Everywhere, there are signs seen and unseen that Minneapolis is bracing for the landmark trial of the former police officer charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
Jury selection is set to begin Monday in the case, which is poised to be a defining moment in the history of a nation that is grappling with a racial reckoning.
However, the judge is considering a last-minute addition of a third-degree murder charge that would give prosecutors another avenue for conviction, but with a shorter prison term. The addition — or a decision to not add the charge — could trigger an appeal from either side. The judge’s decision, which might not come until Monday morning, has injected even more uncertainty into the case, heightening tension in a city already on edge.
Chauvin has indicated that he’ll mount a “not guilty” defense, and hundreds of proposed witnesses means the trial could stretch through late April or early May, if it begins as scheduled. It will be live-streamed from three courtroom cameras.
City and county officials in Minneapolis estimate they are spending a combined $1 million on security efforts ahead of the trial, fortifying public buildings, lining streets with fencing and barbed wire, and bringing in the National Guard and other law enforcement officers.
But some have criticized the city’s high-security approach, saying it’s escalating tensions with residents who feel they’re being treated as the real threat, instead of heavily armed law enforcement officers and white supremacists they believe instigated last summer’s destruction.
Global protests over police brutality and racial injustice were sparked by bystander video that captured the Memorial Day encounter in which Chauvin knelt on 46-year-old Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as he was handcuffed facedown on a South Minneapolis street. Body-camera video shows that Chauvin, 44, kept his knee on the Black man even after another responding officer told him he could not detect Floyd’s pulse.
Chauvin was among four officers who responded to a convenience store clerk’s 911 call about a counterfeit $20 bill that a customer had allegedly passed. All four were fired by the Minneapolis Police Department. The three other officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — have been charged with aiding and abetting.
Through their attorneys, Kueng and Lane, who had been on the job full time for less than a week, have sought to shift the blame to Chauvin, arguing they were following the senior officer’s direction. Chauvin has blamed Kueng and Lane, suggesting they were in control of the scene and did not do enough to de-escalate the situation with Floyd.
Thao, who was handling crowd control, has said that his job was to be a “human traffic cone” and that he was not paying close attention to the scene behind him.
Chauvin’s defense is expected to argue that Floyd did not die from the former officer’s knee but rather from other health issues and a drug overdose, citing an autopsy that recorded high levels of fentanyl and other substances in Floyd’s system.
Chauvin is being tried separately from the other officers, because Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill was advised that the courtroom was not big enough to accommodate social distancing requirements related to the coronavirus pandemic. Kueng, Lane and Thao are scheduled to be tried in August, though their trial would probably not move forward if Chauvin is acquitted.
After decades of high-profile cases in which police officers have largely been acquitted in cases of the abuse and killing of Black men and other people of color, Chauvin’s trial is sure to be viewed as a crucial test of what justice means in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
But Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and longtime Minneapolis activist who leads the Racial Justice Network, said she has sensed growing anxiety among activists about the trial’s potential outcome.
“It feels like we’ve been here before,” Armstrong said. “We know there’s no guarantee that Derek Chauvin or any of the three officers will be held accountable, even with the damning video evidence that we all saw. . . . And it’s like, if you can’t see a conviction in this case, we won’t see a conviction in any other case involving a White officer causing the death of a Black person in the state of Minnesota.”
A wartime posture
Determined to avoid a repeat of last summer’s chaos and destruction, which included the burning of the 3rd Precinct police station, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) and other local leaders have sought to display an unprecedented level of security in the city. The area around the downtown Minneapolis courthouse has been transformed into a militarized zone where armed National Guard troops will soon take up positions alongside local police.
The Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial will be held, and adjacent buildings have been fortified with several blocks of concrete barricades and multiple layers of high-security fencing topped by barbed wire — an intimidating scene unlike anything anyone here can remember.
Other buildings across the city also have been secured with concrete, fencing and plywood, including police stations and the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office, where the staff’s handling of Floyd’s autopsy and their views on his cause of death are expected to be a central focus at the trial.
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said during a briefing last week about Operation Safety Net — the name given to the coordinate public security response around the trial — that there was “no imminent credible local threat to the trial today.”
“That doesn’t mean we’re not tracking. It doesn’t mean we’re not asking all the right questions, that we’re not ringing all the right bells,” Harrington said.
Minneapolis officials have urged businesses across the city to consider additional security in the coming weeks, including physical barriers, “such as boarding or permanent security gates.”
Frey and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Democrats who were criticized for their slow response to the civil unrest last summer, have announced a massive deployment of law enforcement to guard the proceedings, including 2,000 National Guard members and at least 1,100 law enforcement officers.
That includes scores of officers from agencies around the state who are coming in to back up the Minneapolis police, which has lost more than a quarter of its force as officers have quit or taken leave in the months since Floyd’s death, some citing injuries or PTSD suffered during last year’s unrest. The security will be increased in phases throughout the trial, with the highest deployment to begin during closing arguments in anticipation of jury deliberation and a verdict.
“As we’ve seen in so many other cities, as we lead into trials involving Black men that have been killed by the police officers, there’s great frustration, there’s anxiety and there’s trauma,” Frey said in a recent briefing regarding the city’s security efforts. “And we believe that it is on us to honor the magnitude of this moment and ensure that our families in this city feel safe.”
But the city’s wartime posture has alarmed some residents and city council members. In a lengthy meeting on the city’s security plans, many expressed concern that the police-heavy approach ignores the community’s trauma from last year, when mostly peaceful protesters were tear-gassed and injured by police projectiles, an aggressiveness that many here believe fueled the subsequent violence and destruction.
