‘People are on pins and needles’: the Chauvin trial and race in America

Minneapolis resident Pamela McClain marched as a child in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Now she is marching again.

She was one of a couple of hundred protesters who rallied at an intersection outside the courthouse then marched through downtown Minneapolis at the end of the first day in the trial of Derek Chauvin. The former Minneapolis police officer is charged with murdering George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man whose death — filmed and posted online — triggered worldwide protests against racial injustice that stretched from Greece to New Zealand.

Inside the courtroom, the prosecution and defence lawyers are agreed on one point: the Chauvin case is about the events of May 25, 2020, and how the law applies to them.

But for McClain and other demonstrators, the trial is about much more — the way that the police operate in the US and the disproportionate, often unpunished violence that officers inflict on black Americans.

“This goes on in every major city, and they always get away with it,” says McClain, 59. “They’re always found not guilty.”

Pamela McClain points to her message on a board set up for protesters in Minneapolis © Claire Bushey/FT

The Chauvin trial brings together all the elements of the set-piece courtroom dramas that have exposed America’s racial divisions over the past three decades.

It has the media visibility of the OJ Simpson murder trial in 1994-95. But it also has parallels with other notorious cases, including the 1992 trial over the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, which was captured on video too, and the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida two decades later by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator.

To many in Minnesota, this is not just about Chauvin and Floyd, but also Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, two black men killed by police in the state in 2015 and 2016. The officer who killed Castile was acquitted, and no charges were filed against the officers in Clark’s case. For them, it is a pattern repeated around the country: in the cases when police kill black Americans, criminal charges are rare, let alone a guilty verdict.

For many people around the world, the outcome of the trial might seem a foregone conclusion, given the video footage of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he struggles to breathe. But the defence has told jurors the case is less clear-cut, suggesting that the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s body means he died from a cardiac arrhythmia after taking the drugs.

2012: Trayvon Martin

Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, joins protesters outside the Manhattan police headquarters
People demonstrate in Washington in 2012 to demand justice for Trayvon Martin © Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

February 26, 2012 A black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, while walking home from a convenience store. Neighbourhood watch captain George Zimmerman said he acted in self-defence.

What happened next On July 13, 2013, a Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman of murder and manslaughter. Alicia Garza writes a Facebook post containing the phrase “black lives matter” which quickly becomes a social media hashtag, and evolves into the name for the growing movement.

The trial will provide a window on to America’s political mood as it slowly exits the pandemic. Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests unfolded during the turbulent final months of the Trump administration, and the country’s new president Joe Biden has pledged to bring the nation together after the trauma of the past year. But the degree to which he grapples with racism and policing will be one of the defining issues of his presidency.

Minneapolis is uneasy, with some fearing civil disturbances if Chauvin is cleared in a trial expected to last another two to three weeks.

A court sketch of the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin at his trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter
A court sketch of the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin at his trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter © Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

Like the OJ trial, the world is watching — this time via livestream. Keith Mayes, a professor of African American history at the University of Minnesota, says “people are on pins and needles” about the verdict.

“A conviction of Derek Chauvin is not going to bring back Trayvon and Philando Castile, but it will at least give those families a sense that the system got it right,” he says.

Carolyn J Ruff, founder of the group Black Lives Matter Women of Faith, travelled from Chicago for the protest. “If we don’t get justice,” she says, “America is going to be shut down.”

‘I felt helpless’

Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder, and manslaughter. The most serious charge carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. Judge Peter Cahill has allowed the proceedings to be livestreamed because of intense public interest, but jurors sit behind a strip of tape to make sure they stay off camera.

The graphic video of Floyd’s death is a key component of the prosecution’s case, and prosecutor Jerry Blackwell played it during his opening statement. In a trial, it is the task of prosecutors to demonstrate guilt but video “can reverse the burden”, says Chicago lawyer Dan Herbert, who represented Jason Van Dyke, one of the few US police officers to be convicted of murder.

