Keith Ellison: On the Other Side of Criminal Justice Reform and Transformation Is a Safer Society

Keith Ellison: On the Other Side of Criminal Justice Reform and Transformation Is a Safer Society

Keith Ellison: On the Other Side of Criminal Justice Reform and Transformation Is a Safer Society

The attorney general who organized the prosecution of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd makes the case for police accountability.


When Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison took charge of the prosecution of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd, he said “we’re going to bring to bear all the resources necessary to achieve justice in this case.” Ellison did just that, organizing a team of lawyers that secured the historic conviction of Chauvin on a pair of murder charges. A year later, Ellison’s office is taking on another high-profile case involving the death of a Black man—20-year-old Daunte Wright—at the hands of a police officer. I spoke with Ellison, a former cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform, about these two cases, and about where the movement to address police violence and systemic racism stands one year after Floyd’s murder.

John Nichols: A year ago, at the urging of Minnesota’s governor, you took over the George Floyd case from the county prosecutor. Did you think at the time that your office would obtain a conviction?

Keith Ellison: I did not know. The only thing I was very confident in is that we would put our all into it. But what the outcome was, I didn’t have any idea.

It’s not because I was unsure of the evidence. The evidence, to me, looked compelling; and the more we learned about the case, the more I thought it was compelling, in terms of a conviction.

The more I learned about what the medical experts had to say, the more confident I was that what we saw is what really happened.

The more I learned about the use-of-force situation, the more I learned that this was truly unauthorized and that there really was no justification for what Derek Chauvin and company did to George Floyd—because there was no justification even in a field where police get a lot of space, a lot of room, a lot of discretionary latitude—the more confident I was in our case.

But I also knew that they were going to whip out every racist trope you and I have ever heard: Drug equals thug and thug equals Black. We were going to hear that. That was going to be the story. And they were going to say he was a ticking time bomb medically but somehow miraculously was so strong and so powerful that they [three officers] had to stay on top of his body and a fourth had to guard the other three because he’s just that mighty and powerful and could leap back to life at any moment, and that’s why they had to stay on top of him and that’s why they couldn’t render aid to him.

I don’t know how somebody is so weak that they might die at any moment—and his heart disease suddenly kicked in and killed him the moment Derek Chauvin’s knee went on his neck—and at the same time, he was so mighty and so powerful. I knew that they were going to gaslight everybody.

I don’t blame the defense attorney. But I also was disappointed that we heard all this ugly nonsense and had to relive that, and the family had to relive that.

So to answer your question, I wasn’t sure of the outcome until the verdict was read. But I was always confident in the evidence. I just didn’t know how people would read it.

JN: This was a conviction of one officer in one case, and frankly in a case that portrayed him as someone who on so many levels didn’t follow protocols established by the Minneapolis Police Department. With that in mind, how should we see this conviction in the context of the broader issue of police violence and police accountability?

KE: Well, let’s just start with the fact that the first statement from the Minneapolis Police Department was that George Floyd died of a medical emergency in police custody. No mention of force at all. That was the original statement, right?

So let’s just say there was no Darnella Frazier [the 17-year-old who filmed the murder on her cell phone]. Let’s just say people did just “mind their own business.” Let’s say there was no video from the folks who were walking by. This could have been just like any other case. But [Frazier and other witnesses did step up]. What does it mean and what does it tell us?

It tells us that if we, as citizens, are vigilant and will stop and safely videotape things, if we as prosecutors actually believe in equal justice, and then citizens will continue to go out there and march and protest and will continue to not let government off the hook, then there is a decent chance that we can get some accountability.

JN: Are there lessons from this conviction for police departments around the country?

KE: I hope that police leaders all over the country see this as an opportunity—where they can say: “The [Minneapolis] chief went up there and said that this was wrong, and I as a chief in whatever jurisdiction maybe could do the same thing”… You have an opportunity now where if you’re a police leader who really wants to have a constitutional, humane department of public safety, you now might be able to galvanize enough good people to turn on the ones who really see the police department as an institution for racial and economic repression.

Let me tell you, both factions are there. You don’t believe it? Ask any Black police union group.

There are subgroups within the police department, and every African-American police group I know was like, “Hey, man, the problem doesn’t end with the citizens. They treat us crazy.” How many cases are there of Black cops who are undercover and have been shot and killed and beat up by the police? Plenty of them! Plenty of them.

Then of course we all know about [New York Police Department whistleblower Frank] Serpico, right? We all know he’s a white cop who said, “I don’t want any graft and corruption.” And they shot him in the face.

