MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Five months before George Floyd died beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, launching a global uprising for racial justice, Safiya Satchell found herself in a similar situation.
A police officer had dragged Satchell out of her vehicle after a dispute in a nightclub, kicked her to the ground and pressed his knee into her neck, according to video of the incident and court records. Satchell tried to scream, but her words were stifled by the officer’s knee jammed into the airway of her 115-pound body, she said.
That officer, who has since been fired and charged with assaulting Satchell, is awaiting trial. But before she testifies in her own case, Satchell will be closely following a case 1,800 miles away. She says she believes if Derek Chauvin, the officer charged with second- and third-degree murder in Floyd’s death, is convicted in a trial beginning this month in Minneapolis, there’s a chance that the officer who pinned her to the ground in January 2020 will meet the same fate.
“I hope they find justice for George Floyd,” said Satchell, 34. “He lost his life, but I am still here to tell my story.”
On Friday, the city of Minneapolis agreed to pay Floyd’s family a record $27 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit in his May 25 death.
[George Floyd’s family to receive record $27 million in settlement approved by Minneapolis City Council]
Police officers rarely suffer legal consequences for deaths and other uses of force while on duty, with Black Americans disproportionately the victims in those encounters. But for many, Chauvin’s trial — which hinges in part on a distressing video that shows the White officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck as the Black man pleads for air and calls for his deceased mother — has the potential to be a turning point in that long history.
It is an especially sensitive topic here in Miami Gardens, where many residents have searing memories of South Florida’s racial unrest following jury acquittals of police officers in the 1980s. Miami Gardens is also the hometown of Trayvon Martin, the teenager whose death at the hands of a “neighborhood watchman” in Florida nearly a decade ago ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.
Over the past year, protests for racial justice swept the country again, a national racial reckoning fueled by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Daniel Prude in Rochester, N.Y., all of whom were Black.
But many African American scholars and legal observers say that when it comes to shaping perceptions about the fairness of the justice system, the Chauvin trial may become the most consequential legal proceeding since the 1992 acquittal of four White officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King in California.
Some say the case could reverberate even deeper into history, with historian and UCLA professor Brenda Stevenson comparing the legal response to Floyd’s death to the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black youth who was tortured and lynched in 1955 in Money, Miss., after he was accused of whistling at a White woman. An all-White jury acquitted the alleged assailants.
“Every aspect of this case is going to be talked about and analyzed and pulled apart. … It’s going to be taken up as a case study of race and justice in America,” Stevenson said of the Chauvin trial. “It will be a defining cultural moment for people born after the Civil Rights movement.”
As Black Americans watch Chauvin’s trial, Stevenson added, they will see it “through the eyes of their own lives” and that of “their families and communities,” including in places such as Miami Gardens.
Frustrations with police
The Miami Gardens Police Department was created in 2007, a few years after the city was incorporated, but the force already has been battered by allegations of brutality and misconduct.
There was the shooting death of a mentally ill man in 2015 and a federal civil rights lawsuit over the rampant use of “stop-and-frisk.” A couple of years earlier, the Miami Herald had chronicled how Miami Gardens police stopped and questioned one man 258 times over four years, citing him dozens of times for trespassing at a convenience store where he worked.
The racial disparities stretch countywide. In 2018, the ACLU of Florida issued a report that concluded Black residents not of Hispanic descent in Miami-Dade were 2.2 times more likely to be arrested than other county residents, while Black residents of Hispanic descent were four times more likely to be arrested.
Some residents of Miami Gardens, a community about 30 minutes north of Miami where the population is 70 percent Black, say they believe the Chauvin trial also will be a referendum on the state of policing nationally, including their efforts to reform their own police force.
Resident Leola Smith, 80, said Miami Gardens has plenty of good police officers, even though she is still annoyed that they used to repeatedly cite her for parking a car with an expired tag in her yard. What she worries most about — and why she hopes Chauvin is convicted — is that she sees images of her eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren every time she watches the video of Floyd’s death.
“That man was calling out for his mama,” Smith said. “I hope they pay for what they’ve done. … I hope they stop putting knees in people’s necks and stop following children around and killing them.”
Still, Smith remains skeptical Chauvin will be convicted.
“It’s always going to be like this,” she said.
Former Miami Gardens mayor Oliver Gilbert III, who served from 2012 until last year, said he understands residents’ frustration, but he says the city has made strides in overhauling its police force, including bolstering community outreach, implementing new bias training and recruiting more officers from the local community. Today, about half of Miami Gardens police officers are Black, according to local media reports.
“When the city created its own police department, it brought in police officers from other places, and those police officers brought their culture to Miami Gardens,” said Gilbert, who now serves on the Miami-Dade County Commission. “One thing I did as mayor is change the culture of the police department by bringing in people who live here, and who were familiar with the community and didn’t have a preestablished way of doing things.”
But throughout Miami Gardens, many residents express exasperation over how difficult it still seems for juries to convict police officers and others accused of unjustly taking Black lives.
Residents noted that the community was heartbroken when a Florida jury in 2013 cleared George Zimmerman for shooting Martin. For others, the Chauvin trial has reignited anger over a grand jury’s decision in the fall not to charge the officers who shot and killed Taylor during a botched drug raid in Louisville.
