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Transcript: Race in America: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

MR. CAPEHART: Good afternoon. I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Welcome to Washington Post Live and another installment in our series Race in America.

One year ago this coming Tuesday, George Floyd was killed under the knee of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz appointed a special prosecutor who assembled an amazing team that would succeed in convincing a jury, one month ago yesterday, to find Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd. That special prosecutor joins us today. He is the Minnesota State Attorney General, Keith Ellison. Attorney General Ellison, welcome to Washington Post Live.

MR. ELLISON: Great to be with you, Jonathan. Thank you.

MR. CAPEHART: Before we talk about the Derek Chauvin trial and the killing of George Floyd, we have to talk about some breaking news that hit just about an hour ago. Your office released a statement acknowledging that you are taking on the prosecution of Kim Potter. She is the former Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer who shot and killed Daunte Wright on April 11th. Why are you taking on that prosecution?

MR. ELLISON: Well, we have been asked to take on the case and we are willing to do it because we are public servants, and when the public needs service we step up to do the work we are called to do. And so, we are going to handle the case with seriousness, with all due regard for the precious life of Daunte Wright, and, you know, we are going to seek justice and a fair trial. And let me just note for everybody, Kim Potter is presumed innocent.

MR. CAPEHART: Given that you were the prosecutor in the Derek Chauvin trial, is that a template for how you will proceed against Kim Potter?

MR. ELLISON: No, because every single case is unique. Cases are as unique as fingerprints. All of them are different, in many different ways. So, we will--our approach will be tailored to the case itself, and I don't want anyone to expect that because we did one thing on one case, we are going to do the same thing in another case. What people can expect is we will bring the same level of urgency and commitment and fairness and professionalism. After that, anything could be different.

MR. CAPEHART: And is there a likelihood, or how likely is it that we will see perhaps some of the team that was assembled for the Derek Chauvin trial be a part of the Kim Potter trial?

MR. ELLISON: It is very certain that some of our regular employees at the Attorney General's Office will be on the matter. Whether the team will shift from one case to another is really yet to be determined. But I know that, you know, more than just the Minnesota Attorney General's Office has a thirst for justice, so if and when we need to reach out, I expect we are going to have all the help we need.

MR. CAPEHART: I was asking that question because I was thinking of the people on your team for the Chauvin trial, who volunteered their time and their services.

MR. ELLISON: Yes. Certainly Jerry Blackwell, Steve Schleicher, Neal Katyal, Lola Velázquez, they were volunteer special assistant attorneys general. They were fantastic, outstanding lawyers. But it has just not been determined as to what we will do on the Potter case. So, stay tuned.

MR. CAPEHART: All right. Let's turn our attention to what happened on May 25th, 2020. Where were you when you heard the news of what happened to George Floyd? How did you find out?

MR. ELLISON: I was getting out of bed. You know, one of my assistants emailed me a video, said, "You have to see this. This is urgent." I clicked it on, I watched it, and even though I had seen far too much of that kind of thing, I was still shocked. I asked my wife, I said, "Hey, hon, do you want to see this?" because it was in the general--it wasn't proprietary. It was in the general flow of information. She said, "No. No, I don't." And in a way I understand exactly where she is coming from, because it was just as shocking, although it was sadly familiar.

MR. CAPEHART: And that was the video that Darnella Frazier recorded on her phone. But as part of the prosecution, we all thought it was 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It was 9 minutes and 29 seconds. When putting the video together, you understood why your wife didn't want to view the video, but was it more shocking when you saw it in its totality, from all those angles that were presented at trial?

MR. ELLISON: Yes. What we showed at trial has no place in decent society, and it is inhumane, whether it is on the streets of Minneapolis or the streets of Bogota or the streets of, you know, Moscow or Beijing. It is a human rights abuse, no doubt, and it should be shocking. Once it is not shocking, we have to examine our own humanity. It was shocking, and as you pointed out, Jonathan, it was worse than we thought. It wasn't 8:46. It was 9:29. It was worse than we thought. And, you know, still, I mean, it still is disturbing to me, although, you know, my makeup is one that I can look at things like that and deal with them. It still shocks me and it's still emotionally disturbing.

MR. CAPEHART: Would you have had the case that you had, had Darnella Frazier not recorded what happened?

