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Transcript: Race in America: A Conversation with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

Race in America: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

MR. CAPEHART: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post.

Less than 24 hours ago, Minnesota State Attorney General, Keith Ellison, announced that he was charging all four police officers involved in the death of George Floyd. It's led to protests in nearly every corner of the country, and has highlighted the need for fundamental change, and understanding within the racial divide in the country.

Today, we'll ask Ellison about every aspect of race in America, [audio distortion] to the Floyd family, and how he thinks our country needs to change.

With that, Attorney General Keith Ellison, welcome.

AG ELLISON: Thank you, Jonathan. Good to see you, as always.

MR. CAPEHART: So, Attorney General Ellison, let's talk about the case. You elevated charges against Officer Derek Chauvin to second-degree murder; added charges of aiding and abetting murder against the three other officers at the scene.

Explain to our audience how you came to these charges.

AG ELLISON: Well, we reviewed the law carefully. We consulted with our partners in Hennepin County Attorney's Office. We then looked at all the facts that we had and facts that came in between the initial complaint and the ones we found subsequently, including other evidence. The medical reports came out since then. An additional one came out. And we looked at a wide range of factors and we made our decision based on the facts available to us and laws of the State of Minnesota.

It's not proper for a prosecutor to talk about different pieces of evidence or to evaluate evidence before trial. But you know, the reason that we came to the charges that we filed is because we found that the law required certain things and that the facts supported those charges.

MR. CAPEHART: I know you don't want to get into specific facts, but you did say that facts that have come in--are some of the facts that came in body camera footage from the four officers?

AG ELLISON: You know, it's a whole bunch of facts. It's a range of--it's body cam, it's witnesses, it's medical information. It's a whole range of things. And we looked at it all and felt that there was a factual basis for charging the charges that are most recent.

MR. CAPEHART: And I just want to ask you one more question on body cam. Seeing--all of us, the nation's been horrified by the social media video, the witness video of the killing of George Floyd.

But will we see--will we have to wait until trial to see any of the body cam footage that has come in?

AG ELLISON: Let me tell you, Jonathan, I'm a firm believer in transparency and the public's right to know, but a higher priority for me is a successful prosecution.

Therefore, I'll consult with our lead investigators and I'll say to them, "When can we release this information to the public and still safeguard the prosecution?" And if we can do it before then, I will have no problem with doing that, but I am reluctant to do anything that would undermine the prosecution of this case.

MR. CAPEHART: Understood. You know, on social media and just out in the public people have been questioning why it took so long to charge the other three officers in the killing of George Floyd.

Can you walk us through the timeline of that decision?

AG ELLISON: Well, at that time, I was not part of the prosecution team, let alone the lead prosecutor, so I would only be speculating if I were to do that.

I will tell you this: It's understandable that the public would feel this way. I mean, they all saw this videotape, and what they saw shocked and horrified many people, which is why we had widespread rallies, protests, and the response was pretty clear and widespread.

But I will tell you that it was relatively fast, if you look at other prosecutions of police for homicide, murder. It was relatively--it was literally five or so days which, if you look at Philando Castile, you look at Justine Damond, you look at many other cases it took much, much longer than five days for a complaint to issue.

I know people feel like it was too long because they saw what they saw, but by comparison of other cases, it really wasn't that long.

MR. CAPEHART: Attorney General Ellison, will your office be issuing any additional charges or charge, actually, other people?

AG ELLISON: We have lot--we have filed the highest ethical charges that we can. We--our investigation is ongoing. If information comes to our attention that would justify a more serious charge, we would not be reluctant about filing that charge.

So, at this point, we have--you know, I can't really disclose the inner workings of the prosecution team, but I can tell you the charges reflect the strongest charges we can file, given what we know.

MR. CAPEHART: So, now, we have two autopsies, and I want to ask you some questions about these. It will require me to look at my notes because we've got some technical language here. County medical--

AG ELLISON: Be precise, now, [audio distortion].

MR. CAPEHART: Oh, I am. The County Medical Examiner said Mr. Floyd died of, quote, "Cardio pulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, compression."

