Chauvin Trial Shines A Light On George Floyd's Death, Racial Injustice

Mar 29, 2021
Originally published on March 29, 2021 4:18 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Today begins the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Ten months ago, Chauvin - who is white - was filmed with his knee on the neck of a Black man named George Floyd. Mr. Floyd died, and there were months of protests around the country and around the world. NPR's Leila Fadel and Adrian Florido are in Minneapolis, and they are reporting on the trial. And I want to warn you that some of the audio you will hear is disturbing and is not appropriate for all listeners.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: On Monday, May 25, a 17-year-old bystander recorded this video and posted it online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEREK CHAUVIN: ...If you don't get in the car.

GEORGE FLOYD: (Gasping). No more.

CHAUVIN: Get up and get in...

FLOYD: No more. I can't.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: George Floyd, begging to breathe under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin for nearly nine minutes.

FADEL: Two other officers held his legs and his back, and a fourth stood nearby. Forty-six-year-old Floyd takes his last breath on camera. It spread across the city and then the world. Floyd's death becomes a rallying cry for protests against police brutality and the killing of Black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) George Floyd.

FADEL: The demonstrations began in the Twin Cities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Don't shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Don't shoot.

FLORIDO: The police officers are fired. The next day, demonstrations start to snowball. In Los Angeles...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Let me hear y'all say that - prosecute killer cops.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Prosecute killer cops.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Prosecute killer cops.

FADEL: Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No justice, no peace.

FLORIDO: And beyond - from Rio to London.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.

FLORIDO: The state's attorney general, Keith Ellison, takes the case over from the county.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEITH ELLISON: We're here today because George Floyd is not here.

FLORIDO: He announces the addition of a second-degree unintentional murder charge against Chauvin, along with the previously filed third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges. But he warns the public, activists and protesters that winning a conviction will be hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELLISON: I say this not because we doubt our resources or our ability. In fact, we're confident in what we're doing. But history does show that there are clear challenges here.

FADEL: No police officer in the history of Minnesota accused of killing a Black person has ever been convicted. Ten months later, the pain of that summer is still palpable.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

FLORIDO: On Lake Street, near the 3rd Precinct, damaged mom-and-pop shops and other largely immigrant-owned restaurants are still boarded up. Buildings have been razed to make way for new construction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Praise him. Praise him - praise him and lift him up.

FADEL: Across town in north Minneapolis, at the historic Black Zion Baptist Church, the congregation now includes white families who started showing up after George Floyd's killing. Pastor Brian Herron gives a sermon on a recent Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN HERRON: This is a defining time for us as a people in America and for America itself.

FADEL: After the service, a deacon at the church, Marques Armstrong, says, without a guilty verdict, there is no path forward.

MARQUES ARMSTRONG: Reconciliation is next to impossible without acknowledgment of the wrong that happened.

FLORIDO: In downtown Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Courthouse is a high-security fortress guarded by soldiers and razor wire. All the courtrooms are empty, except one on the 18th floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER CAHILL: My name is Pete Cahill, and I am one of the judges of the district court. And you have been summoned as potential jurors in the case of State of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin.

FLORIDO: With the jury impaneled, today the prosecution and the defense will offer opening statements, a preview of the arguments they'll unspool over the next four weeks, aimed at answering a central question - what killed George Floyd? Was it Derek Chauvin's knee and an improper use of force, or was it something else? In pretrial hearings, defense attorney Eric Nelson has dropped hints of what he'll argue - that Floyd's prior health problems and the drugs found in his system and in his car are to blame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC NELSON: When we get into the question of his cause of death, is he actively ingesting narcotics that would potentially cause his death?

FADEL: One of the prosecutors, Jerry Blackwell, told the judge it's clear what the defense has in store.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY BLACKWELL: The defense is doing a full-on trial of George Floyd, who's not on trial. But that is what they're doing.

FADEL: Legal experts say this isn't surprising. Richard Frase teaches criminal law at the University of Minnesota.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD FRASE: It's very common for the defense to try to turn the tables and put the victim and/0r the prosecution on trial. And certainly we've seen a lot of that. And some of that is blaming Floyd for his own death.

FLORIDO: But this is no ordinary case. For the millions watching, it's not about the legal technicalities; it's a referendum on the future of police accountability and racial justice. Artika Tyner teaches law at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

ARTIKA TYNER: The rest of the world, in a certain extent, is looking at it through their own experience. What has been their experience with policing - good or bad or otherwise? What is racism? What is structural racism? So all those things are also at the heart of the case.

FLORIDO: Protesters say this trial might not have happened if not for the millions who marched through the streets.

FADEL: They want this case to set a new precedent. But it's only one step, they say, in a longer fight for systemic change.

I'm Leila Fadel.

FLORIDO: And I'm Adrian Florido reporting from Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.