WASHINGTON—Once again, the eyes of Americans, and much of the world, are turned anxiously towards Minnesota.
A little less than a year ago, the death of George Floyd after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck on the street in Minneapolis sparked mass outrage, civil unrest and the largest cross-country mass protest movement in U.S. history. As Chauvin’s murder trial enters its final phase, it certainly feels like a pivotal moment for policing and racial justice in the U.S.
It might naturally have seemed like a conclusion, of sorts. After hundreds of protests and not a few riots in cities across the country and around the world, after dozens of policing reform bills passed in various states, after Chauvin was fired, after his chief of police called his actions "murder," after the city of Minneapolis settled a civil lawsuit with Floyd’s family for $27 million — after all that, you could expect that the end of the trial could bring some closure of sorts, holding out the possibility of accountability and a measure of justice.
Except that even as Chauvin’s defence team rested after he declined to testify Thursday, new protests were raging in the street just a few kilometres away in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, where last weekend another unarmed Black man was killed by a police officer. That officer has since resigned and been charged after what she characterized as an accident, and the police chief resigned along with her.
And on Thursday night, more in Chicago after body-camera footage was released showing a police officer shooting Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Mexican-American boy as he raised his empty hands above his head — quite possibly, as alleged by police, after discarding a gun he’d been holding as he ran from the officer, but still unarmed and apparently surrendering at the moment of his shooting. And still 13 years old.
Every incident is different in its details, which become the subject of charged and sadly partisan debate. But the incidents keep coming, one after another. A parade of people dying at the hands of police officers relentlessly marching through social media feeds and news broadcasts, all of it on video in this digital era from bystanders’ phones and personal dash cams and officers’ body cameras.
It was a video of Floyd’s killing — as Chauvin knelt on his neck for an interminable 9 minutes and 29 seconds as Floyd lay there, his hands cuffed behind his back, unresisting and finally unresponsive as other officers and a horrified crowd looked on — that brought this long-simmering issue to a national boil. It was remarkable for its shocking, straightforward, impassive brutality. But it wasn’t the first such incident, and clearly wasn’t the last. The videos are incredibly hard to watch. They remain impossible to ignore.
The trial in Floyd’s killing moves to closing arguments Monday, and after that the jury will be sequestered until it comes to a verdict. Its decision will mark an end to that case, and a kind of minimum-viability threshold for the entire concept of police accountability.
Chauvin’s lawyers put forward a lot of arguments for why they thought it possible Floyd’s death was caused by something other than the officer’s knee on his neck, and why it might be "reasonable" for Chauvin to keep Floyd restrained for so long while he showed no signs of resistance, and eventually no signs of life, and then failed to provide any first aid as he lay dead on the ground. Many of those arguments were shot down fairly persuasively, to my eye, by the prosecutors. None of the defence arguments struck me as persuasive next to the parade of experts and Chauvin’s police colleagues testifying against him. Less so, even, compared to the video of Chauvin impassively, almost casually, kneeling on a handcuffed man’s neck for long minute after minute as he pleaded and the life went out of him.
But as you’ll hear from legal experts, there’s no predicting what a jury will do. Only one juror needs to have what they consider a reasonable doubt to prevent a guilty verdict.
If the jurors do convict, especially on the most serious charge of second-degree murder, it will no doubt be seen as a sign of justice in at least this one case, and perhaps as proof justice is possible in such cases. There will still be much work to do: President Joe Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the administration is watching closely.
"All of these incidents that we’re seeing are just a reminder that, too often in this country, law enforcement uses unnecessary force and too often that results in the death of Black Americans," Psaki said, "The president has repeatedly said that he believes we need police reform, and that’s why he’s calling on Congress to deliver that to his desk." The reform she was talking about is called the George Floyd Act. It was passed by the House of Representatives last summer but has been sitting idle in the Senate since then.
Of the potential for a guilty verdict, Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd told Fox News this week, "The world feels if George gets justice, it’s freedom for all."
After a year of protests and battles in the streets in Floyd’s name, and optimism even from long-cynical activists that something may be finally changing, a not-guilty verdict would represent something very different. And not just for Floyd’s family.
"I hope everyone is watching the trial in Minneapolis," I heard a protester in Washington, D.C., shout this week. "If we don’t get the justice we deserve there, there will be war."
If Chauvin is acquitted, I don’t know if the reaction in Minneapolis and across the country will look like war. But it’s a fair bet it will mean that anything like peace will remain a long way off.
All eyes will remain on Minnesota. What’s happening there in the courthouse will be the conclusion of one specific story, but after a year of crisis, it is also a historic crossroads for a movement, and a country.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: email@example.com