MR. ELLISON: You know, nobody really knows, but I kind of doubt it. I'll tell you. We constructed the case in a way that we didn't need the video, but, of course, we needed the video. But we acted as if we didn't, and we asked ourselves, what kind of case would we have if we only had live witnesses to put on? And that is the case we put on. And then we used the video to supplement that.

You know, watching cases like, well, you know, Walter Scott or even Rodney King, we know that you can't just win a conviction by pushing play on a video. You've got to give proper context, information, insight, perspective, and you can only get that from live witnesses. And, quite frankly, the emotion that the witnesses demonstrated and exuded throughout the testimony in some ways was more stunning than the video. I mean, to see Mr. McMillan, 61-year-old man, cry on the witness stand, tough guy, seen a lot, he was still in tears. So was the MMA fighter, 30-year-old MMA fighter. Tough kid, goes into the octagon to fight other people, and yet he was emotionally overwrought in there. And a firefighter, who runs into burning buildings, you know, emotionally overwrought when she saw and had to relive that pivotal moment.

So, in many ways we thought the video was indispensable, but we treated it like it wasn't, because we knew how we had to really humanize it and do much, much more than just play a video.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, watching Mr. McMillan's testimony, I mean, my heart just went out to him, because I looked at him and I saw uncles. I saw a member of my family up there on the stand. And then, of course, Courteney Ross, who, you know, the love she had, still has for George Floyd, just leapt through the screen before she even said a word.

I want to stick with the video that Darnella Frazier took, because one of the most important things it did, in additional to recording what happened, but it also revealed the lie that was put in the statement from the Minneapolis Police Department, and it seems to follow a pattern that we have seen, and what you mentioned, Walter Scott, that was a situation where the police officer said one thing and the video said another thing. Laquan McDonald in Chicago, where the police officer said one thing but the video, in that case bodycam video from the police officers, showed another story. We are now talking about another situation that happened, I think, a year ago, Ronald Greene, in Louisiana. Statement said one thing. The horrific video shows something completely different.

Why does this keep happening?

MR. ELLISON: Dishonesty. Lies. The presumption that people will believe me, because they always have. The idea that I am above the law. I don't have to tell the truth. What I said is how it was. That is what is operational there. And my prayer--and I mean that--my prayer is that prosecutors and police officers all over the country will say, "No more. We will not have these people who don't obey the rule of law, who don't honor the badge, we will not have them amongst us, and we are going to hold them accountable like we do anybody else."

Somebody said, "Oh, Keith, you prosecute cops." I said, "I do not prosecute cops. I prosecute criminals." And it doesn't matter what piece of metal they are wearing on their chest. If they break the law, they are going to have to be held accountable.

And I just want to say to people in law enforcement, you know, you have a dignified, worthy, important profession. Don't let people be in your ranks who don't have the same commitment you do. You will be better off without them. And, Jonathan, I just want to mention to you. There is a woman named Cariol Horne. Cariol Horne. She was a Buffalo Police Department officer, and she, 15 years ago, intervened when her colleague was beating somebody in excess of what was legally authorized. She intervened to stop him. He punched her. You would think she would get a letter of commendation for intervening. She got a dismissal notice and demotions and ended up getting her pension taken away from her. Thank God some lawyers at Harvard, some professors at Harvard said, "Let's take off the black professorial robes and put on our lawyer hats," and they won that woman's pension back.

We need more Cariol Hornes. We need more officers willing to intervene. We need more people like Medaria Arradondo the chief of police in Minneapolis, who took the stand and said, "What Derek Chauvin did is unacceptable, not our values, and we will not have him amongst us."

MR. CAPEHART: I'm glad you brought up the police chief, because I was going there in my next question to ask you, how significant was it to not only have other police officers testify against Derek Chauvin but to have the chief of police take the stand and testify against one of his own?

MR. ELLISON: You know, it must have hurt him. I mean, he believes in what he is doing. He has devoted his entire life to it. There is probably not one rank in the Minneapolis Police Department that Medaria Arradondo has not held, from patrolman to chief and everywhere in between. So, it must have really broken his heart to see, you know, somebody who wears the badge with him do what Derek Chauvin did. But he obviously operates on a higher level of ethics than just, you know, that's my boy, he wears blue, we're going to look out for him.