The autopsy commissioned by the Floyd family said he--"Mr. Floyd died of [audio distortion] asphyxiation."

From a legal point of view, what's the difference?

AG ELLISON: You know, I think the main thing is that they both concluded that it was a homicide. I think the main idea is that--and homicide, by the way, is death at the hands of another, distinct from overdose, distinct from other forms of death. The cause of death was homicide. Somebody killed him; that's what that means. And so, that is the--that is the thing that we need to keep our attention on. And so, we will allow technical experts to harmonize or draw distinctions or whatever, illuminate the nuances, but the main idea is it was a homicide and both medical examiners agree to that.

MR. CAPEHART: That brings to mind another question, and that is, how is it--how do you explain two different examinations, two different autopsies coming to two different--two different understandings of what happened, even if they come to the same conclusion that George Floyd's death was a homicide?

AG ELLISON: Well, you know, the fact is, is that medicine--you know, the truth is, I'm going to just reserve comment on that particular question. I'm going to just allow the experts and the information to come out at trial about that. Because if I were to comment on that, that could be something that the defense would try to pick up on and exploit to the disadvantage of the case. So, I'm just going to--I'm not going to make any comment on that.

MR. CAPEHART: Attorney General Ellison, you brought charges against these officers, but why do you think you'll be able to get a conviction against Chauvin and the other three officers?

AG ELLISON: Because they did what we accuse them of.

MR. CAPEHART: As simple as that.


MR. CAPEHART: Now, again, as you--go ahead--

AG ELLISON: [Audio distortion]--and because

they did what we accuse them of, we believe a jury will be fair, will neither fear or favor anyone, and will make an objective, unbiased, evidence-based decision that they are guilty, because they are guilty.

MR. CAPEHART: So, given that, I'm going to channel what I'm sure a lot of people who might be watching are thinking: How many times have we been in this situation where our eyes tell us someone--that someone was killed by the police and that the police officer or officers should not only be charged but convicted of their crime and then [audio distortion] convicted--who then go free. And yet, the victim is still--is still dead. Why do you think this time is different?

AG ELLISON: You know what? Because I think that we have a very strong team. We have a very strong investigative team. We have prosecutors who are in firm pursuit of justice. We are operating at the highest level of professionalism that we can.

We are aware of some of those other cases where the facts and the videos seem to say one thing and yet the verdict said something else. The Walter Scott comes to mind in South Carolina. The Rodney King case comes to mind. And so--and we're making sure that we address the weaknesses or the vulnerable points of those particular prosecutions.

At the end of the day it will be up to 12 Minnesotans to decide what happened, what they believe the proper verdict should be. But we're going to put everything we have into the charges that we have filed and bring forth and demonstrate the facts as we know them to be.

MR. CAPEHART: Can I get you to explain further something that you said yesterday. When you announced the new charges against the former officers, you said, quote, "Our country has under-prosecuted these matters for years, in Minnesota and throughout the country."

Walk through that. What do you mean by "under-prosecuted"?

AG ELLISON: Well, I believe--and I'm not talking about this case at all--but I believe that there's a lot of police behavior that other people would have been charged for but, because of their status, they were able to operate with impunity.


MR. CAPEHART: Sorry, there, Attorney General, your screen froze and I thought you were still talking.


MR. CAPEHART: You know, when you announced the elevated charges against Officer Chauvin, you said, quote, "George Floyd mattered. Life had value and we will seek justice."

How do these charges better serve your mission to seek justice?

AG ELLISON: Well, I think it all goes back to what justice is. Justice is based on truth. Justice is based on the public interest and the public welfare. Justice is the idea that everybody has inherent dignity, deserves to be treated fairly by their government. They don't deserve to get special privileges, nor do they deserve to be--carry a greater burden than others. It's equal justice under the law.

In many ways, the term "equal justice" is redundant. Justice should inherently be equal to everyone. And you know, the symbol of justice is scales, right, in balance. And so, I believe that, you know, the charges in this particular case will bring forth a greater symbol of--or level of justice, because--or the conviction will, because everyone will know that there's nobody who gets to do what these officers did to George Floyd and just get away with it.

