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‘The world is watching’: The fight for Minneapolis police reform after Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction

Josh Marcus
·23-min read
<p>People raise their fists during a demonstration near the George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 18, 2021 after the shooting death of Daunte Wright. </p> ((Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images))

People raise their fists during a demonstration near the George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 18, 2021 after the shooting death of Daunte Wright.

((Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images))

In a Minnesota court on Tuesday, Derek Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted of murdering George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, and could face up to 40 years in prison. Community members cheered outside the courthouse when the verdict was announced, but the long struggle for racial justice in Minneapolis and the country at large is nowhere close to finished, according to residents, leaders, and activists.

“Painfully earned justice has arrived for George Floyd’s family and the community here in Minneapolis, but today’s verdict goes far beyond this city and has significant implications for the country and even the world,” Ben Crump, an attorney representing the Floyd family, said in a statement. “Justice for Black America is justice for all of America. This case is a turning point in American history for accountability of law enforcement.”

The case was seen by many as test for whether the justice system, after nearly a decade of Black Lives Matter activism, would finally begin bringing its weight down on police officers accused of wrongdoing, rather than on people of colour. The trial only lasted a few weeks, and jury deliberations only 10 hours or so, but this verdict follows months of massive protests in Minneapolis and nationwide against systemic racism, and centuries of fighting for a more equal country for Black people.

Video of Mr Floyd’s graphic death spread widely on social media as many were stuck at home and immersed in the collective despair of the coronavirus pandemic. The horrifying footage inspired between 15 and 26 million people in the US to protest against police brutality and systemic racism that summer, the largest mass demonstrations in American history. In Minneapolis, where communities of colour have faced decades of disproportionate police violence, mostly peaceful demonstrations continued for months, and sporadic rioting caused more than $500 million in property damage and commanded the nation’s attention.

Mr Chauvin’s conviction will not undo these decades of harm, nor will it change the systems that produced them, but it is nonetheless a watershed moment. Mr Chauvin is only the second on-duty Minneapolis police officer in the department’s over 150-year history to be charged with murder, and the first one who is white. Last year, Mohamed Noor, who is Somali-American, was convicted in 2019 of murdering a white woman, Justine Ruszczyk, who had called the police to report a potential sexual assault in progress. (He is appealing the conviction).

According to Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies at Macalester College in nearby St Paul, Minnesota, a conviction will not change the entire system, but it does set an example in future cases, while the trial process itself was unprecedented, too.

“I think that it will set legal precedent,” she said. “It’s going to have a different impact in the world of law than it would in society.”

In the bigger picture, she says, the trial started new conversations among the numerous people watching it in the community and around the country.

“A trial like this matters a lot. People were not talking about abolish the police to the extent that they started to talk about it after George Floyd was killed. There have always been activists who were engaging with defunding the police, abolish the police, but it had never gotten to the level of the Minneapolis city council,” she added. “The trial is also important because it was being live streamed, which is not common. People are quarantined and on their electronics all day every day. The world is watching.”

In general, it is exceedingly rare for police to be charged with murder. None of the officers who killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other Black people who died in lesser-known police encounters have been convicted of any crimes, and many are never charged to begin with. People in Minneapolis are acutely aware of how rare such convictions are, and what that suggests about whose lives are valued most under the status quo.

“Now the conviction is not evidence of a working system,” said Ebony Chambers, a Black resident of North Minneapolis who volunteers to organize churches and barber shops around social justice issues. “A broken clock is right twice a day. The murder of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, and many more is proof that the system needs to be completely overhauled.”

Just ten miles away from the courthouse where Mr Chauvin’s trial took place in downtown Minneapolis, police in the suburb of Brooklyn Center killed another unarmed Black man, Daunte Wright, before this historic case could even come to a close.

On 11 April, former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter shot and killed Mr Wright, 20, during a traffic stop. Authorities say Ms Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force, mistook her gun for her Taser before pulling the trigger. (Ms Potter resigned and has been charged with manslaughter.) Mass protests resumed as a city still mourning the death of one Black man confronted the death of another, this one also captured in graphic video.