2014: Eric Garner

Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, joins protesters outside the Manhattan police headquarters
Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, joins protesters outside the Manhattan police headquarters © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

July 17, 2014 New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Eric Garner in a chokehold — a banned restraint position. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe”, filmed by a bystander, become a rallying cry for the organisers of Black Lives Matter.

What happened next The New York Police Department fired Pantaleo, but he was not charged with a crime.

The exact medical circumstances of Floyd’s death are another key point of the trial. The medical examiner ruled that he died of “cardiopulmonary arrest”. Prosecutors argue that means his heart and lungs stopped working due to of asphyxia, a lack of oxygen, because Chauvin used too much force to subdue him. But Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s lawyer, said in his opening statement that Floyd’s death was the result of cardiac arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, a condition which was worsened after he took illegal drugs. Chauvin, he said, had followed his training on the use of force.

The events leading to Floyd’s death were set in motion by a call to the emergency services. Cup Foods is a convenience store located in Minneapolis’s Central neighbourhood, a racially diverse area. Floyd bought cigarettes using a $20 bill that a clerk thought could be counterfeit. The store manager asked another clerk to call the police.

Chauvin, who had 17 misconduct complaints against him during his 19-year career with only one leading to disciplinary action, arrived at the scene along with three other officers. They arrested Floyd, who had been sitting in a nearby car with his girlfriend and friend. Nelson said in his opening statement that Floyd ingested fentanyl and methamphetamine just before the police arrested him and tried to put him in their squad car.

2014: Michael Brown

The police shooting of Michael Brown sparked weeks-long demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri
The police shooting of Michael Brown sparked weeks-long demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

August 9, 2014 In Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed teenager Michael Brown following an altercation, saying he feared for his life. The shooting set off weeks of unrest.

What happened next Protesters took to the streets again in November when a grand jury decided no charges would be filed against Wilson. The US Department of Justice subsequently found a pattern of discrimination against African-Americans by Ferguson police.

Floyd, repeatedly saying he was claustrophobic, resisted officers’ attempts to force him into the squad car, and they put him on the ground. Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd’s neck and kept it there for about nine minutes; as he struggled to breathe he called for his mother.

A crowd gathered on the sidewalk, but were blocked from intervening by former police officer Tou Thao. Thao and the other two responding officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder and are due to stand trial later this year.

One bystander, security guard Donald Williams, told the court that, from his training in wrestling and mixed martial arts, he recognised Chauvin’s posture as a dangerous “blood choke”. Genevieve Hansen, a firefighter, was seen in the video repeatedly demanding to check Floyd’s pulse. Charles McMillian, who encouraged Floyd to co-operate by telling him “you can’t win”, sobbed on the stand as he recounted the incident.

“I couldn’t help but feel helpless,” he told the trial.

Darnella Frazier, who filmed the incident as a 17-year-old student, told jurors that she lies awake at night apologising to Floyd for not physically intervening to save him. “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad,” she said. “I have a black father. I have a black brother. I have black friends . . . And I look at how that could have been one of them.”

2016: Philando Castile

Footage taken by a police car camera shows officer Jeronimo Yanez after shooting into Philando Castile’s vehicle
Footage taken by a police car camera shows officer Jeronimo Yanez after shooting into Philando Castile’s vehicle © St. Anthony Police Department/AP

July 6, 2016 In suburban Minneapolis, police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop.

What happened next A jury acquitted Yanez of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm 11 months later. Castile’s partner was paid $800,000 by the city council in legal settlements.

‘The long 2020’

Nearly 1,000 people a year are killed in the US by police, according to data compiled by news outlets and activists. Although black people make up just 13 per cent of the US population they are the victims in 25 per cent of police killings, according to the database from Mapping Police Violence.

So the question arises, why did George Floyd’s death spark protests, first in Minneapolis, then across the US and the world?

“This will be something that historians will debate,” says Ashley Howard, a University of Iowa professor who studies the history of African Americans in the Midwest. “This will be one of those years, the long 2020, that invokes the same kind of study and careful analysis that 1989 does, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 1968, with the global protests.”