If you do that, you will be held accountable. And if you don't, then you can expect to not have to deal with the consequences of those actions.

You know, it's important for people in our society, it's important for all people to understand that, you know, nobody gets to treat anyone else beneath--like they're beneath the protection of the law. And so, that's sort of what is going on, here.

I mean, why do we do criminal prosecutions of anyone in America or in Minnesota or in D.C.? Why do we have a criminal justice system in which prosecution occurs? Because we pass laws that say certain kinds of behavior is not going to be tolerated and other behavior will be.

And when we pass those laws where we're not going to tolerate certain behaviors, which is known as criminal laws, state and federal, those laws mean nothing if you don't enforce them. And that's what's going on, now: We're enforcing the law. We say that you cannot commit a felony offense against a person and then, if they die, escape accountability for your behavior. And you cannot assist anyone in doing so, either.

So, we're saying we believe those laws were broken, so we're going to enforce them to make sure that everyone knows that the public is serious about these laws and will obey them.

MR. CAPEHART: Mr. Ellison, let's talk about the protests that are now in their tenth consecutive day since the killing of George Floyd. Why do think this case, this time, has led to such a national outcry--not just national outcry, international outcry about racism in this country?

AG ELLISON: Because I think that, first of all, you know, George Floyd--there was something in his pleas of "Mama, they're going to kill me"--there was something in his pleas that I think struck a chord in people. You know, there's something in, you know, what he said that really struck a sympathetic chord in people and may--and reminded them of so many other occasions in which the people who are entrusted with guardianship fail to be true guardians.

And so, I mean, look, you know, this is a historic problem. This is a problem that--you know, let me tell you, Martin Luther King talked about police brutality I think in his letter from Birmingham Jail and in his March on Washington speech. Malcolm X talked about it, the NAACP's talked about it, the Black Panthers have talked about it. I mean, groups of diverse political beliefs, individual leaders of diverse political beliefs have said this problem is serious, it goes way back. How many millions of dollars in civil judgments and [audio distortion] paid out? How many--how much property destruction has happened because people just--because incidents like this provoke civil unrest. I mean, this is a long-term, widespread, serious problem. And so, when people saw this particular video, it just struck a chord in them and made them feel like enough is enough.

I will say, though, and I must say, I am absolutely, positively not influenced by public reaction. I do believe public protest is right. I think it is a good thing. I think we have a constitutional right to do it. I myself have done it. But when I agreed to take this case, I agreed with myself and to God that I was not going to let public reaction dictate my view of this case.

The charges that we filed have--actually, have nothing to do with public reaction and everything to do with the facts that we found and the law that is written into Minnesota statutes--

MR. CAPEHART: Mr. Ellison--

AG ELLISON: I do think the public--

MR. CAPEHART: Mr. Ellison, let me push you on this point.


MR. CAPEHART: Public reaction might not have an impact on you, but are you saying, though, that public reaction is--your being appointed to take over this--the prosecution of this case that that was not the result of the public reaction?

AG ELLISON: No, I'm saying that. I'm talking about my decision--my charging decisions.

You know, I think that the--I mean, I think that the county attorney who asked me to join the case and the Governor may well have considered the fact that we needed to broaden our team and take an action that would help give the public confidence that, no matter what the charges were, that they were the right charges based on the facts and the law.

And so, I'm not saying that the public reaction had nothing to do with my presence in the case. In fact, I suspect it had a lot to do with it, but I was speaking of something different. I'm talking about my duty to look at the facts and the law and not try anybody based on public opinion but try them based on their behavior and what the requirements of the law are.

MR. CAPEHART: Let's keep talking about the public reaction--

AG ELLISON: That make sense?

MR. CAPEHART: Yeah, no, no that makes perfect sense.


MR. CAPEHART: Let's talk more about the public reaction because--back to something you said before, you were appointed to this. And let's go all the way back to the President, who has pinned a lot of the violent reactions that we have seen separate and apart from the demonstrations that we've seen in the daylight hours--has pinned all of that, particularly the looting that we've seen on the far left, on Antifa.