Kenda Zellner-Smith, 24, grew up in Minneapolis and began collecting murals honouring George Floyd and others killed by police violence that had been painted onto boards used to reinforce buildings during last summer’s mass protests. For her, it was a way of preserving that moment in time, remembering both the pain and the solidarity that tributes to Black people on plywood could represent. She continued collecting boards throughout this year, until she began seeing a new name written on the walls: Daunte Wright.

“We’re still reeling from that,” Ms Zellner-Smith, who is Black, said. ”You don’t know if that’s going to be your father, your mother, your uncle your aunt. Who’s going to be the next name? Who’s going to be the next hashtag that’s trending on Twitter? It’s been really hard to drive around now and see another name.”

Jeremiah Ellison, son of Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted the Chauvin case, is a Minneapolis city councilman. He’s part of a group pushing to wholly replace the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) with a new public safety agency.

“If we view the whole of justice as wrapped up in this case, I think that that would be a huge miscalculation on our part as a community,” he said in the days before the verdict. “If we want to honor his legacy and respect what George Floyd was put through at the hands of our current system of public safety, then it’s on us to make systemic changes, or else as we’ve seen in the last few days this is going to keep happening.”

Up until the verdict, Chauvin was all purposes a free man, released from jail on a $1 million bond for months until the trial came to a close. Meanwhile, more than 270 people were arrested in recent days for violating curfews and other protest-related offenses. Police have been accused of targeting journalists with riot weapons in violation of a federal court order, flooding nearby apartments with tear gas, and using the kind of violent tactics that sent protestors to the streets in the first place last summer and many seasons before that.

Clearly then, the trial has not put an end to the painful estrangement between Minneapolis police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. Most residents say real justice is not Chauvin or Ms Potter going to jail, but a world where Mr Floyd and Mr Wright, and so many people who look like them but never became headline names, are still alive and living without fear of police.

However, the trial shone a light on how the city conceives of itself and its law enforcement. It determined where, at least in this one case, the line been excessive force and proper policing really is. Meanwhile, on the streets outside the courthouse each day, many argued that’s a distinction without a difference.

The case ultimately came down to two related questions: did Mr Chauvin use an “objectively reasonable” amount of force given his training and the situation at the crime scene, and did the knee on Mr Floyd’s neck cause his death.

It began, much like most people’s acquaintance with Mr Floyd’s story, with the video. During the trial, jurors, and the public viewing from home on a livestream, were reminded of the graphic details of what many people watched in horror last summer: Mr Chauvin kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, pressing him face-first against the pavement during an arrest for a counterfeit $20 bill last May.

Mr Floyd was unarmed and in handcuffs throughout his entire arrest. He pleaded for air and told police he couldn’t breathe 27 times. Three officers held him down until he lost consciousness and didn’t have a pulse without offering any form of medical aid. Police only removed themselves minutes later once paramedics arrived and lifted Mr Floyd’s limp body onto a stretcher.

“Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career,” defence attorney Eric Nelson said during his opening statement.

But throughout the trial, numerous current and former Minneapolis police officers, as well as outside experts, testified that Mr Chauvin, a 19-year veteran on the force who had received nearly 900 hours of training, wasn’t following department rules or normal police practice when he applied deadly force to the neck of a mostly compliant suspect during a forgery call. It’s a low-level crime which often results in a ticket, not a fatal arrest.

“There’s an initial reasonableness in trying to get him under control in the first few seconds,” Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo said. “Once there was no longer any resistance, and clearly when Mr Floyd was no longer responsive and even motionless, to continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back, that in no way shape or form is by policy, is not part of our training, and is certainly not part of our ethics or values.”

As rare as it is for police to face charges for killing people in the line of duty, it’s even rarer for their colleagues to testify against them. Observers have called this reluctance to call out potential wrongdoing from the inside the “Blue Wall of Silence.”

In addition to exploring whether Mr Chauvin used an appropriate, legal amount of force, jurors were tasked with answering what ultimately caused Mr Floyd’s death.

On the witness stand, Dr Andrew Baker, the county medical examiner who performed Mr Floyd’s autopsy, reiterated his original findings that the death was a homicide. Police restraints were the main cause of death, he concluded, while other factors like Mr Floyd’s heart disease and drug use played a role without being “direct causes.”