Phillipe Cunningham, a council member who represents North Minneapolis, the heart of the city’s Black community, pressed the city’s police chief on whether officers had undergone any additional training to understand what fueled those protests, including racist policing. He suggested that police do not always differentiate between or understand how to handle “emotional” anger vs. behavior that could lead to violence.
“Peaceful protests also include Black rage from the ongoing trauma and pain that has been a result of structural and systemic violence. But that kind of emotional expression is very upsetting to Minnesota sensibilities, . . . particularly with a negative emotion,” Cunningham said.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who will have operational control over all of the law enforcement flooding into the city, has said the department learned from and had conversations about the anger that fueled last year’s protests. The city’s first Black police chief, he has emphasized that there will a more unified approach among key leaders of the security effort and better communication with officers on the ground, with emphasis on de-escalating tensions at the scene.
But council member Jeremiah Ellison — whose father, Attorney General Keith Ellison, is overseeing the prosecution’s case against Chauvin — has raised concerns that having soldiers and officers on the street in riot gear will probably invoke “the kind of chaos we are trying to avoid.” He said that police and other city leaders in private briefings had invoked the riots that erupted across Los Angeles in 1992 after police officers were acquitted for beating Rodney King.
Ellison questioned if approaching security through that lens was appropriate.
“This past summer, that was created, in large part, by the police,” Ellison said. “And now, we’re saying that the police are the only thing that can protect us from that. And I think it’s incredibly disappointing.”
Steve Fletcher, another council member, criticized law enforcement officials who have cited the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as the need for intense security.
“I think it’s very important that we’re clear about the difference between white supremacists attempting to overthrow our government and peaceful protesters,” Fletcher said. “People are looking for reassurance that they’re not going to be treated as a threat when expressing First Amendment rights.”
'On our own'
Some residents are fearful that the city has been so focused on protesters and securing downtown that it has overlooked the threat of right-wing extremists.
At least one man who has self-identified as a member of the “boogaloo bois,” a far-right anti-government group intent on starting a second civil war, is facing a federal riot charge as part of what federal officials have described as a larger investigation into the loosely affiliated group’s efforts to fuel chaos in Minneapolis last summer.
In recent community safety forums, several people have recounted that the city left them on their own as fires broke out and suspicious vehicles with out-of-state tags circled their residential blocks, some driven by masked White men with guns, they said.
Others recalled finding suspicious items, including containers of gasoline, motor oil and other potential accelerants, planted in alleys behind their homes. Residents who called 911 complained that the city did not respond, and some neighbors formed watch groups, including some who guarded their streets with guns.
“We were left out here on our own, literally told to get our garden hoses to fight fires. That’s not okay,” a South Minneapolis resident who identified himself as Mark said during a call with city employees and top police leaders.
Kathy Fuller, another South Minneapolis resident, cited the Jan. 6 insurrection, and she worried extremist groups and others from outside the state could return to Minneapolis “to make our city and state look bad and cause unrest.”
Police officials on the call said they were monitoring the situation and repeatedly referred to efforts to contain protests — a stance that has alarmed some in the community who believe the department is more focused on perceived threats from residents than outside agitators and extremist groups.
Frey, the mayor, has defended the city’s intense security measures, saying that he was personally shaken by the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January and wanted to prevent a similar event in his already traumatized city.
“We have a very difficult and trauma-filled trial that will be proceeding over the next couple of months, and we need our city to continue to operate,” Frey said.
Some council members and residents say Minneapolis’s intense security preparations have raised suspicions that city and state leaders are already predicting the trial’s outcome.
Jeanelle Austin, a longtime racial justice activist who helps oversee the makeshift memorial that has arisen where Floyd was killed, at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis, said she has fielded calls, including from people out of state, about the intense security and influx of police into Minneapolis, convinced the city knows Chauvin won’t be convicted.
“Y’all ain’t getting a conviction: That’s the message that’s being communicated to the people, whether they thought about it or not,” Austin said of the city. “And that’s what’s so problematic. It’s like instigating moves. You don’t want any harm to come to anyone or anything. Yet the way you’ve postured yourself is that something is going to be so upsetting that it’s going to happen. And so it is.”
Among those who are skeptical that Chauvin’s conviction is possible is Valerie Castile, whose son, Philando, was fatally shot by a suburban Twin Cities officer during a 2016 traffic stop. His death — like Floyd’s — was captured on a horrific bystander video that was streamed for the world to see. The officer was later acquitted of second-degree manslaughter and other charges after saying he believed that Castile, a licensed gun owner who told the officer he had a firearm, was reaching for his gun.
Watching the video of Floyd’s death, Castile said, “was like reliving the same nightmare.” Another cop, another Black man dead.
“God gave you my son, Philando, for you guys to see what’s going on. But you weren’t paying attention,” she said on a recent afternoon from her home north of Minneapolis. “So he gave us George Floyd, and he made the world stand still, where everybody was on their phone, everybody was at their laptop, unable to look away.”
Despite the hopefulness that Castile felt in seeing the massive protests last summer that spread from coast to coast with diverse crowds, including White protesters both young and old, she remains suspicious of a justice system that has rarely punished the police for wrongdoing — especially in Minnesota, where only one officer, a Black man, has ever been convicted of an on-duty killing.
“Just check the pattern,” Castile said, echoing the feelings of many activists and Black Americans. “Police are hardly ever held accountable.”