My point is that, for the officers who join the department because they really want to help people, State vs. Derek Chauvin might give them an opportunity to see how they can consolidate their energy to squeeze out the people like Bob Kroll—and I don’t know if you know who Bob Kroll is, but Bob Kroll was the head of the police union in Minneapolis: an ardent, aggressive Trumpster, racist, horrible man.

And so we might be able to rid ourselves of these horrible human beings who never got in the police department for the right reasons, who were always there because they’re bullies and racists and haters… State vs. Derek Chauvin gives you the opportunity to say, “Maybe the forces of good can finally start to dominate police departments.”

What it’s going to require is cops to testify against officers who do the bad things.

JN: Your office has now taken on the Daunte Wright case. Let’s talk about the role of state AGs in these types of cases.

KE: Let me just, first of all, say, I didn’t ask for the Wright case. Once it became clear that the case was going to go back to the Hennepin county attorney’s office, and once [County Prosecutor] Mike Freeman said, “Would you do this?,” I wasn’t going to not do my duty.

While I’m somewhat reluctant to be the one to have to be the prosecutor of last resort, that probably is the right role for the attorney general’s office.

Here’s the thing. Communities get suspicious when the police investigate the police. They also get suspicious when the local prosecutor investigates the police because everybody knows that not only do they work together, a lot of them develop friendship bonds, have social life together, and look out for each other.

So, in order to make sure that everybody knows that the case was investigated and prosecuted properly, it might make sense to let other agencies investigate the case and other agencies prosecute the case, to give communities some sense that this thing is right, that this thing is not the system just taking care of itself.

I’m going to tell you: If we ever get to a point of true accountability, we’re not going to have chaos. We’re going to have a better community.

If we ever get to accountability stopping impunity, I think a lot of people feel, “Oh, what’ll happen if cops are truly held accountable? Will that mean that the criminals will run around?”

No, it won’t. What it will mean is that community will cooperate in investigations when a rape happens. It’ll mean that community is going to trust and cooperate in an investigation if need be. On the other side of reform and transformation is a safer society.

I do think it makes sense all around the country to have independent prosecution and investigation. And if that means I’ve got to be in the middle of this stuff, then I’ve got to be in the middle of stuff.

JN: We’re a year on from the George Floyd murder. After all of the protests, prosecutions, legislation in Congress, what’s your sense right now of the state of the broader movement for criminal justice reform? Have we moved forward as a society?

KE: The fact that [Philadelphia district attorney and high-profile reformer] Larry Krasner was reelected, I think, indicates that we are doing something.

I think the fact that Trump had to sign the First Step Act, the fact that Trump was slyly tried to make himself into a prison reformer [tells us something]. Part of it is [Trump] trying to siphon off part of the Black vote, but it also means that there’s enough people who are outraged about the criminal justice system that even a cynical huckster con-man exploiter knows that that’s fertile ground, which is an indication that the movement is making progress, right?

JN: Krasner’s win [in a May 18 Philadelphia Democratic primary where his reelection was opposed by the police union] was an indication that voters want a different approach to prosecuting. There’s an important shift going on, isn’t there?

KE: You see Krasner winning. You see this whole movement of progressive prosecutors around the country.

When I was a kid—and I mean a young lawyer—“prosecutor” was synonymous with race-class oppression. That was the white-collar end of it. Every good progressive in 1990 wanted to be a public defender. What we found out is we have the fewest cards in the deck. Of all the folks who have cards to play, the public defender has the least, right? We learned that.

Because we learned that, some of us said, “Well, you want to be a prosecutor, because if you really want to dismiss charges [that are inappropriate or excessive], the only person that can do that is either a prosecutor or a judge.”

So we’ve got all these [progressives running for and wining prosecutor jobs]… in Illinois… in Florida. You’ve got Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, who’s probably the best known.

Progressive prosecuting is important nowadays.

So you have that, and you see that movement combined with some elements of progressive policing and some chiefs. You see that movement coming together.

The right wing loves to exploit this current “defund the police” [slogan]. But here’s a question: Why not re-fund mental health services, right? Why not re-fund recreational services? Why not re-fund services for youth that are more geared toward healthy, wholesome structured activity? What’s the problem with it?

The problem is, all the resources flow to fund the jails. You’re going to get more people mixed up in that system, and you’re going to get what we’ve been getting, which is not much in the way of results.

Let’s just submit that the “lock ’em up…” system had its chance and has turned out to be not very effective.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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