But Minnesota officials, yourself included, were the first to warn that white supremacists and white supremacist organizations, were taking advantage of this situation. You tweeted out a video of a white man clad all in black, gas mask, umbrella, with a hammer, knocking out the windows of an AutoZone and you were calling on the public to help identify the person.

Could you talk more fully about nationalist involvement in some of the destruction that you've seen?

AG ELLISON: You know, Jonathan, I'd be happy to. Let me tell you this: I don't think we really know, definitively, the identity of the people who have done these horrific--this looting and this arson. We know about some of the flags that have been waved. We know some of the things some of the people have said. But if you look at every single looter, arsonist who seems to be operating in a clandestine manner, we don't really know, which is why it was somewhat surprising to hear the President make that characterization, that--about, you know, some groups that apparently he does not like or whatever. I don't know if he had a factual basis to make that claim. That seemed like more of a political position than anything else.

And I have subsequently learned that law enforcement officials do not support his accusation. And so,--and we do know that there was a Twitter account with--"Antifa USA," which is found to be a fake Twitter account, and it is actually a white supremacist who put it up there. So, clearly, those are the facts about that.

But what I'll say is that, as a law enforcement person myself, the reason that I put that tweet out is because we need to identify that person. We need to know who that person is so that we can hold them accountable for the wrong that they did: destruction of property, possible arson, certainly riot and mayhem, and violation of civil rights, of people, perhaps. I mean, those--that case desperately needs to be investigated and I am a little disappointed that no one who has been doing this stuff has been arrested, yet.

I'm not--and let me just tell you, if you watch that video, there's this little African-American man who has a t-shirt on and he's one of the protestors, and he's the one who was confronting that guy, and then that guy runs away.

If the demonstrators see these people and are calling them out and confronting them, I mean, I think that is within our ability in the American law enforcement community to find some of these people.

So, I think that we should look for these individuals. And then, when we interview them, or interview their--you know, then after we get--arrest them, then we can start making meaningful, accurate characterizations of what their politics may or may not be.

But at this point, you know, what we know is that, one, they do exist; two, that they are causing damage all over the city.

I mean, here's the other thing, Jonathan, if you know Minneapolis, you know that the focal point of the protest is south Minneapolis. Why, in northeast Minneapolis, in north Minneapolis, up and down major thoroughfares did we see fires and broken windows at like 4:00 and 3:00 in the morning? Who's doing this? And I can assure you--I know the people in Minneapolis who are the folks who call protests. I know them. I know the folks in the civil rights groups and I am well aware of these people. None of them would dream of doing these things.

In fact, some of the institutions that were destroyed are institutions that were founded by people who stand for civil rights, justice all the time, and have longstanding relationships in the community, like Juxtaposition Arts, for example, a wonderful community arts--youth community arts program that really go--is set up in north Minneapolis, on Broadway Avenue, and it was erected to make sure that low-income kids, mostly black but of all colors: white, all colors--could have a place to learn art to express themselves and that if they couldn't pay for art lessons, that they would get those lessons for free. Why was that place destroyed? And what civil rights activist would hurt that place? Nobody would, but that was--but they were targeted, and many other like them.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. We have seen on social media lots of video from cities around the country of demonstrators, African-Americans, confronting people who are doing damage--


MR. CAPEHART: --pleading with them to stop, because, as one newspaper story said, the person said, you do this, you get off, and we get blamed.


MR. CAPEHART: And so, but as a result--but Attorney General Ellison, as a result of the looting and the violence and the damage, the President has, you know, been calling on governors to bring in the military. Because Washington, D.C. is not a state, he's been able to do it here.

Can I get your reaction, as a law enforcement official, the chief law enforcement official in Minnesota, to the President of the United States calling on governors to have the military patrol their streets?

AG ELLISON: This is not an idea that I endorse at all. I think--the President said to those governors, "You need to dominate." The last thing we need is more domination.

What we need is some--we do need law and order, we do need protecting and respecting property. But what we need is to have relationships with the peaceful demonstrators in which police and even National Guard forces say, "Look, we're here to protect you peacefully demonstrate, but we can't let anybody burn the city down and break up and tear--and do looting and vandalism. But as long as you are peacefully protesting, that's in the deepest tradition of the United States and you can do it. That's what we do here. That's your right."

