“The System of Policing Is on Trial”: Derek Chauvin Murder Case Is About More Than Just George Floyd

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After the third dramatic day in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, we speak with Mel Reeves, who has been following the case as community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the oldest Black-owned newspaper in the state. Reeves discusses the testimony heard so far, and juror selection, and says more is at stake than just what happened to George Floyd. “It is political. The system of policing is on trial,” says Reeves. “You can see now how the police operate when they run into Black people.” We also speak with Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, who says the defense is following a familiar strategy of blaming the victim. “This is what they do in trial after trial, is work to put the community and work to put the victim on trial, to make the victim someone who deserved to be killed.” Robinson also describes the influence of police unions on preventing police accountability.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

As we’ve reported, jurors in Minneapolis have heard another day of dramatic testimony in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd last May. For three days, witnesses have described the horror of seeing Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Chauvin, who is white, is charged with second- and third-degree murder, as well as manslaughter, for killing George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father. Floyd’s death sparked international protests calling for racial justice.

For more, we go to Minneapolis to speak with Mel Reeves, the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the oldest Black-owned newspaper in the state, covering the trial of Chauvin, also longtime human rights and anti-police-violence activist. Also with us, Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Mel Reeves. You’re right there in Minneapolis. The horror of this trial, as we see footage that we have seen over the last almost year and also new footage, but one of the things that comes out most powerfully is exactly what the defense attorney seemed not to want to have proven. He talked about an angry mob. You have each of these people of conscience: the 61-year-old bystander, McMillian; the EMT and firefighter who tried to help; the 17-year-old, at the time, teenager who filmed the whole thing that we saw; the 9-year-old little girl. Can you talk about what this community, not even knowing each other, particularly, that night — what it means to hear their testimony and their grief?

MEL REEVES: Unlike the way the defense tried to paint them, they come off as real human beings. They witnessed a crime. What we saw — what they witnessed is what we saw in the film. And the testimony proves that they saw something that was outrageous, and, you know, they wanted to do something about it. It’s unfortunate that the defense is trying to portray them as some wild mob.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rashad Robinson, could you say more about what the defense has been arguing? Color of Change released a press release titled “Minneapolis Jurors, Spectators Must Remember That Derek Chauvin Is on Trial — Not George Floyd.”

RASHAD ROBINSON: [inaudible] playbook. This is the playbook from police unions, who are paying for the defense, who have injected well over $50 million since 2012 into elections to actually help to dictate what prosecutors and mayors and other folks who are responsible for police accountability do. And this is what they do in trial after trial, is work to put the community and work to put the victim on trial, to make the victim someone who deserved to be killed.

This is a situation where we have video. And this is a situation where we have a series of witnesses that are deeply, deeply credible. And this is a situation where we’ve had uprisings that happened all throughout the summer. But I do want people who are watching, who are listening, to remember that we don’t always have these situations. And that should not be the prerequisite for whether or not we have a system that provides justice or we even have a situation where we think justice could be possible.

But that is what the defense is doing, because it is a playbook that actually sort of draws on all of the deep levels of the racism, all of the ways in which the system is not broken but is operating exactly the way it was designed, to let police officers off and to put Black people on trial, regardless of whether we are victim or perpetrator.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mel Reeves, could you respond to what Rashad said, and also elaborate on the concerns you’ve expressed about the jury selection process?

MEL REEVES: I’m glad you asked that, because, like Rashad, you know, I’m not just a writer and journalist. I’m an activist. I’ve been on the ground actually organizing against police violence. In fact, I push back against folks saying that the fight was just a fight for racial justice. It was a fight for justice, and it was a fight for — they’re demanding very clearly — the prosecution of the police. We’ve been trying to hold the police accountable here.

What’s interesting is — well, yeah, let me talk about the trial thing that you asked, but I want to make this point to folks — that people in the community don’t have any real faith in the court system right now. When we poll people, most folks have some real doubts about the outcome of the trial. And part of that is fueled by the fact that the police in Minneapolis and St. Paul have not changed their behavior. Just last week, there was a situation where the police grabbed the wrong young person, people in the neighborhood trying to say they bring that to attention. And in the process of them dealing with this young person — you know, there was a lot of back and forth — a Minneapolis policeman, right on video, jumped on this kid, punched him with the full force, and jumped on the ground and started punching him. And we’re saying — and in St. Paul, with a no-knock warrant, somebody entered the house to grab this woman’s 18-year-old son. In the process, they choked her 11-year-old son. And so, the question is: Why would this continue, in this environment? All right? And so, what we’re starting to suspect is that, on some level here, that the police are provoking our folks.