The US was already on edge due to the pandemic, and the stay-at-home orders and lockdowns meant to control it. Black people were hit particularly hard, in both deaths from the disease and job losses from the pandemic-induced economic hit.

“Americans were paying attention,” says Andy Baer, a professor of African American history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Nerves were raw by May 2020.”

Black Lives Matter had also matured as a social movement. Seven years after it was started by three activists following an acquittal for George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter had become an umbrella for local organisations confronting police violence and other forms of discrimination against African Americans. Nearly a decade of demonstrating against police killings in cities from Baltimore to Chicago to Ferguson, Missouri had prepared activists to mobilise quickly.

Protesters outside the Minneapolis courthouse where Derek Chauvin is on trial
Protesters outside the Minneapolis courthouse where Derek Chauvin is on trial © Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

Organisers across the country, most of them digital natives, had used Twitter and Facebook for years to connect with and rally supporters. Filming confrontations with police on smartphones has become commonplace. The partner of Castile livestreamed the aftermath of his fatal shooting in the Minneapolis suburbs on Facebook.

The presence of Donald Trump in the White House was an additional factor. Activists have often criticised Democrats, pointing to a 1994 crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton that fuelled mass incarceration of African Americans and was promoted by then-senator Joe Biden. But Trump — who questioned the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s citizenship and described white supremacists who had marched in Virginia in 2017 as “very fine people” — made racism more overt, in the view of many opponents of the former president

“It gave people confidence to be really who they were,” says Minnesota resident Mercedes Thomas. “I believe that cost George Floyd his life.”

The failure to deal with racial inequality transcends the spectrum of Republican and Democratic politics, activists say. According to Howard, they are looking for “a radical reimagining of what justice looks like in America, and so often the Democratic party has put forth a neoliberal solution . . . All of these things that are just trying to put a Band-Aid on the problem”.

2020: Breonna Taylor

A mural of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her home by police officers
A mural of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her home by police officers © Patrick Smith/Getty Images

March 13, 2020 Louisville, Kentucky police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor at her home after executing a “no knock” search warrant.

What happened next The city paid $12m to settle a lawsuit over her death. Detective Brett Hankison, who fired into different apartments, is the only officer to face criminal charges in connection with her death — three counts of wanton endangerment. His trial is set for August 31.

The Minneapolis police department implemented reforms in the wake of Floyd’s death, for example, requiring officers to make a report every time they draw their guns or use handcuffs. During his campaign, Biden called on the US Congress to ban chokeholds and create a national use of force standard for police.

Some Black Lives Matters organisers want to see the defunding of local police departments, with the money rerouted to social services. Nine Minneapolis City Council members said in June the city would do that, but it has not happened.

The White House says the president, like so many Americans, is following the trial “closely”. Yet even as a riveted nation watches, “the reasons why people took to the streets, protested around the world, have not yet been addressed”, Howard says. “What took place with Floyd’s death is not that specific to the [Trump] administration” and will not be automatically corrected by a new White House occupant.

Trial aftermath

Acquittals and mistrials of police officers in the US vastly outnumber convictions. Between 2005 and 2019, 104 officers were arrested and charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting, according to the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Thirty-five were convicted.

“The prosecution has to convince all 12 jurors,” says Mayes at the University of Minnesota. “The defence only has to convince one.”

There are worries that an acquittal could trigger civil unrest. Most of the protests following Floyd’s killing were peaceful, but rioters in Minneapolis damaged about 700 buildings, wholly destroying 12. And last week a few National Guard troops were scattered around Hennepin County Government Center, where the court is located. A chain-link fence topped by concertina wire has also been erected for the trial.

Minneapolis resident Michelle Seals says she thinks Chauvin should be convicted and believes the jury will find him guilty. But she thinks the verdict will have less to do with the proceedings in the courthouse and the effectiveness of the US justice system and more to do with the perceived threat of rioting on the streets outside. “That’s all it’s going to be, a conviction to keep the peace,” she says.

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