I think coming in there like you're going to dominate someone--I happen to know these young people will react the opposite of what the President thinks. These young people are not scared, man. The way to get their cooperation is to say, "We hear you. We're listening. We're committed to reform and change. If you will peacefully demonstrate and work, we're ready to rewrite the rules and make sure that we have a more just society." That's the way to get peace and calm.

What are these young people out--and they're not all young, by the way. Some of them have been around for a long time. But what are they out there for? They're out there because they see injustice. So, to bring in more injustice, domination, it is the very last thing we need.

In fact, my argument would be they were trying to do domination on George Floyd and that is why this problem started in the first place. So, why would we bring in more of the same thing that caused the problem?

You know, I would hope that the President would say something like, "We hear you. We understand that this problem is serious and long term. We know we got a lot of reform to do. All of us are living with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and racial subordination. We didn't cause it, but we need to fix it, and it's our responsibility to set a new order in which everybody can be treated with dignity and respect. But I need you to not loot and arson. I need you to help us find people who do it. Don't let those bad people tarnish the good name of your noble protest and your noble demonstration and let's start remaking America along the lines of liberty and justice for all."

I mean, you know, I thought that Obama was presidential in his remarks yesterday. And I was very pleased to see that somebody who had the support of the nation and--I mean, there's only one person that every single state votes for, and that's the President. Every other politician in America has a far smaller constituency. It may be a state, it may be a congressional district, or may be a state house or state senate district, or even a city council district. But the only person who is elected by everybody is--and everybody has a say-so into is the President. That person should bring calm, should bring peace, should be empathetic, should show some understanding, but we didn't get anything like that.

MR. CAPEHART: I was going to say, Attorney General Ellison, you and I both know--and anyone who's been paying attention, that the words that you said that you thought the current President of the United States should say, he's incapable of saying those things or acting in that manner as we saw in front of St. John's Church.

Do you think he's intentionally pouring gasoline on this current fire, which has basically been a smoldering fire in this country since its founding?

AG ELLISON: If I were to speculate, and that's all I can do, because I don't know what he thinks, I would have to say that his strategy of manipulating people against each other and trying to always assert domination, never accepting responsibility is so deeply into him that his unconscious actions and his deliberate actions have merged.

I mean, his instincts and his conscious actions are always to make himself the center of everything and to always dominate, always, you know, be unsympathetic to the other person's situation. I mean, I don't know if he's doing it intentionally and I don't know if there's a difference between his deliberate mind and his core instinct. I think the way he governs, they've merged. And so, you know, he just does what he does and you can--and he is incredibly reliable in this way.

MR. CAPEHART: Attorney General Ellison, a couple more questions before I have to let you go--and thank you very much for the time you've given us.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is said to be on the shortlist for Vice President Joe Biden's running mate, presumptive Democratic nominee. You served in the House of Representatives for 12 years working with Senator Klobuchar. What can you say about her record on crime, African-American relations, and how you worked with her in Washington?

AG ELLISON: I have a good relationship with her. She and I have worked together on issues of voting and same-day registration and things like that.

I would say that, in many ways, she was a product of her time. She was not worse than any prosecutor that I know. In fact, she was better, in many ways. And I will say now she has embraced the nationwide reform movement that we see in the criminal justice system.

I mean, you know, I can tell you that--you know, that when Tyesha Edwards was killed by some young men who were fighting with each other, shooting at each other, the bullet went through the wall and struck that tiny child, took her life away, that there was a lot of people in the City of Minneapolis of all colors who really wanted accountability for the people responsible. And some people in prison were in fact responsible.

The one person who there's doubt around, and I happen to have doubts around the guilt around Myon Burrell, I really do, you know, I think she's called for a review of the case and the evidence. And so, I think that's what we can expect and that's what we really, really should do.

So, I will say that there are a number of people who I know who are--have been said to be on the shortlist. They're all great public servants. I can tell you that Amy, though, is a hardworking and I think she'd listen if she were in that position.