“Mr Floyd’s use of fentanyl did not cause the subdual or neck restraint,” he said. “His heart disease did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint.”

In other words, people could believe their eyes.

Outside experts called by the state reached similar conclusions, ruling out a drug overdose or heart disease. Dr Martin Tobin, a lung specialist, compared police treatment of Mr Floyd to a “vice” that squeezed the air out of his body.

“A healthy person subjected to what Mr Floyd was subjected to would’ve died as a result,” he said.

Another, Dr Bill Smock, argued that officers should’ve carried out their legal duty and career training to provide medical care to someone in their custody much sooner, rather than waiting for the ambulance they called for Mr Floyd.

“As soon as Mr Floyd is unconscious, he should’ve been rolled over,” Mr Smock said. “We have documentation on the video that the officer says, ‘I can’t find a pulse.’ That’s clearly, when you look at the video, it should’ve been started way before.”

Paramedics testified Mr Floyd was dead by the time they arrived.

The defence, meanwhile, suggested Mr Floyd’s underlying health conditions and drug use ultimately killed him, not the knee on his neck.

Dr David Fowler, a former Maryland chief medical examiner and an expert witness for the defence, argued a confluence of different factors – fentanyl intoxication, pre-existing heart disease, potential exposure to carbon monoxide from a police car’s tailpipe, and officers’ restraints – all had an impact on Mr Floyd’s death. As a result, he said, the cause of death shouldn’t be considered a homicide, but rather be understood as “undetermined.”

“When you put all of those together, it’s very difficult to say which of those is most accurate,” Dr Fowler said, as part of his day-long turn on the witness stand. “I would fall back to ‘undetermined’ in this particular case.”

But it was clear, according to the bystanders who testified, that they were witnessing a murder.

“It’s been nights I stayed up, apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more, and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” said Darnella Frazier, 18, whose live-streamed cell phone video of the arrest was shared widely. “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they’re all Black,” she added. “I have a Black father. I have a Black brother. I have Black friends.”

Another bystander, Donald Williams, who had extensive martial arts training, recalled telling Mr Chauvin his restraint amounted to a “blood choke” that could kill someone, prompting him to berate officers and eventually call 911.

“I believe I witnessed a murder. I felt the need to call the police on the police,” he said. “He just pretty much killed this guy that wasn’t resisting arrest,” he added.

Others, like off-duty firefighter Genevieve Hansen testified about her efforts to provide first aid to Mr Floyd, and how officers kept her away even as Mr Floyd went unconscious and they couldn’t find a pulse. Mr Chauvin even reached for his mace at one point in an apparent effort to ward her off.

“There was a man being killed, and had I had access to a call similar to that I would have been able to provide medical attention to the best of my abilities and this human was denied that right,” she told the court.

Notably absent was any testimony from Mr Chauvin himself, who declined to take the stand, and remained silent and withdrawn as the verdict was announced on Tuesday.

Jurors instead were left to draw their own conclusions from his statements caught on police body cameras.

“We’ve got to control this guy because he’s a sizeable guy,” Mr Chauvin tells a bystander, Charles MacMillian, in an exchange after Mr Floyd was carried away by paramedics. “It looks like he was probably on something.”

In another clip, during the arrest itself, Mr Chauvin can be heard casting doubt that Mr Floyd really wasn’t able to breathe.

“Then stop talking, stop yelling. It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk,” Mr Chauvin replies.

Multiple medical experts testified during the trial that someone can be in medical and respiratory distress even if they can speak or breathe.

Also missing from this trial was any exploration of the deeper factors that influenced the interaction between Mr Floyd and Mr Chauvin, though this is by design, according to University of Minnesota sociologist Michelle Phelps, who studies the criminal justice system.

“At a very literal level, courts are poorly designed to create structural change. Courts are designed to assess individual guilt and individual culpability, and assign appropriate individual level punishments for those acts,” she told The Independent.

Even in the rare instance an officer is convicted, Ms Phelps argues, it’s unclear what kind of deeper impact that can have. Use of force policies and strong penalties for police misconduct have been on the books for decades, yet police continue to kill people without much scrutiny, since courts often defer to an officer’s judgement.