But getting back to your original question, we wrote about this, and we’re trying to do a day-by-day journal in our paper, Spokesman-Recorder. I wrote about the fact that even the system of jury — even the court process is biased. The juror number 76 — we keep referring to him as 76 — is a Black man from South Minneapolis. He had experienced police harassment. In fact, he said at one point during his voir-dire that in his neighborhood, whenever a Black person was killed, the police would arrive down the street playing “Another One Bites the Dust” and attempting to antagonize the community. So, the question is — and so he was rejected, even though, like all the other jurors, especially the white jurors, he was able to say to the judge that, “Yes, I think I can be fair and impartial.”

And our question was: Well, why did not the court system — remember, the prosecution did not find him acceptable, as well as the defense, nor the judge. All right? So, the system said that a Black man with a lived African American experience did not qualify for the jury. So it raises questions about: What do they really want on this jury? Remember, they have four people on the jury who have either relatives or friends that are police. So it makes you wonder. Like I say to — I’ve said to people all the time, who’ve said, “Well, can Derek Chauvin get a fair trial?” Derek Chauvin is getting a much fairer trial than either you or I would.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this gathering of eyewitnesses, going back to that point, Mel, people who did not know each other, and how incredibly restrained they were. I mean, they were saying, “He is not breathing.” You have the EMT saying, “Let me take his pulse, or at least you take his pulse.” But what you also see is, for the first time you hear the police officers speaking. You hear Chauvin’s voice afterwards. When Mr. McMillian says to him that he doesn’t respect him, why did he do that, you hear how controlled Chauvin is, clearly not upset. This is as the body is taken away. And you see Lane, at the beginning, officer Lane. I mean, the charge was — at least the call they got was that a counterfeit bill was passed — not at all clear that Floyd knew that that $20 wasn’t real — and that he pulls a gun on him immediately, cursing him out, saying F—in’ this and F—in’ that, which is, of course — Floyd responds, “Please don’t kill me.” But this level of enormous pressure, from the beginning, that we’re seeing in these videos.

MEL REEVES: You didn’t finish with a question, but I’ll take off from there. What you said sounded like you read our update from yesterday. If you go to Spokesman-Recorder.com, you’ll see the update I wrote, and that was a point that I raised, as well, that, on some level, what you saw was a microcosm of U.S. policing, of how police operate when they run into Black folks.

If you noticed, he pulled a gun on him right away. You know, initially, when I saw it, I thought, “Well, maybe George Floyd was acting a little irrationally.” But on second thought, and looking at it again, it made sense that he might have been nervous and paranoid. It makes sense for a Black man in the U.S. to be nervous when the police — in fact, it makes sense even for a Brown person or even a white working-class, on some level, and especially if somebody pulls a gun on you.

I thought — you’re right — it was odd that Chauvin had just killed a man, and he walked away with little affect. In fact, the piece I wrote, I talk about how Charles McMillian was a hero, because I don’t think I would have walked up on a cop who just killed somebody, and talked to him and told him what I thought. And McMillian was a real hero. He walked up on him and said he didn’t respect what he did. And Chauvin almost appeared to be preparing his defense already, because he was saying that, “Well, he was a big guy, and we had to — you know, and then he was on drugs.” So it almost seemed as if he realized — at least he did realize that he had done something wrong, and so he was trying to prepare a defense.

But, you know, all throughout the trial — in fact, in the opening, both the defense and the prosecution were trying to make it clear to the jury and all of us watching that this trial is not about the police, the system of policing or justice — or politics. And as I wrote, nothing could be further from the truth. It is about politics. The system of policing is on trial. You can see now how the police operate when they run into Black people. They treated a true bystander, a true — they treated bystanders like criminals. They treated the two folks that were in George Floyd’s car, who had done nothing wrong — and they said to the police, “Hey, he had given us a ride.” And they said, “He’s a nice guy.” And the cops were trying to figure out if something was wrong with George. They said, “Well, he might be struggling with something.”

So, anyway, while the defense is trying to paint George as this crazed person on drugs, that’s not what comes across. He comes across as somebody, like a lot of us, who are a bit afraid of the police. Because why wouldn’t you be? These guys killed — the police killed thousands of people, not just Black people. They’ve killed thousands of people. They brutalize folks. And what people see on TV or what people who live in the suburbs experience is not the lived experience of most people of color in major U.S. cities.

So, yeah, the whole thing is disturbing. And Chauvin’s response after was disturbing. But I think the — because you keep referring to the bystanders — I think the bystanders are acting like human beings. And you say “restrained.” They had no choice. They were actually threatened. Chauvin, while he had his knee on Floyd’s neck, actually threatened to pull out his mace on Donald Williams. So, the crowd was restrained, but only because the police restrained them. Clearly, part of why the witnesses are so upset is because they could not help George Floyd. They knew he needed help. And that just shows you the insanity of the system of policing.

