Racist policing back in spotlight as Derek Chauvin trial opens
A group of protesters march in the snow around the Hennepin County Government Center, March 15, 2021, in Minneapolis. | Jim Mone / AP

MINNEAPOLIS—The whole world is watching as the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin gets underway here today. At stake is the question of whether the State of Minnesota can convict Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. The killing of Floyd helped spark a national uprising last summer that put police violence and systemic racism in the spotlight.

National and international media in Minneapolis will broadcast the courtroom deliberations, the street protests, the verdict, and the aftermath of the verdict around the globe. As protesters often say, city officials are also on trial alongside Chauvin for harboring officers like him. At every protest, activists demand the city fire all the killer cops.

Today, opening arguments for the defense and prospection will begin before a seated jury. Major media and their host of legal experts and pundits will comb through and assess the arguments for flaws, advantages for the two sides—prosecution and defense, and relevant legal precedents. However, for those seeking justice for the callous murder of Floyd, the opening arguments signal a time to intensify the struggle.

“For many in our community, this process is a formality. The world watched the gruesome bystander video of Derek Chauvin choking the life out of George Floyd, while three other officers aided and abetted Chauvin. He deserves to spend time in prison for murdering an unarmed Black man in broad daylight. We are sick and tired of the system rubber-stamping the murder of civilians at the hands of police. The time for justice is now,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, civil rights attorney and activist, in framing the context of today’s opening arguments.

A major rally for justice for George Floyd is scheduled for Monday evening at 5 p.m. outside the Hennepin County Government Center. The aim is to demonstrate the community’s response to this first day of the trial before the jury.

An estimated 50 million people around the world watched the video posted on social media last summer of Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he took his last breath. Hundreds of millions saw portions of it on media clips, tens of millions filled the streets and squares across continents, and George Floyd became a symbol of the struggle against police violence everywhere.

“Please, please. I can’t breathe,” Floyd called out as he felt his life ending on May 25, 2020. In reading and hearing dozens of responses to Floyd’s last words since then, what seems to have left the most poignant mark on the heart of humanity was him calling out to his mother.

The coalition of groups, in which Levy Armstrong plays a leading role, have been holding nearly daily protests, press conferences, and marches throughout the three weeks of jury selection that ended last week. Protesters gathered Sunday at the government center for what they called the “All eyez on justice rally,” to let the city and officials know the community is watching.

Activists are challenging each and every incident of law enforcement misconduct in the city and metro area. Late last week, an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department was videotaped punching a Black suspect who had been wrestled to the ground by a half dozen other officers. The incident took place on the Northside community in Minneapolis, an area that is predominantly African-American. Organizers called a press conference the next day to draw the public’s attention to the brutality.

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On March 24th Ramsey county sheriffs conducted a warrant arrest at the home of an African-American woman whose18-year old son was to be apprehended. Her account alleges that the conduct of the officers terrorized the family. At a news conference organized by Black Lives Matter St. Paul, the mother with tears streaming down her face accused an officer of picking up her 11-year old son by the neck dangling him in the air.

As a remedy for the decades-long scourge of police violence, last week organizers kicked off the Minneapolis Campaign for Community Control of Police. Organizers held a press conference outside the MPD’s Fourth Precinct on the Northside followed by launch party and march. An effort is underway to collect 12,000-plus signatures to amend the city charter to take control of policing away from the mayor and city council and place in the hands of an elected Civilian Police Accountability Commission (CPAC). A successful signature campaign would place CPAC on the city’s general election ballot in November.

The Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar (Clark) is spearheading the campaign. A post on the group’s Facebook says, “We demand the power to decide who polices our communities and how our communities are policed. We demand the power to get racist and violent cops off our streets – no more serial killers!” In his 19-years on the MPD, in addition to murdering Floyd, Chauvin shot four unarmed people three of whom were killed.

A key sentence on the CPAC website sums up what the amendment envisions. “With CPAC, bad cops will be prosecuted. Law-abiding cops can come forward, be hired, and stay in their jobs.”

Civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong. | AP

One officer who would have been terminated long ago under a CPAC governance system is Derek Chauvin. In fact, it’s unlikely he would have been hired.

Community vetting would also have rejected officers like that of Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, who killed Jamar Clark in 2015. Both officers had questionable records of racist harassment and excessive use of force, still, they were hired. Just a year after joining the MPD they killed Clark, they were not prosecuted, and like all the others who have killed unarmed people of color, they are still on the force.

“Enough is enough,” echoes on city streets and on protester’s signs. Will state prosecutors convince the jury that the murder of George Floyd must be Chauvin’s last?

The trial is expected to last a month before it goes to the jury. Dozens of witnesses, including eyewitnesses to the events of May 25, 2020, the day Floyd was killed are expected to be called in addition to MPD officers, medical examiners, forensic and law enforcement training experts.

A jury of 12 jurors and three alternates were chosen, nine are white, two identify as multiracial and four are black, two of whom are immigrants. The courtroom is limited to 14 jurors, so the last juror selected, a white male will not be seated unless one of 14 is excused for some reason.

Chauvin faces charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The other three police officers who were at the scene with Chauvin, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas K. Lane will be tried in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder.


Wayne Nealis
Wayne Nealis

Wayne Nealis is a left political activist and writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, focusing on communications and strategies for social change. He was a toolmaker and union activist in a Minnesota industrial union. Nealis earned a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota and practiced journalism and public and media relations.