Trial of George Floyd's Killer Gets Underway in Minneapolis

May 28, 2020. Protest in Minneapolis days after George Floyd was killed

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020 is set to begin on March 8. He is being charged with second-degree murder and second degree manslaughter, which carry a 40-year sentence. Videos and photos give witness to the brutal killing, with Chauvin keeping his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes while he cried out in agony, "I can't breathe!"

Many consider a first degree murder charge, which requires intent, is valid given Chauvin persisted even after Floyd went silent and stopped breathing. Two other officers helped to keep him prone, while another kept the people calling to end the brutality at bay. The Minnesota Court of Appeals on March 6 ruled that a lower court must reconsider whether to add a third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. This could delay the start of the trial.

As part of the ongoing nationwide movement to demand justice and accountability, demonstrations demanding justice for Floyd were held in at least 17 states on March 6, including California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Dozens of organizations are working together in Minneapolis to hold rallies and similar actions at the Hennepin County Court House. 

Despite a massive police presence, demonstrators plan to be in action all during the trial, which may last until April. Their demands, like those in city after city across the country are not only for the prosecutors to present a case that will secure Chauvin's conviction. The demands are for the people to have far greater control over budgets and police departments, including defunding and demilitarizing; to eliminate the known government racism of mass incarceration and policing at all levels; to punish all police violence and killings and remove the immunity police have for such killings, often in the name of claiming they "thought" their lives were in danger; and full accountability for providing equality for all. Many debates are taking place concerning what security looks like for the people, including contending with poverty, health care, housing and defending the rights of all.

While people are standing up for rights and demanding justice, Minneapolis officials have turned the city into a war zone even more militarized than the Capitol in Washington, DC during and after the inauguration of Joe Biden as president. About 3,000 heavily-armed National Guard are occupying the city centre. Military Humvees and armed soldiers will monitor checkpoints and restrict entry to the city and forcibly try to prevent people from gathering and demonstrating. Office workers in downtown Minneapolis have been ordered not to come to work for however long the trial takes.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz is reported to have set aside an immediate expenditure of $4.2 million for extra policing of Minneapolis to suppress the people and an additional $35 million to pay for military reinforcements during the trial "to quell unrest" as the U.S. media call it.

Early Charges Met with Tremendous Protest

The day after Floyd's killing, the Minneapolis Police Department fired all four of the officers involved. On May 29, 2020, the Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman charged Chauvin with only third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter which aroused tremendous protest. Then and now, the people demand first degree murder charges.

Faced with broadening demonstrations against police racism and killings and for justice across the country, on June 3, 2020, Hennepin County prosecutors added the more serious second-degree murder charge against Chauvin. They also charged each of the three other former officers -- Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao -- but only with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Had a similar killing involving a group of civilians occurred, there is little doubt all would be charged with first degree murder. That remains the demand of the people not only for Floyd's killing but all similar police killings everywhere.

While a judge initially agreed to try all four together, a more recent decision means Chauvin will stand trial alone in March with the other three officers involved in the killing of George Floyd to be tried in August. The reason given was space constraints in the courtroom related to COVID-19. Given this was also true previously, it appears that the decision is more an effort to allow for a conviction of Chauvin and lesser charges or no conviction for the rest.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is leading the prosecution, released a statement disagreeing with the court's decision to separate the trials:

"We respectfully disagree with the Court's decision to sever three of the defendants from the other and its ruling on the timing of the trials...," Ellison said in his statement. "As we argued several months ago, and as the judge agreed in his November ruling, we believe all four defendants should be tried jointly. The evidence against each defendant is similar and multiple trials may retraumatize eyewitnesses and family members and unnecessarily burden the State and the Court while also running the risk of prejudicing subsequent jury pools."

Ellison reiterated that the prosecutors "are confident we can get a conviction."

Many have serious doubts about this, as the prosecution in such cases generally leave out essential facts and juries are instructed to accept police testimony and the immunity police are given. Given the worldwide outrage about this case and the continued organizing, and a desire by the government to appear to be addressing "racial justice" it is possible a conviction of some kind, such as for third-degree murder, which the prosecution has been pushing to include, will occur.

There is reported to be a split in terms of defence strategies among the former police officers. The rookie cop, Thomas Lane, has used the old and long-rejected justification that he was just following orders.

Lane and J. Alexander Kueng helped to hold Floyd down, while Tou Thao looked on. Any one of them could have prevented the killing and refused to do so.

The defence being used for all four seeks to justify what has been condemned by the broad movement for justice and equality since last summer -- which is that the state and its police power have a legal right to use force. When an agent of the state uses force, the violence is officially not a crime and cannot be considered a crime. According to this argument, none of the police can be found guilty of a crime because no crime was committed.

African Americans especially contend with this. From the days of slavery, African Americans have not been considered citizens or even persons and so have no right to even bring their cases to court while police can execute them with impunity. Floyd was killed having only been suspected of using a counterfeit $20.

Biden, prosecutors, police, all present the problem as a few bad apples and perhaps a few bad police chiefs, while the racist and brutal character of policing is considered acceptable. Such views are backed up with books and Hollywood films, like To Kill a Mockingbird. They all follow a definite script: certain police officers are bad while others are good, certain administrators are good and trying to get rid of the bad apples and others are standing in the way of doing so. Anything goes that diverts attention away from the reality of the racist U.S. state and its political and legal arrangements of inequality. The reality of existing human relations also reveal what is needed: stepping up the peoples' fight for political empowerment and modern democratic institutions and social forms where they can discuss and decide how to solve problems and those issues that affect their lives and control the outcome.

The people of the U.S. want nothing to do with this worn out script about bad apples. They are expressing their claims as human beings, the claims the people are entitled to make on society and for arrangements which bring into being a polity based on recognizing the principle that all of its members are equal. Such a polity must define rights anew, by virtue of being human, and provide them with a guarantee. What constitutes justice is for the people to decide, not their oppressors and law enforcers.

Justice for George Floyd!
No to Police Violence and Impunity!
All Out for Equality and Justice!

(Photos: MN DOT, Veterans for Peace, D. Krauthammer)

This article was published in

Volume 51 Number 3 - March 7, 2021

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