As the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin continues, we speak with Minneapolis civil rights lawyer Nekima Levy Armstrong, who says prosecutors in the case clearly established that “the actions of Derek Chauvin played the most critical role in cutting off the air supply of George Floyd,” leading to his death, while the defense appears to be resorting to a strategy of victim-blaming. “I was really dismayed to see them try to deflect blame to bystanders and to blame George Floyd himself for his own death,” says Armstrong, a former president of the Minneapolis NAACP.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We’re continuing to look at the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd last May by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes — 9:29 to be exact, nine minutes and 29 seconds. The trial began Monday.
We go now to Minneapolis, where we’re joined by Nekima Levy Armstrong, a Minneapolis-based civil rights attorney, activist and executive director of Wayfinder Foundation. She previously served as president of the Minneapolis NAACP. Her new article for BET is headlined “A Guilty Verdict for Derek Chauvin Is the Only Justice Acceptable for George Floyd.”
Nekima Levy Armstrong, thanks so much for joining us.
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: You bridge the attorney-activist divide. You’re so often out in the streets, but also paying such serious attention to the day’s opening arguments. Can you start off by responding to both the prosecution’s case — one of the things they did was play the entire 9:29, nine minutes and 29 seconds, of Derek Chauvin with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, without comment, the 9:29, and then went on to their opening arguments. Your response?
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: I thought that the prosecution team did a really great job of laying out the scene of what actually happened that day, as well as showing that gruesome bystander video. It was very difficult to watch. I’m sure that it had an impact on the jurors, hearing the voice of George Floyd, over and over again, nearly 30 times, saying, “I can’t breathe,” calling for his mom, saying that his stomach hurt. So, I’m glad that they had such an impact in the beginning. And I also think that they laid out their theory of the case. They’re going to talk about how the actions of Derek Chauvin played the most critical role in cutting off the air supply of George Floyd and causing cardiopulmonary arrest.
In terms of the defense strategy, I was really dismayed to see them try to deflect blame to bystanders and to blame George Floyd himself for his own death by talking about George Floyd having fentanyl in his system, and meth, and the fact that defense alleges that he resisted arrest and that that is what led to him ultimately dying on May 25th of 2020.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nekima Levy Armstrong, what about the stance of the prosecutor that this trial was about Derek Chauvin rather than the police force at large? Your response to that line?
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Of course, I’m very troubled by that line. Minneapolis police have a long history of engaging in excessive force, and even being allowed to murder people with impunity. Their reputation is very well known, particularly amongst Black people and other people of color within the city of Minneapolis. And it’s well documented. Our City Council has settled tens of millions of dollars in excessive force lawsuits over the years because of the wayward conduct of MPD. So, from my vantage point, they are just as much on trial as Derek Chauvin, and hopefully those other three officers who aided and abetted him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, the second witness that was called at the opening day of the trial was Alisha Oyler. At the time of Floyd’s death, she was working as a cashier at the nearby Speedway. What’s the importance, from your perspective, of her testimony?
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Well, the Speedway is directly across the street from Cup Foods. It’s not operable anymore, since George Floyd Square has become a place for people to gather and pay their respects to George Floyd and other stolen lives. I think the significance of her testimony was the fact that she was present, that she documented what happened through, I believe, seven videos, and she talked about the cops always, quote-unquote, “messing with people,” which shows that there is a track record of engaging people in a negative way, often for very little reason.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the role of the police union in Minneapolis, its impact on these cases, and whether it’s used a double standard in the past in terms of relating to the race of officers involved?
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Yes. Unfortunately, the Minneapolis Police Federation has been a very toxic organization. Typically, when police officers have killed people in the city of Minneapolis, now-former federation president Bob Kroll would go in front of the media and would essentially hail cops as heroes. He would say that their conduct was justified. And he would engage in the demonization of victims of police violence and police murder. Now Bob Kroll has since retired at the end of January, as a result of a lot of community pressure and pressure from activists. There is a new leader. It’s unclear how they will respond as the trial unfolds. But in the early days after George Floyd was killed, Bob Kroll actually went in front of the media and tried to justify the conduct of those officers and engaged in demonizing George Floyd, talking about his past and things that really were not relevant to what happened on May 25th of 2020 that led to his death.
Now, conversely, when Mohamed Noor, who was the Black Muslim Somali officer who killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond in July of 2017, the union was pretty silent with regards to supporting him. We didn’t see the press conferences and the justifications for Mohamed Noor’s actions as we had seen in previous cases in which officers were being blamed for killing someone. So there’s a definite double standard at play. And I do believe that race matters with regard to how the federation responds in these situations.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to prosecutor Jerry Blackwell addressing the jury on Monday.
JERRY BLACKWELL: So, ultimately, ladies and gentlemen, what was this all about in the first place? Well, you’re going to learn that it was about a counterfeit $20 bill used at a convenience store. That’s all. You will not hear any evidence that Mr. Floyd knew that it was fake or did it on purpose. You will learn, from witnesses we will call, that the police officers could have written him a ticket and let the courts sort it out. You will learn that even if he did it on purpose, it was a minor offense, a misdemeanor.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is more of prosecutor Jerry Blackwell.
