• October 4, 2023

The Derek Chauvin trial will be a racial reckoning

For days, Nekima Levy Armstrong has gotten up early and joined activists to protest in front of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. 

Like many Black Americans, she is nervous about what’s happening inside the concrete and glass building, where jury selection is underway to determine the fate of Derek Chauvin. The former police officer is charged with killing George Floyd, who died after Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck by the knee for more than nine minutes while onlookers begged the officer to stop and Floyd cried out for his mother.

The resulting video sparked a summer of protests and a national reckoning on race. Although Levy Armstrong says she hopes for a conviction, she acknowledges that verdict will not ease her concerns about systemic racism in policing, which has resulted in a disproportionate number of Black men, women and children being killed by law enforcement. 

“People are feeling a mix of anticipation and anxiety,” said Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and founder of the city’s grassroots Racial Justice Network. “We have not really seen white male officers held accountable for killing black people in our state, so there are a lot of firsts and unknown factors. But I know convictions will not change the system. That will take diligence and time and a more rigorous approach to justice.”

After a year of national Black Lives Matter protests sparked by Floyd’s death and a pandemic that left many people of color unemployed, sick or dead, the wall-to-wall media coverage of Chauvin’strial is poised to reopen wounds that haven’t healed for many Black Americans.

At the same time, many white Americans seem to have moved on from the feelings of introspection and solidarity that emerged in the weeks after Floyd, 46, died.

USA TODAY/Ipsos poll published last week found trust in the Black Lives Matter movement has dropped to 50% from 60% last June, while 36% of Americans described Floyd’s death as a murder compared with 60% who said the same last summer. Those saying law and order was paramount even if it meant limiting peaceful protests grew in past months from 45% to 49%.

According to the USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, Black Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the progress of racial justice. The poll indicates that 54%of Black Americans said race relations have worsened in the past year compared with 40% of white respondents. There is also a telling gap along racial lines in how Americans view Floyd’s death along racial lines: 28% of white Americans called it murder compared with 64% of Black Americans.

“This trial is politically important, but psychologically Black America is so numb from the turnstile of incidents of white cops killing Black people that even a conviction here will have a minimal impact,” said James Taylor, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and author of “Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.”

Taylor said the state of race relations in the United States is similar to the violence and divisions of the post-Civil War South.

“This is the worst it’s ever been in this country outside of Jim Crow,” he said. “The real crime of right now is that Democrats aren’t fighting for Black people in the same way that (Donald) Trump fought for his people.”

Taylor pointed to recent incidents where officers were not charged in the death of Black civilians, such as the decision last month not to prosecute the Rochester, New York, officers who a year ago placed a mesh hood over the head of Daniel Prude, 41, who then lost consciousness and died.

Prude was having a psychotic episode, but activists saw in the incident the same example of force that was used in the death of Floyd, who was placed under arrest for allegedlytrying to pass off a fake $20 bill and wound up gasping for air under Chauvin’s knee.

Research shows that systemic racism continues to amount to a psychological and physiological “Black tax” for many Black Americans as a result of near-daily discrimination and prejudice, no matter how high their socio-economic status, according to a study this week from the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Black men in particular “face constant experiences of discrimination and disappointment when they try to contribute,” Vicky Mays, the study’s co-senior author, said in a statement. “They are treated like criminals in a society where they often are not allowed to achieve their full potential.”

Floyd video akin to JFK Zapruder film

Chauvin, 44, is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, although he still could be charged with third-degree murder as well. As of Wednesday afternoon, five people have been chosen to serve on the jury.

Minneapolis officials are bracing for protests throughout the trial and have spent past weeks erecting fencing and barricades around government buildings while putting police officers and National Guard troops on standby. The city was a flashpoint in the days and weeks after Floyd’s death last spring as the images of Floyd crying “I can’t breathe” became a slogan among activists the world over.

For author and historian Douglas Brinkley, the video of Floyd’s death has become the 21st century’s Zapruder film, the grainy silent color footage shot by Abraham Zapruder on the fall day in Dallas in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was killed. 

“That video clip of Floyd is like the Zapruder film in that everyone has now seen a heinous crime committed a thousand times over,” said Brinkley, who teaches history at Rice University in Houston. “People will tune into this trial. It’s representative of the racial divide in this country.”

People gather at the unveiling in Brooklyn, N.Y., of artist Kenny Altidor's memorial portrait of George Floyd, who died on Memorial Day 2020 in Minneapolis after police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes.