“I just don’t think White folks can do it,” said Roy Brohn, 63, who was born in Jamaica but moved to Miami Gardens 30 years ago and expects that Chauvin will be acquitted. “It’s not necessarily a racist thing, but I just don’t think [jurors] are going to do it.”
For longtime Black residents of South Florida, the case that continues to haunt them — and make them worried about what lies ahead for American cities — is the 1980 decision by a Florida jury to acquit four White police officers who beat motorist Arthur McDuffie to death during a traffic stop.
After the verdict, residents in several predominantly Black Miami-area neighborhoods rioted on three consecutive nights, burning scores of buildings and leaving 18 people dead. There were also disturbances in predominantly Black neighborhoods following police shootings in 1982, 1991, and 1989, when a police officer shot a motorcyclist, causing him to crash and kill his passenger.
Sitting outside a greasy tire shop near Miami Gardens City Hall, which is located on President Barack and Michelle Obama Boulevard, Jimmy Rogers, 62, and R.A. Richardson, 63, are convinced that this time will be different, and Chauvin will be convicted.
For them, it’s a matter of geography: Unlike Florida’s justice system, which they view as discriminatory, they say they believe Minnesota is an equitable, progressive state, giving them confidence that the trial will be conducted fairly. Rogers and Richardson also say they believe that jurors in Minneapolis won’t want to risk touching off social unrest with an acquittal.
“There are already huge racial tensions in America, and with any spark, it could ignite it,” Richardson said. The jury “won’t want to be that spark.”
Jody David Armour, an expert on racial division and a law professor at the University of Southern California, said many believe the video of Floyd’s death will make it hard for a jury to acquit Chauvin. A not-guilty verdict, therefore, could set back race relations for a generation, providing validation for many Black Americans of the racism they believe their own communities experience.
“This jury will be sitting as representatives of the community and the espousers of community values,” Armour said. “If they review this incident and say, ‘We don’t see anything criminally wrong’ … they will be telling you what they collectively think about Black lives and amplify the signal that Black lives really don’t seem to matter that much.”
A pursuit beyond one trial
Video has proved crucial in Satchell’s case, as well, highlighting many residents’ concerns about the conduct of Miami Gardens officers and the fairness of criminal justice in Miami-Dade County.
Officer Jordy Yanes-Martel, who was working off duty at Tootsie’s Cabaret when Satchell got into a dispute with a server there, claimed that Satchell had been resisting arrest and “struck him” with a “closed fist” as he stopped her in the nightclub parking lot.
He charged her with battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest, both felonies that could have sent her to prison for a decade.
But a passenger in Satchell’s vehicle videotaped the encounter, a video that contradicted Yanes-Martel’s version of events by documenting the officers’ aggressive behavior, including using a Taser on her twice in the stomach.
“I honestly thought I was being shot,” Satchell said, describing the dual pain of a knee on her neck choking her airway while feeling the jolt of the Taser.
It was not until early June — amid the public uproar and protests over Floyd’s death — that prosecutors dismissed the charges against Satchell. Two weeks after that, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle charged Yanes-Martel, alleging in court documents that he falsely accused Satchell of resisting arrest and that he assaulted her.
Satchell’s attorney, Jonathan Jordan, said he believes his client was targeted by nightclub staff and Yanes-Martel because she is Black. Jordan also wonders if prosecutors would have dropped the charges against his client had there not been video of the incident, and had Floyd’s death not been in the media spotlight.
“It’s long overdue for police to be held accountable for their actions,” Jordan said. “Police departments and states’ attorneys around the country are so used to covering up for police misconduct. Well, not anymore.”
David Braun, an attorney for Yanes-Martel, denies that Satchell’s race was a factor in his client’s behavior. Braun said Satchell should be held accountable for her own behavior that night.
Braun said Satchell was intoxicated and belligerent with nightclub staff. “The arrest of Ms. Satchell was absolutely not racially motivated,” Braun said.
Miami Gardens Police Chief Delma Noel-Pratt declined to be interviewed for this story. Miami-Dade state attorney spokesman Ed Griffith denied that the uproar over Floyd’s death pushed his office into dropping charges against Satchell and subsequently filing charges against Yanes-Martel, who is Latino. He said it took time for the video that had been provided by Jordan to reach the appropriate investigators.
But to the young Floridians who powered last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Satchell’s story is yet another reason they plan to look past the Chauvin trial in their pursuit of broader police reforms. They say their own encounters with police will drive their activism.
As he protested last summer, 19-year-old Dewayne Martin, who grew up in Miami Gardens, recalled his own experience as a Black child.
About 10 years ago, Martin was riding in a car with his older sister and her boyfriend, as well as his younger brother and nephew, after a trip to a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant.
Suddenly, he said, police pulled his sister over and five officers, with guns drawn, pulled her and her boyfriend out of the car to question them. A White woman had called the police to report the family for “being too loud” inside the restaurant, Martin said.
“Here was me, at 10 or 12 years old, trying to comfort my little brother and nephew as we watched my sister get guns pulled on her,” Martin said. “That is trauma that will live with us for the rest of our lives.”
Chauvin’s trial, he said, cannot become just another “isolated moment” in the pursuit of police reform and racial equity, especially in South Florida.
“2020 was the year that we sat back, and peeled back all of these traumas,” said Martin, who now attends Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “This trial will be a spectacular moment. … But what will this trial mean if we don’t also step back and take the time to critique the justice system itself?”
Julie Tate contributed to this report