JERRY BLACKWELL: You’re also going to hear and see certain evidence of what this was not. This was, for example, not a fatal heart event. This was not, for example, a heart attack. You will learn that there was no demonstrated injury whatsoever to Mr. Floyd’s heart, as in a heart attack. … You will also learn, ladies and gentlemen, that George Floyd struggled with an opioid addiction. He struggled with it for years. You will learn that he did not die from a drug overdose. He did not die from an opioid overdose. … We’re going to ask, at the end of this case, that you find Mr. Chauvin guilty for his excessive use of force against George Floyd, that was an assault, that contributed to taking his life, and for engaging in eminently dangerous behavior, putting the knee on the neck, the knee on the back, for nine minutes and 29 seconds, without regard for Mr. Floyd’s life. We’re going to ask that you find him guilty of murder in the second degree, murder in the third degree and second-degree manslaughter. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have the special prosecutor, Jerry Blackwell, making his opening arguments. Nekima Levy Armstrong, if you can go even further into this issue of trying to say that George Floyd did not die as the result of what one of the witness called — the mixed martial artist, Williams — a “blood hold.” I mean, that is so chilling and so striking, the “blood choke.” And he said that Chauvin looked in his eyes. The only time he acknowledged it — he acknowledged this bystander was when he used that term, as if he knew that term, as well. And yet, the defense trying to argue he had other reasons — you know, the issue of opioid addiction or fentanyl in his system — for him to have died on that night.
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Well, we all know, everyone who watched that gruesome video, that were it not for his encounter, George Floyd’s encounter, with Derek Chauvin, he would still be alive today, regardless of what he had in his system. And that’s what Jerry Blackwell tried to make clear, that, you know, his level of tolerance for opioids had increased as a result of struggling with these drugs for many years, and, again, the blame lies squarely with Derek Chauvin for using an excessive amount of force, in a situation that shouldn’t have even been responded to with a 911 call. I mean, who calls 911 for a situation like that and expects to see, not one, not two, not three, not four, but five officers come onto the scene for that type of situation? It’s absolutely absurd, but it’s also par for the course in terms of Minneapolis police.
Now, I am very glad that Donald Williams happened to be there that day, because of his 10 years of working in security, his extensive years of training as a mixed martial artist and his ability to recognize that Derek Chauvin was in fact doing a blood choke on George Floyd. And we saw in the video where, as the crowd grew increasingly more agitated, as they called out to Chauvin and the other cops to stop what they were doing, that Derek Chauvin lightly began to bounce on George Floyd’s neck, sealing the deal, you know, ultimately causing his death as a result of his actions. And again, before the start of the trial, most people believe that this happened for eight minutes and 46 seconds. But we learned yesterday that it was even worse than that: nine minutes and 29 seconds of Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, The New York Times previously reported that Derek Chauvin was the subject of at least 22 complaints and internal investigations about his interactions with civilians. One of them led to two letters of reprimand, according to the report. What do you expect — including one situation where an African American woman said that Chauvin kept his knee on her body while she was being handcuffed face down on the ground. What do you expect to happen with these prior cases in terms of presentation in the trial? And also, the efforts by police unions always to prevent the records of police officers, their complaints against them, from being publicly known?
NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Well, prior to the start of the trial, prosecutors wanted the majority of those previous complaints and incidences against Derek Chauvin to be let in as evidence, and the judge has limited the scope of what can come in. So, that incident that you reference in The New York Times that happened to a Black woman who faced a similar circumstance as a result of an encounter with Derek Chauvin, that will be allowed in. There might be a few others, as well. And I do believe that the jury will take note of Chauvin’s conduct in terms of using excessive force, but also being able to exercise restraint, as well, in certain circumstances.
Now, the defense, of course, will argue that Derek Chauvin learned the technique that he used on George Floyd from his 19 years as a police officer, from the training. But one thing that will be interesting about this trial is the fact that the police chief himself, Medaria Arradondo, is planning to testify on behalf of the prosecution, saying that the Minneapolis Police Department offers no such training to police officers and that Derek Chauvin was not acting within the scope of what he learned during his 19 years on the force.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue to cover this, of course. And then there is also the trial of the other officers, Thomas Lane, Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, who are charged each with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, as well as aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
As the COVID courtroom is set up inside — you know, when Blackwell is speaking, he’s got plexiglass on three sides of him. When the judge talks to the lawyers, they don’t come up for a sidebar. He’s speaking through a kind of IFB, a little microphone into their ears, as they continue to sit there. And it’s extremely limited, who can be in the courtroom. So, we’ll be continuing to cover this through these weeks, if that is what it takes.
I want to thank you, Nekima Levy Armstrong, Minneapolis-based civil rights attorney, activist and executive director of Wayfinder Foundation. Nekima Levy Armstrong previously served as president of the Minneapolis NAACP, and a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. And we’ll link to your piece at BET, “A Guilty Verdict for Derek Chauvin Is the Only Justice Acceptable for George Floyd.”
When we come back, we speak to the Salvadoran American journalist Roberto Lovato about how decades of U.S. military intervention in Central America is the crisis, rather than the migrants on the border. Stay with us.