The aftermath of Floyd’s death roiled the nation, an emotional boiling over after years of temperature-raising killings of Black Americans that include Philando Castile in 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Oscar Grant in 2009 in Oakland, California, and Amadou Diallo in 1999 in New York, all on the heels of centuries of violence against Black Americans that spans from slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black protesters, often joined by Americans of all races, marched in cities in every state, while sympathetic rallies were staged around the world. The activism that emerged – focused on but not limited to the rise of the Black Lives Mattersocial justice movementnationally and in chapters around the nation – brought voters of color to the polls in record numbers and helped elect President Joe Biden.

Biden, in addition to making his running mate, Kamala Harris, the nation’s first Black and woman of color to be vice president, vowed to address systemic racism in federal housing, prisons, the White House and other branches of government. Last week, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and change legal protections that shield officers from prosecution.  

But critics complain change has been too slow. Black activists said they plan to hold Biden to his campaign promises while keeping the pressure on state and local governments to change a system they feel is inherently biased against them.

“This trial is one of the first major ones after the summer’s uprisings, so while in the past such outcomes haven’t been in our favor, we’re now watching carefully to see if the legal system might be reforming due to pressure,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and a professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University-Los Angeles.

Abdullah recalled the trial that followed the beating of Rodney King by a group of Los Angeles police officers in 1991, in which an all-white jury assembled in a courthouse in a white suburb absolved the officers of responsibility, sparking days of deadly rioting. King’s beating also was caught on videotape.

“We’re here now on the 30th anniversary of that King beating, and what the criminal justice and political system told us then was ‘Don’t believe your lying eyes,’” Abdullah said. “So, we’d love to see justice come now for George Floyd, but we’re not under any illusion. We’ll continue to push for meaningful justice reform.”

Newton Mulagusi, 18, bottom, a junior at Natick High School in Massachusetts, joins fellow protesters in a demonstration June 6 against police use of force. They were mirroring the position George Floyd died under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Representatives from other Black Lives Matter chapters, which often are only loosely affiliated with the national Black Lives Matter Global Network, expressed similar sentiments of mixed hopefulness for conviction in Floyd’s death while resolving to continue to push for large-scale change to the justice system.

“We’ll be keeping tabs on this case, definitely, but we’re more focused on getting rid of the systems that allow this to happen far too often,” said Marcus McDonald, founder of the Charleston Black Lives Matter chapter in South Carolina.

McDonald expressed some concern that a guilty verdict in the Floyd case might cause some to think “that we won and there’s no need to fight anymore, but the fight needs to continue.”

In California, Black Lives Matter Sacramento founder Tanya Faison said the Floyd trial is “a chance for the courts to show us we’re moving forward and can bring justice to a family that deserves it.”

But, she said, after witnessing similar deadly interactions with police in her hometown, “I’m pessimistic because I’ve seen so many times when a video is released and still the police get away with it.”

White supremacy also on trial with Chauvin, activists say

Black Lives Matter Global Network co-founder Patrisse Cullors released a statement saying that as the Floyd trial begins, “we need to understand that bigotry, white supremacy and complacency are also on trial.”

Many activists said the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by a mob of largely white supporters of then-President Donald Trump reflected the double standard that exists for Black Americans when it comes to confrontations with law enforcement.

Although five died in the Capitol riots, including one white woman who was shot by Capitol Police as she tried to break through a window, the toll was noticeably low as police were overwhelmed by the mob and, as highlighted in recent congressional hearings, lacked immediate backup from the National Guard.

“The spread of white supremacy and the events of Jan. 6 are all connected to the Floyd case,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “This case can help determine what type of democracy were are going to demand and what type of country we are going to be.”

Johnson said he and other civil rights leaders will be carefully watching the procedural machinations of the Floyd trial “to make sure nothing happens that weakens the ability to hold the guilty accountable.”

Key factors include a change of venue, which proved pivotal in acquitting the officers who beat King, as well as jury selection. Last fall, a judge issued a preliminary order denying a change of venue but noted that it could be revisited “if circumstances warrant.”

Jury selection will be an equally crucial component of the trial, ensuring that those seated include representatives of Minneapolis’ Black community. The city’s dominant ethnicities are white (60%), Black (19%) and Hispanic (10%), according to the most recent census data.

In the end, the Floyd trial “is all about the outcome,” said Todd Boyd, who holds the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the study of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles.

“If there’s a conviction, in some ways that’s the bare minimum – that’s the system doing what it’s supposed to do,” Boyd said. “A conviction doesn’t mean a party.”

Along with Chauvin, three other officers who were at the scene – J. Alexander Keung, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao – have been charged with aiding and abetting. If Chauvin and the others are not found guilty, Boyd said, the nation should expect a response at least commensurate with the protests sparked by Floyd’s death.

“If it’s an acquittal, it will feel like someone is spitting in your face and humiliating you after taking this man’s life,” Boyd said. “So, yes, this is a big one.”


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