On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis residents watched in horror as the life was choked out of George Floyd, a Black man writhing in pain and pleading for his life as a white cop, Derek Chauvin, brutally forced his knee into Floyd’s neck for over nine painstaking minutes. Three other cops participated in Floyd’s death by keeping him pinned to the ground, refusing to render aid to save his life, or standing watch to prevent bystanders from intervening. Fortunately and unfortunately, bystanders captured this gruesome scene on video while trying relentlessly to reason with cops who refused to listen and who arguably did not see Floyd as a human being.
Now, more than nine months later, Chauvin will be the first of the four cops to face a jury and second-degree unintentional murder and manslaughter charges. Pending the outcome of this trial, the remaining three cops are expected to be tried later this summer. However, anyone who has been paying attention knows that that will likely not happen if Chauvin is acquitted, given that Chauvin is seen as the officer most culpable in Floyd’s death.
The thought that Chauvin and the other officers could walk free weighs heavily on the minds of Black residents of Minneapolis, the surrounding Twin Cities and the nation. Although some may believe that the damning video of Floyd’s murder will definitely result in a conviction, those who have been paying attention know that an acquittal is possible. No officer in recent history, if ever, has been convicted of killing a Black person in the state of Minnesota.
Although the overwhelming majority of killer cops in Minnesota have been white men, the two officers who have been charged with killing civilians were both men of color. Jeronimo Yanez, a Latinx officer, shot and killed Philando Castile in July 2016 during a bogus traffic stop, and subsequently faced criminal charges. In spite of the local and national outcry against the injustices, in that case, Yanez was found not guilty at trial —but he did stand trial.
Just a year later, in July 2017, Mohammed Noor – a Black, Muslim, Somali man who was a Minneapolis police officer at the time – shot and killed Justine Damond, an affluent white woman and foreign national, and was found guilty of third-degree murder. One cannot escape the notion that race played the most significant role in the conviction of Noor in that case. In the interim between Damond and since Floyd was killed, Minneapolis police killed no fewer than four other men (Travis Jordan (Hawaiian); Thurman Blevins (Black); Chiasher Fong Vue (Hmong/Asian), Mario Benjamin (Black)), and not a single officer faced criminal charges or was even fired for that matter.
The brutal reality is that the violent and corrupt culture of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) has not only been allowed to persist and proliferate with the silent approval of department brass but Minneapolis city officials – going back decades – have failed in their duty to reign in the MPD and to hold officers accountable for aggressive and violent conduct against civilians, particularly Black Minneapolis residents.
Minneapolis city officials quietly settled tens of millions of dollars in excessive force lawsuits while simultaneously failing to ensure a clear and robust system of discipline for violent and abusive officers. Indeed, their complicit behavior in matters of police conduct has made the MPD a comfortable place for an officer like Chauvin, who was the subject of numerous complaints and yet was not held accountable and was allowed to remain on the force, collect a salary and benefits, as well as potentially a pension, and have the authority to patrol the streets of Minneapolis, a city in which he did not reside. In fact, over 92 percent of Minneapolis cops do not live in Minneapolis, a city that consists of 40 percent people of color.
The abject failure of law enforcement officials, prosecutors and government leaders to reign in Minneapolis cops who violate civilians’ rights is arguably just as much to blame for Floyd’s death as the four officers who were involved. Minneapolis officials have known for years about the problems within MPD but willfully chose to ignore the voices and cries of Minneapolis’ Black community. Long before Floyd’s fatal encounter with Chauvin and the other three cops, the system failed Floyd and the many others whom the Minneapolis police have killed or brutalized.
Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights attorney, activist, national expert on racial justice. She previously served as Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas Law School for 13 years, where she founded and directed the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights legal clinic. Nekima is currently the Executive Director of the Wayfinder Foundation, which provides support for women of color activists and organizers around the country.