to Chauvin’s charges thanks to the precedent set by the case of Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor. Activists say Kim Potter, the Brooklyn Center officer who killed Wright, should be facing third-degree murder too. On Saturday, they gathered outside the prosecutor’s house in Stillwater to demand a murder charge.

As dusk falls on Friday, Daunte Wright’s memorial—just miles from the police station—is quiet. String lights decorate the nearby chain-link fence. A white box collects messages for Daunte and family. Candles—some with electric flames, some with real ones—abound. Under power lines and a crescent moon, the wooden Black Power sculpture stands tall.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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