“For decades police departments have enacted this violence and faced very little consequence for it, and every day in and day out, there are reports of police misconduct, police violence,” she said. “It’s unclear how much this one case will really shift that, and it’s unclear too how much in these moment-to-moment interactions, how salient that’s going to be for officers.”

The jury did not hear about Mr Chauvin’s long record of using force, often against people of colour, which continued through the days just before he arrested George Floyd and resulted in 22 complaints or internal investigations over his 19 years on the force, but only one formal instance of discipline. Nor did the trial probe how Mr Chauvin, who trained other officers, influenced the wider conduct of the police around him.

Both the prosecution and the defense insisted this trial wasn’t about politics or mass outrage, even as they spoke from a courthouse fortified with tens of thousands of dollars of riot defenses, in a region brimming with thousands of National Guard troops on high-alert, after city officials settled a civil wrongful death suit from George Floyd’s family for $27 million.

“There is no political or social cause in this court room,” attorney Eric Nelson told the court during opening arguments, and this frame persisted throughout weeks of testimony.

“This case is called the state of Minnesota vs Derek Chauvin,” state prosecutor Steve Schleicher said on Monday in his closing. “This state is not called the state of Minnesota versus the police,” before adding his case was a “pro-police prosecution” because it sought to punish someone who deviated from his training.

But the facts of life in Minneapolis and Minnesota at large suggest some level of politics and their consequences was inescapable in this fatal arrest and the case that followed. Mr Floyd was a troubled man, in a troubled place, where resources are largely devoted to using police as the primary tool to contend with social problems.

Police officers framed their violent arrest of Mr Floyd as necessary because he was high on drugs. Indeed, both post-mortem toxicology reports and Mr Floyd’s girlfriend confirmed in testimony that he used opioids and methamphetamine. Black people are two times more likely to die of a drug overdose in Minnesota, and the city of Minneapolis spent six times more on police than health services the year Mr Floyd was killed.

Charles McMillian, one of the bystanders who watched Mr Floyd die, said he recognized Mr Chauvin from previous patrols in the neighborhood. But the vast majority of Minneapolis police officers, 92 per cent by some estimates, live outside of the city, one of the highest proportions in the country. And those officers are more than seven times more likely to use force on a Black person than a white one, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

Regardless of the court’s ruling in the Chauvin case, people in the Twin Cities said that following the deaths of Mr Floyd and Mr Wright, a fundamental shift had occurred in the wider culture of the place, though how much that will translate into institutional change reminds to be scene.

The continued deaths of Black people at the hands of police, combined with the heavy law enforcement response to mostly peaceful protests that followed, has forged a new consensus among many that the city’s approach to public safety needs a fundamental re-imagination with community wellbeing in mind.

Sara Osman, 25, a local arts organiser, said she realized a switch had been flipped as she headed to the first night of the Daunte Wright protests. Even though Brooklyn Center is in the Minneapolis suburbs, out of the reach of much of the city’s public transportation, she saw car after car of protestors arrive, many with food and other supplies to share with the community.

“They have an energy about them that feels really hopeful,” she said. “There’s something that’s different in the way that a lot of protests last summer felt like despair. It’s so different to not have been in action for a year, for that to be the first scene, people looking out for each other. It’s been a show of community and solidarity.”

Police violence has always happened in Black communities, and there have always been Black activists fighting back against it, but the movement for a new law enforcement system is increasingly multi-racial in Minnesota.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. Quite frankly for a while I was going to protests and marches and it was just Black people,” JaNaé Bates, from the faith activism group ISAIAH, said. “We’d be there mourning for our kids, crying and wailing, and going home. In recent months, in this past year, we have seen a drastic shift, where folks across race and region are coming together.”

Ms Harris, the American studies professor, urged people to remember that Black communities have faced violent police tactics since the days of proto-police slave catchers, underscoring just how revolutionary the current shift in popular opinion around policing really is.

“This is all we’ve known since before we were even citizens,” Mr Harris, who is Black, said. “The status quo is over. I don’t know how this is going to work on a national level, but I feel very comfortable saying that Minneapolis-St Paul is not going to tolerate the status quo. There will be a push for movement and it will be consistent.”

