MINNEAPOLIS—As the jury begins its deliberations in the Derek Chauvin murder trial over the death of George Floyd, this city is boarded up, fenced off, blockaded behind concrete barriers and razor wire. They’re locking up their sons and daughters — suspending in-person learning in Minneapolis schools this week in anticipation of unrest after a verdict is delivered. National Guard troops carrying assault rifles are standing on street corners keeping watch.
At the government centre that houses the courts downtown, there’s a sign that says “you are welcome here,” but the place is currently surrounded by 12-foot-tall fencing, long stretches of razor wire and armoured military vehicles. With that as a backdrop, and with the temperature hovering around freezing, the Floyd family made an appearance alongside Rev. Al Sharpton and the family of Daunte Wright late in the afternoon, just as closing arguments in Chauvin’s trial were concluding.
“We say this global prayer because it has not stopped with George Floyd,” Sharpton said, noting he would say a eulogy at the funeral for Wright nearby this Thursday.
“We are, we believe, at a reflection point where this country must come to terms with those that feel that blue uniforms make them above the law,” Sharpton said. Addressing God in prayer, he went on, “You let George Floyd become a symbol of that. Through the pain of this family, we went through a crucifixion of Floyd, give us a resurrection with this jury. That people will know that justice can happen if we stand together.”
Inside the courtroom, not long after that, Judge Peter Cahill charged the jury to focus not on the civic and national tension that hangs in the balance of the case, but on the facts and the evidence they had heard from 45 witnesses over the past three weeks — and to try to overcome any biases they might have in doing so. Prosecuting attorney Steve Schleicher similarly instructed the jury that the case was about a man’s actions, not its larger symbolism. “This case is called the State of Minnesota vs. Derek Chauvin. This case is not called the State of Minnesota vs. the police,” Schleicher said in the morning. “He’s not on trial for who he was, he’s on trial for what he did.”
If the members of the jury (who have not been sequestered during the trial) manage to see it that way, to cut out the national symbolic significance of Floyd’s death and focus on the case, they may be among the only people in the country with the luxury of doing so. His death, and the widespread circulation of the video of him lying handcuffed and face-down while Chauvin knelt on his neck, provoked almost a year of unrest, with conflict between police and protesters in the streets across the country.
It isn’t just locally that people are bracing for conflict in anticipation of the verdict. The New York Police Department has staffed up in anticipation of unrest; the mayors of Washington, D.C., and Chicago have requested assistance from the National Guard.
Here in Minneapolis, the case has transformed the city, with protests and tributes becoming a daily part of life. In neighbourhoods across the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Floyd’s face is painted on murals on the sides of buildings, and on signs dotting the lawns of single-family homes and the windows of businesses.
The street corner where Floyd died outside the Cup Foods store, where he was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, has been closed to vehicle traffic, the streets and roundabout there turned into a shrine to him and to other Black and people of colour killed by police. On Monday, as the closing arguments were being presented, customers trickled in and out of the store as a handful of citizens wandered silently among the flowers and candles and posters.
On Lake Street near where the 3rd Precinct Police Station was burned down during the initial wave of unrest last year, most buildings remain boarded up. National Guard troops stand before a Black Lives Matter mural just a few dozen metres down the street from a theatre marquee that reads “Justice for Daunte Wright.”
As Floyd’s trial was underway last week, 20-year-old Wright was shot while unarmed by a police officer — who has since resigned alongside her chief of police — in the nearby suburb of Brooklyn Center. The neighbourhood around the police station there is also heavily fortified and bearing the anti-police graffiti evidence of recent nightly protests that have seen masses of people arrested, including journalists, arrested crowds tear-gassed. Monday morning, as a man washed graffiti off a sign at an apartment building across the street, a woman pulled her car abruptly to the side of the road in front of the police station and began shouting obscenities at the National Guard members guarding it, challenging them to arrest her. In a strip mall nearby, businesses entirely boarded up with plywood graffitied with slogans memorializing Wright and Floyd, and condemning police, have small signs indicating they remain open — and some pleading their support for the cause.
The cases of Floyd and Wright, which have now gripped the attention of the entire U.S., are not the first time Minneapolis has attracted national and international attention over the police killing of a Black man. Philando Castile was shot by an officer during a traffic stop here in 2016, and a jury finding the officer not guilty sparked mass street protests. This is a city growing accustomed to this situation, though not comfortable with it.
For the city and state famous as the setting of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and as the birthplace of Prince, and which prides itself on the Midwestern friendliness called “Minnesota nice,” it’s a hard situation to reckon with. The state and city are both generally progressive in their politics and proud of it — this is the home state of legislators Amy Klobuchar and Ilhan Omar.
But Minneapolis is a city where Black people make up only seven per cent of the population, but where according to an analysis compiled by the local Star Tribune newspaper, they have been 26 per cent of the 208 people killed by police since 2000.
This is the context that surrounds Chauvin’s trial, but they aren’t matters that are before the jury. They’re considering the evidence they’ve heard since the trial began on March 31, which was summarized by the lawyers in closing arguments Monday.
The prosecution told jurors the case came back to what is visible in the nine minutes and 29 seconds of video portraying his death. “You can believe your own eyes. This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first, when you saw that video,” Schleicher said. “This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”
Defence attorney Eric Nelson told the jury they had to consider things outside that video: “The state has really focused on the nine minutes and 29 seconds,” he said. “It’s not the proper analysis.” He told them they needed to consider other factors, including what had happened before that may have led Chauvin to believe Floyd was dangerous and likely to resist, and to also consider matters such as Floyd’s heart condition and level of intoxication that he has argued contributed to Floyd’s death.
In a rebuttal, prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said the law doesn’t require jurors to find Chauvin was the sole cause of Floyd’s death, only that his actions were a “substantial causal factor.”
“You are told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died, that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big,” he said in closing. “You know the truth and the truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”
There is no firm timeline on how long jury deliberations will last. They could return a verdict in hours if they can reach a unanimous agreement; they could continue deliberating for weeks or months. On Monday evening, a growing crowd filled the street outside the government building where the jury was at work. It’s a certainty they’ll be there, waiting, until a decision comes.
Those people in the street, in Minneapolis and cities across the U.S., are not supposed to influence the jurors, who need to sort out fact from fiction and guilt from innocence based on the facts they’ve heard. But whatever they decide will certainly influence those in the streets. Sometime soon, the jury will decide the fate of Chauvin and determine some part of the future of the country. The city, and the country, boarded up and fenced off, are braced for it.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: email@example.com