I mean, the bottom line is, Jonathan, if you knew a reporter was making up stuff and lying just to do a story, you would say, "Get out of my profession." As a lawyer, I find out somebody is ripping off clients and mistreating clients, I am going to be the first to report them to the Board of Professional Responsibility. We need to create a culture where police will say, "I am proud to be a police officer, and I will not allow you to be shoulder by shoulder with me when you treat people like that and you do crooked, bad things."

MR. CAPEHART: Derek Chauvin wasn't the only person there on that street--was it 38th and Chicago in South Minneapolis?

MR. ELLISON: Yes.

MR. CAPEHART: He had three other officers there--Thao, Kueng, and Lane. Their trial isn't expected to kick off until March of 2022. What do justice and accountability look like in their trials?

MR. ELLISON: Well, because their cases are pending, I am a little nervous about speaking about them, because I don't want the jury pool to be tainted. I don't want anybody who is listening to this broadcast to say, "Oh well, I heard Ellison say this or that. Therefore, it must be true."

So, I must say this, Jonathan. We are going to hold them accountable for what we believe they are guilty of. I will remind everybody they have a right to be presumed innocent, and they have a right to make me prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond that I really can't say much, but I will say that the federal charges, they have been indicted federally, meaning that the federal government believes that they are responsible for violating the civil and human rights of George Floyd. They will be accountable in that parallel proceeding as well, but they are presumed innocent in both state and federal courts, but we intend to prosecute vigorously.

MR. CAPEHART: In the Derek Chauvin trial, there was a heart-stopping moment when the judge went--he was angry about comments that were made by Congresswoman Maxine Waters about what she hoped would come out of the trial. The defense tried to get a mistrial declared because of it. How concerned were you in that moment that a mistrial could be declared, but then also afterwards, where he said, "You know, you could possibly get this conviction overturned," how concerned are you that Eric Nelson, Chauvin's defense attorney, could succeed in getting that conviction overturned?

MR. ELLISON: Well, let me tell you, there is only one way to handle criminal prosecution and that is with an extreme degree of concern about every detail of the case. Even after you have gotten the conviction you have got to continue to worry. But I am not that worried, to tell you the truth, because I know that Derek Chauvin got a very fair trial. I believe that, you know, Maxine Waters has a First Amendment right to say whatever she wants to say, and she did, and the jurors, very faithful--very faithful--to their oath, remained committed to avoiding media, not letting anything influence them except for what came through the jury box--I mean the witness stand. They were very judicious and earnest in their oath, in the commitment.

So, quite honestly, I'm not worried about it. I don't think it's a legitimate appeal issue, but there will be an appeal because there should be an appeal. In every criminal case in America there is a right to appeal. Even if you plead guilty, you could appeal. So, I am not too worried about it, but, you know, we are seriously going to defend the conviction, which 12 Minnesotans came together and decided that Derek Chauvin was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, unlike a lot of Black people in this country, I actually watched pretty much every minute of the trial--

MR. ELLISON: Good. You're a [unclear], man.

MR. CAPEHART: --and just like your wife who couldn't bear to watch the video, lots of Black people are like, "I can't watch this trial. It is too hard." And I couldn't watch more than 10 seconds of the video, because it was too hard, but with this trial I am watching, and as convincing as the case was, part of me was like, they're still going to find Chauvin not guilty.

And the one thing that gave me just a scintilla of hope that Chauvin would be declared guilty was the fact that the only time a police officer was convicted for the killing of a civilian, an unarmed civilian, happened in the state of Minnesota. But what happened, though, was the police officer was Black and the victim was White. Were you surprised by the Chauvin verdict, that it came out the way it did, or is that a signal between those two cases that actually justice does work?

MR. ELLISON: Well, the emotion that registered with me probably was not surprise. It was relief. Because, honestly, Jonathan, I thought to myself, look, we've got to prove our case. We proved that the killing occurred. We proved who did it. We proved that his actions are the thing that did it. We proved that he didn't have any legal right to do it. We proved it. We brought the witnesses forward, we set them up, we presented our case, we demolished their witnesses, destroyed their witnesses--I think we did--and yet there was still like, okay, we do know Walter Scott, we do know that some cases never even make it to a trial. Eric Garner's case never made it to trial. You know, so many never even get to be in front of a jury.

