The Derek Chauvin Trial Is One Battle in a Wider War

The Derek Chauvin Trial Is One Battle in a Wider War

The Derek Chauvin Trial Is One Battle in a Wider War

The Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes is facing multiple murder charges. But the trial, which began here on Monday, is part of a larger fight.


Minneapolis, Minn.—A tall gray fence snakes around the Hennepin County Government Center, which looms over the surrounding brick plaza like a 21st century obelisk. Inside, the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former member of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), has begun. Chauvin, a white man, is one of four MPD officers facing charges for the death of George Floyd, a Black man, last year.

On May 25, 2020, a video of Chauvin fatally pinning Floyd to the ground outside a corner store in south Minneapolis spurred global protests. In the Twin Cities, thousands took to the streets, and MPD’s Third Precinct station, which the officers involved worked out of, was set ablaze and left in ashes.

Ahead of Chauvin’s court date, city leaders braced themselves for a reignited boots-on-the-ground presence from protesters. Downtown, barricades and barbed wire began to appear. And yet the physical barricades are, in some sense, an illusion.

The trial of Derek Chauvin is neither hidden nor isolated. Anyone with a smartphone has a front-row seat inside the courtroom via livestream. But the criminal case is also far from a discrete event. It’s part of a much longer struggle—one that didn’t begin with opening arguments this week and that won’t be over when the trial ends, regardless of the verdict.

Affixed to the recently erected fortifications are expressions of conflicting sentiments from the city. A red sign that reads “Restricted Area” hangs next to a blue one announcing “You are welcome here.” Behind the barrier, National Guard tanks idle.

This Monday, three weeks after heavily scrutinized jury selection commenced, attorneys for both sides presented their opening arguments. Judge Peter Cahill is presiding over a courtroom remade for the Covid era; dividers, face masks, and social distancing make the space even more antiseptic than usual. Only one member of the Floyd family is allowed inside at a time.

Chauvin faces second-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder charges. The third-degree charge was recently reinstated after an appeals court upheld such a conviction for Mohamed Noor, a Black MPD officer who killed a white woman in 2017. Noor is the first on-duty Minneapolis police officer to be convicted of murder, according to the Star Tribune.

Thus far in Chauvin’s trial, the state has leaned heavily on video evidence in making the case for murder. “Believe what you see,” Jerry Blackwell, one of the prosecutors, told the jury Monday. Jurors have been shown bystander video, body cam footage, and surveillance footage.

Chauvin’s defense is that Floyd died of a drug overdose while his neck was under Chauvin’s knee. “The evidence is far greater than nine minutes and 29 seconds,” defense attorney Eric Nelson said, referring to the length of time that Floyd was pinned to the pavement.

When the police were called, George Floyd was buying cigarettes. At a small grocery store on the corner of 38th & Chicago, he allegedly spent a counterfeit $20. Since his death, cement barricades have blocked car traffic from the area, which has come to be known as George Floyd Square.

On the northwest side of the intersection sits a gas station—defunct but never empty. At the former Speedway, now repainted to say Peoples’ Way, a bonfire is almost always crackling. Organizers, many of whom are longtime 38th & Chicago residents, meet twice a day about their occupation of the area: a semi-autonomous zone centered on Black liberation. The bus stop has been fashioned into a library; a closet with free clothing stands nearby.

In the past 10 months, a tall black-and-white mural of George Floyd has stood watch over rallies and open mic nights at the square. A wooden Black Power fist in the center has evolved into a metal one. Soon, its onsite medics will have a brick-and-mortar space. And even in winter, flowers abound.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey recently stated his intention to reopen the intersection after Chauvin’s trial. But last summer, organizers presented the city with 24 justice-oriented demands that must be met before protesters will allow the crossroads to carry traffic. No justice, they say, no street.

The night before opening arguments, a vigil was held at the square. The blacktop was dotted with candles—tiny flames fighting against the cold.

Outside the Government Center turned fortress, the pale wood of a boarded-up building has been painted black, its darkness broken by colorful chalk. Activists and community members have filled the space with calls for justice and messages of support:

white supremacy is the real pandemic
black lives matter
i can’t breathe

Floyd’s plea for breath while Chauvin knelt on his neck echoed the death of Eric Garner at the hands of a white New York City police officer in 2014. Garner said he couldn’t breathe 11 times as the officer choked him. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a supposedly banned choke hold, was never charged with any crime. So the fact that Derek Chauvin is on trial at all is, in some sense, a victory.

But then kneeling on someone’s neck for nearly 10 minutes is a far cry from a split-second decision: no claiming to have mistaken a toy gun for a real one, no fatal shots over a cell phone. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a Black boy, was killed by Cleveland police in 2014, no criminal charges were pursued. Justice was equally elusive when Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old, was shot by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard in 2018. No officers were ever charged.

In Chauvin’s case, criminal charges came swiftly, as did attempts by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to distance the department from the officers who killed Floyd. Arradondo, who previously sued his own department citing racism, will testify for the prosecution that Chauvin was not following department policy.

“Mr. Chauvin betrayed this badge,” the prosecution said.

Early this week, the state called a parade of eye-witnesses ranging from a 9-year-old girl to a trained EMT to testify against Chauvin. To many of them, the casual nature of his callousness stood out. A teenager said Chauvin had a “cold look.” A mixed martial arts fighter called Chauvin’s position on Floyd a “blood choke.” Multiple witnesses broke down on the stand.

On Thursday morning, the prosecution called first responders and Floyd’s girlfriend to testify. Between tears, Courteney Ross told the court about Floyd’s love for his mom and their struggles with opioids. With her testimony, prosecutors are seemingly working to front-run Chauvin’s drug-focused defense.

“We got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times,” she said.

Around the Government Center’s perimeter, small portions of the fence glitter with gold. Metallic padlocks have been fastened to its chain links by local activists—a gesture meant to honor victims of police violence and to call for justice. A gold lock has Floyd’s name on it. Other locks display the names of other victims—some known nationally, some locally.

The protests that followed Floyd’s killing were so widespread in part because his death illustrated something the Black Lives Matter movement has organized around for years. While intramovement contention exists, particularly considering BLM’s decentralized nature, a common thread is that police killings of Black people should be understood not as disparate tragedies but as symptoms of systemic racism and white supremacy.

According to The New York Times, as many as 26 million people in the United States participated in Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Floyd’s death, making Minneapolis the epicenter of the largest movement in our country’s history. And yet there is inherent tension between the assumption of individual responsibility that underpins Chauvin’s trial and the calls for systemic change that Floyd’s death reinvigorated.

In downtown Minneapolis, a bitter breeze weaves its way through the chain link and barbed wire. Red ribbons, also meant to honor previous victims of police violence, flutter against the fence. The city has already cut down countless padlocks, but community members fastened on more. As of Thursday evening, an activist was chained to the fence to guard them.

Someone has drawn two large eyes on the brick plaza. Underneath it:

the world is watching.


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