MR. CAPEHART: To be the VP nominee.

AG ELLISON: I mean, put it like this: I know that there's people who are advocating for different folks. And let me tell you, people like Val Demings, love her, she's great. I'm sure she'd be great at it. People have mentioned Stacey Abrams, people have mentioned Kamala Harris. All these are great public servants.

And I can say that Amy would do a good job and I'm sure those others would do a good job, too. But given that she's my senator and I've worked with her a lot, I can't say that she would not do a good job. I think she would be fine.

MR. CAPEHART: Two quick questions: One, there's a lot of consternation yesterday, particularly on Twitter, because that's where it was announced when Senator Klobuchar tweeted out you were going to announce a couple of hours later. What was your reaction when you saw that tweet go out?

AG ELLISON: I was really focused on the work ahead of me. You know, we were still working on some things, still getting some details ready, and I kept my eyes focused on that 3:00 hearing--I mean, that 3:00 press conference.

MR. CAPEHART: One more question for you, Attorney General Ellison: What message do you have for the people of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and for the country as you proceed along in this prosecution?

AG ELLISON: My message is that, based on the facts and the law, we are vigorously prosecuting the people that we believe are responsible for the murder of George Floyd.

In addition to that, the Governor has begun a process of filing a commissioner's charge and having a ten-year review of the Minneapolis Police Department through the Human Rights Department of the State of Minnesota.

We are--I've talked with many members of the Black Caucus who are committed to introducing legislation on reform in this area of police community relations.

And before the tragic events involving George Floyd, me and the Commissioner of Public Safety, John Harrington, led a year-long working group on reducing deadly force encounters with police.

So, in direct response to your question, look, justice for Mr. Floyd and justice for America is going on. Be part of it. Go to your local community, whether you're in Peoria, Illinois; whether you're in Orlando, Florida; whether you are in Houston, Texas; whether you are in Fremont, California for anywhere--or Springfield, Massachusetts, go to your local community and begin the process of talking about police-community relations, a racial healing--help our neighbors understand that our police are really a reflection of community sentiment.

And if you are outraged by what happened to Mr. Copeland in Central Park, understand that that kind of attitude is the attitude which drives police. You know, she called the police to lie and say this black man was threatening her life. That kind of person would be on a jury, and I guarantee you, if you said to that lady, "We think you're racist," she would be like, "Oh, my God. How dare you say this? This is such an offensive thing to me. I have black friends." We've got to dig into that kind of attitude that would call the police on two black men having coffee at a Starbucks or that it would call the police on a black jogger who's just jogging through the community. We've got to get to the roots of that because it is from that crop--that body of people that our police departments are made up of people who think like that.

And so, these are the good people, right? These are the nice people. These are the people--I mean, we want to all--these folks, they went to college. We think education makes people less racist. I don't believe that, anymore. You know, so, we've got to get down to the heart of it. I don't believe people are inherently racist. I believe people can be taught to respect other human beings. I believe that all human beings have flaws and I may not be a racist but maybe I got some things about myself that I need to work on.

All of us need to come forward and finish the unfinished business of the movement for true equality and human solidarity, and I urge people to do that on a local level, on a granular level, in your church, mosque, synagogue, in your temple. Do it there and try to fix your little corner of this world and, together, we might end up with a better world.

MR. CAPEHART: And with that, Attorney General for the great State of Minnesota, my secondary home state since I went to college in Minnesota, Keith Ellison, thank you very, very much for being here.

AG ELLISON: Thank you, Jonathan.

MR. CAPEHART: Thank all of you--and thank you. And thank all of you for joining us, today. We will definitely continue this conversation in the future.

Next week, please join us on Tuesday when we'll have Chef José Andrés and Senator Chris Coons of Delaware to discuss their joint efforts to pass the FEED Act. [Audio distortion] restauranteur Tom Colicchio on the impact of the pandemic on restaurant workers;

Wednesday, Salesforce CEO, Mark Benioff;

And on Thursday, Microsoft President, Brad Smith.

Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Thank you for tuning in to Washington Post Live.

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