And so those are the things that made me worry. I knew that history was on Derek Chauvin's side. History was on his side. And so, I wasn't really surprised at the verdict because I felt we did everything you are supposed to do, but I also know history, so I was relieved when the verdict came out. And I will tell you, my heart was bumping out of my chest when I got in that courtroom. I think I was nervous about it. I was a little anxious about it.

But I also believe--and I tell you this, I was asked, "When did you know you were going to win?" and I said, "Well, when the verdicts were read." But I kind of felt like after the case we put on, how do they come back within 24 hours and acquit? It would take longer than that to hang the jury. And so, I just kind of knew we didn't have any big, gaping holes in the case, and so I thought that the quick verdict was a good sign, but I wasn't quite [audio distortion] read.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, you were not alone. You were in the courtroom with your heart pounding in your chest. America was waiting, hanging on every word.

Now let's talk about what's going on as a result of the murder of George Floyd and the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin, and that is momentum to getting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed through Congress. It passed the House. Negotiations are happening now in the Senate. Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina is leading the negotiations on behalf of the Republicans. Do you think there is a bipartisan compromise here that could make it possible for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to become law?

MR. ELLISON: Absolutely there is. The case--I mean, not the case--the bill needs to be passed. I have got to switch jobs, Jonathan, you know. But it absolutely should be--here is what I'll say. There are a lot of good things in that bill. It prohibits state, federal, and local enforcement from racial, religious profiling. It requires training on racial, religious and discriminatory profiling. It requires data collection. It limits the transfer of military-grade equipment. It deals with the issue of holding police officers accountable. It does a lot of good things, and we could list those things. I urge people listening to go check out the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

But here is what I will say, and I know a lot of my friends are going to be annoyed with me but I am going to say it because I think it's true. Look, a lot of activists who poured their heart and soul into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were really pissed because voting was not in there and housing was not in there. But by '65 they get voting, and by '68 you get housing. And in '65 we also got a civil rights bill on immigration, allowing brown people to come to America.

What I am saying is, to my fellow Democrats, is don't throw in the towel. Fight, fight, fight, and a good bill is better than no bill. But a good bill is also better--but a good bill is--may not be--I mean, a good bill may require some compromise, and it's still good even if it's not perfect. It's still good if it's not 100 percent. So that's what I want to say.

MR. CAPEHART: I think the phrase you're looking for is "don't make perfect the enemy of the good."

MR. ELLISON: That's the one.

MR. CAPEHART: And so then, is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act still a good bill and worthy of passage if qualified immunity is not a part of it, and that gets to the police accountability part that you were talking about, that's in the bill.

MR. ELLISON: So, look, I want Cory Booker and Karen Bass to fight like hell. I want Tim Scott to go back to his colleagues and say, "We've got to pass this even if qualified immunity is in it." But don't let the bill die over an item that we can come back for later. Get it. Get the relief. I mean, look. There are literally millions of families across this country, their loved ones will be saved. Their lives will be saved because of this bill. If you don't pass anything then what did George Floyd die for? I mean, I think that we've got to make sure that we get a good product out.

Now I will tell you, having spent 12 years in Congress, there is a price at which, you know, we can't--it's just too watered down. I don't think the absence of qualified immunity is that. I think that if we can get everything except that, I say pass it, and then don't quit and keep going. That's what I say. And look, some of my friends are going to get mad at me for saying these things, but I'm not telling them to not fight and I'm not telling them to get everything they can. Get everything you can, but, at the same time, remember, you know, if you can't get the whole loaf, get 99 percent of it.

MR. CAPEHART: Wait. Attorney General Ellison, just so that I'm clear, if qualified immunity is not in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and that is the one thing that could be done to get it passed, you say, Democrats, vote for it, pass it, get it done.

MR. ELLISON: Yes. I do say that. I say it. And--keep going. Sorry.

MR. CAPEHART: And then the second piece of it is, because maybe it doesn't have to go that far because one of the things that's been on the table, is for qualified immunity, only stripping it away from the individual police officer and making it possible for people to sue police departments as a way of holding police accountable for their actions. Is that a worthwhile compromise?

MR. ELLISON: I think it is. Now I think that we should get rid of qualified immunity. I think it is a bad doctrine. No legislature ever passed it. It's sort of a court doctrine, and it's a shield for a police officer's bad conduct. And so, I think it's bad business. But let me tell you, get that bill through, and if you can get it all through, get it all through. If you can get a modified version of qualified immunity, get that through. But if you have got to give up qualified immunity, for now, then get the rest of it through. But by all means, get something good out of this. That's what I say.