That new energy on the ground has inspired a range of responses, even from a set of local leaders who’ve been reluctant to make big changes to policing in the past.

After Mr Floyd’s death, following months of protests and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage in Minneapolis, the biggest systemic changes the region could muster was outlawing chokeholds, which many argued were already illegal, and cutting a sliver off the Minneapolis police department’s $176 million budget, even though the overall ratio of spending on police to other city programs has remained virtually the same.

Now, according to Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, elected leaders in Minnesota are finally taking her calls quickly, discussing the organization’s model bills, and responding almost instantly to demands for officials in Brooklyn Center to resign or be fired.

“We’ve never seen something where you demand something and they do it right away. That was pretty crazy,” she said. “We’ve had to fight every scrap of every inch along the way, and suddenly the governor, who we’ve been trying to have meetings with, suddenly reached out to us and wanted to have meetings with us.”

Deciding what level of the system to reform is anything but simple. Policing is controlled by local government, state law, federal policy, the US Constitution, and centuries of court rulings and civil rights settlements, as well as the much more nebulous world of culture, ideology, identity.

Some in Minneapolis, like the the city council and community activists from groups like Black Visions Collective, want to replace the MPD entirely, and are proposing a city charter amendment and November ballot question which could advance such a plan. Others want to renegotiate the police union contract, build more civilian oversight over discipline and police use of force investigations, and shift police resources to other departments like health or housing.

At the state level, Democrats are pushing for bills that would make it easier to sue officers, establish more community scrutiny of police, and limit police authority to detain people for minor traffic stops, all of which Governor Tim Walz supports.

“You have so many different diagnoses of what the problem is,” Ms Phelps, the UMN sociologist said. “Is it inside or outside policing, or both, and different ideas, even among people who agree on really the long-term vision, what the best short term steps are to get there. It’s baked into our system. Policing in the United States is locally administered. There’s over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country.”

Some, especially young activists who came of age during the Black Lives Movement and saw how slow the system is to catch up with big shifts in popular feeling, have far less hope that their sense of grief and possibility will turn into concrete change. That hasn’t stopped them from fighting for it anyway, though.

“We will burn it all down again until you guys understand that you’re not going to get away with this,” said Ms Zellner-Smith, who collected the murals, said. “I don’t have another option. People that are darker skinned than me don’t have another option. They don’t have the option to do anything but be resilient and fight back and do what they can.”

To Minneapolis city council member Ellison, the massive police response to the Daunte Wright protests suggests just how far city and state leaders are from understanding the depths of pain Black people go through under the current policing system. Thousands of National Guard troops are in the city, and on Monday, governor Walz declared a state of emergency and called even more officers from out of state to patrol the city.

“They have this image of our community being these rabid animals with no impulse control, all they want to do is burn things,” Mr Ellison, who is Black, said. “It’s a fantasy that you can only have if you’ve never taken the time to sit with people, and be with them.”

No matter what this moment amounts to, there’s no denying some kind of cultural shift is taking place at the ground level. Jeanne Burns, a white Minneapolis resident, said that she and her neighbours are trying to weave a new social safety net for Black people in the community in the absence of a government one.

Recently, a young Black man on her street in North Minneapolis appeared to be in the midst of a mental health crisis.

“We knew because he was a Black man and having mental health issues, it wasn’t a good idea to call the cops,” she said.

Eventually though, as the young man began harming himself, they decided they had no choice but to call 911.

“We felt like we had no other option,” she said. “A neighbour found somebody who’s familiar with mental health issues and brought them over. She called the cops, and had to ask them specifically not to draw their guns, and a bunch of us went over and filmed what was going on.”

Three police cars showed up, but the young man was eventually loaded into an ambulance not a squad car, and hasn’t had any problems since.

Ms Burns says where the city goes from here is a complicated issue, one that doesn’t fit into easy blocs of opinion based on age or race. She has Black neighbours who don’t want to cut the police, having experienced a sense of state abandonment during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and white ones who want to abolish the MPD after arriving at a newfound consciousness around racism in recent years. But she’s hopeful.

“I hope that the world can see that there can be some amount of justice here, and I hope it can lead to reform, not just reform, but profound change,” she said.