Of course, I'm not at the table and it's a lot harder at the table than it is on television, commenting about it. So, I'll just defer to my good friends who know what they are doing and know much more about the negotiations than me.

MR. CAPEHART: Sure, but you also happen to be the attorney general for a state who just successfully prosecuted one of the biggest cases in the country, so your words do have a lot of weight.

You said after Chauvin's guilty verdict, quote, "We need true justice. That is not one case. That is a social transformation that says that nobody is beneath the law and no one is above it." What does such a societal transformation look like?

MR. ELLISON: You know, it looks like no officer is going to put their loyalty to a colleague above their oath to the badge and the people who they are sworn to protect. It means that we begin the process of decarcerating this massive number of people that we have behind bars right now. It means we put investments in preventing crime and in protecting life, not just in guns and jails and stuff.

You know, it means we do some upstream investments. It means we deal with the social and economic determinants of who ends up in the criminal justice system. We say we're going to house the people and we do it. We say we're going to give the people health care and we do it. We make sure people are paid properly. We make sure the government says we are going to make sure we can do everything that you have a job, a jobs guarantee. These are the things that we should do.

I'm telling you, crime rates would plummet. Violent crime rates would plummet if you took out some of the desperation that so many communities across our country are dealing with.

MR. CAPEHART: I've got two questions and I'm going to ask both of these questions, but just so you know, you're going to go over time, so tell whoever you're meeting with next that you're going to be late.

MR. ELLISON: Hey, you gotta wait. Sorry. Capehart comes first.

MR. CAPEHART: So, here's the question. You mentioned violent crime, and, you know, violent crime is spiking in cities nationwide. How should police departments deal with the fears that come with that?

MR. ELLISON: Great question. We need to, first of all, do community engagement and try to deal with community conflict with trusted leaders who know the community. So, you can say, look, there's a group in Minnesota called MAD DADS. Give MAD DADS some money to go into the neighborhood, build relationships where the hotspots are, and try to mediate some of these disputes before they turn deadly. That is one thing to do.

The other thing to do is understand that bad police community relations means more violent crime. Think about this, Jonathan. If I won't call the police because I don't trust them, if I won't tell the police what I know about a killing or a shooting because I don't trust them, if I just have no connection with them and believe that they are going to bring more trouble than good, then I don't communicate with them, what happens to crime on the streets? It increases. People do bad things with impunity. And whatever you allow to happen then probably more of it is going to happen.

Police community trust stops violent crime. Therefore, police accountability is part of our crime prevention strategy, because we need people to believe in the police and trust them, and that requires the police to treat people right.

So those are just a few thoughts.

MR. CAPEHART: Attorney General Ellison, I want to end with this quote from Viola Fletcher. She is the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre. She testified before Congress this week, I believe it was yesterday or a couple of days ago, and here is what she said: "Our country may forget this history, but I cannot, I will not, and other survivors do not, and our descendants do not. I am 107 years old and have never seen justice."

MR. ELLISON: Wow.

MR. CAPEHART: My question to you, Attorney General, is, is it possible to see justice if so many either don't see or outright ignore injustice?

MR. ELLISON: No, it's not possible. We need more people to see injustice and to correct it. And what I will say is that there was a little girl whose name was Judea. I won't say her last name because she's a juvenile. She was nine years old when she witnessed Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd. Imagine that little girl 100 years from now, testifying on what she had to live through and what she had to see.

We need to make an earnest commitment, people of all colors, cultures, and faiths, to create equal justice in America. That job has to start now, and we cannot turn away or turn back. History is watching us.

MR. CAPEHART: Minnesota State Attorney General Keith Ellison, we are way out of time, but thank you so very much for coming to Washington Post Live.

MR. ELLISON: Thank you, Jonathan. Keep up the great work.

MR. CAPEHART: Thank you very much. And as always, thank you for tuning in. The next installment in our Race in America series will feature The Post's Michele Norris in conversation with Academy Award-winning filmmaker, Barry Jenkins, about his powerful new series "The Underground Railroad."

Until then I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Thank you very much for tuning in to Washington Post Live.

[End recorded session.]

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