You know, sometimes when a Black person is killed, the police say — they have this saying, ”NHI,” “no human involved.” After watching that body camera yesterday, it looked to me as if there was no human involved in dealing with George Floyd. None of the police operated with any kind of compassion or empathy. None of them. In fact, when you look at the video again, I have no idea why they pulled George Floyd out of that car and laid him on the ground. I have no idea. What were they trying to do? I mean, I don’t understand that. The defense doesn’t have much of an argument.

Those police, including what I call the three stooges, all look very indifferent to the plight of George Floyd. It almost looks like — and this may sound a little hyperbolic, but it almost looks like they were trying to kill him. Alexander Kueng had his knee in George Floyd’s back. That’s what the video revealed yesterday, that not only was Derek Chauvin pressing on his neck with his knee with the full weight, but Alexander Kueng, who’s a pretty good-sized guy, had his knee in George Floyd’s back. And he didn’t take his knee off until the paramedics arrived. I think then it arrived. And if you listen to them talking, they never actually are caring. George Floyd says, “I can’t breathe.” The only time they responded was somebody said to him, “Well, you’re talking.” I mean, they were totally indifferent to the plight of this human being. I mean, this is an indictment of the U.S. police system, if I’ve ever seen one.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rashad Robinson, could you respond to that, that the system of policing here is on trial? And talk specifically about the role of police unions. Color of Change has led campaigns to expose police unions. So, could you explain what role you think police unions play in enabling violence of this kind?

RASHAD ROBINSON: Well, you know, it’s a multi-part strategy from police unions. On one hand, you end up with the unions working to sort of lobby for policies like qualified immunity and others, right? You know, qualified immunity was just sort of outlawed in New York City. But around the country, what that actually means is that police officers are not civilly liable for anything that they do on the job. And then, what that amounts to is that police unions can build up these sort of big funds to pay for the legal defense of someone like Chauvin and police officers around the country, and they never have to raise money to actually deal with civil defense. And so they’re only dealing with a really small level of liability. Police officers can treat us, can treat our communities, like enemy combatants and be able to sort of continue to go on with their job.

They also go about, you know, making sure that if police officers are fired for something, that they can get jobs in other cities and that they are shielded, right? The police officer that killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice is working someplace else, and we don’t even know what that police officer looks like. Right? We know what Tamir Rice looked like before he died, but we do not know what that police officer looks like.

We watch as they inject millions upon millions of dollars into elections to be able to sway sort of the political sort of prospect of any type of accountability. And all of these things work into concert to be able to give police officers the type of shields that no other industry has in our country, despite everything that we know about policing and all the challenges of violent policing.

This is not something that we can simply reform around the edges. And this is when we have deep conversations about what does it mean to divest from this type of policing and invest in communities, right? All around the country, instead of investing in mental health, we send someone with a gun to deal with someone that has, you know, potentially, possibly, passed a $20 bill that’s counterfeit off or written a bad check, instead of actually sending someone that can deescalate a situation. And this is what’s at stake. Police officers are not incentivized to be deescalate. They know there will be protection in the end.

And one quick story that really animates all of this is, back in 2016, I was at a meeting at the White House with then-President Obama and a number of other leaders from civil rights, mayors, police chiefs, folks from the police union. It was shortly after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the Dallas police officers were all killed. And in that meeting, I talked about racial profiling, as well as many other folks, like Bryan Stevenson and others. And the head of — the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, [Jim] Pasco, responded — interrupted me as I was talking about an incident of racial profiling that impacted me personally — and said, “All of this talk of racial profiling is new to me.” This is the head of the Fraternal Order of Police, not arguing that maybe the policies we’re trying to advance around police accountability are too much. He was essentially gaslighting us, that police — that racial profiling doesn’t even exist.

And so, this is what we are up against, in terms of these sort of institutions that have a tremendous amount of money, put it into basically protecting police at the expense of safety and justice for all of our communities. And so, politicians who accept police union money can’t come to the community another day and say that they support safety and justice, because what they are supporting is secret societies that are intent on protecting people who kill us, and letting them off, helping them keep their pensions.

Derek Chauvin, as a result of the work of the police union, will stand to capture well over a million dollars in his pension. What kind of accountability is that, and what kind of system is that, when the people that our tax dollars go to, to protect and serve us, are incentivized not to protect and serve us, but are incentivized to control us, to harm us? And they know at the end of the day that every sort of barrier will be put in place to prevent any type of accountability along the way.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. And, of course, we’re going to have you both back on. This is a trial that is expected to last several weeks. Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. And, Mel, we’re going to link to your articles and the other articles in your newspaper. Mel Reeves, community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, longtime human rights and anti-police-violence activist.

Next up, we go to Brazil, where over 66,000 people died in the month of March alone, as COVID cases skyrocket and the hospital system is on the verge of collapse, as the country continues to face a growing political crisis with the far-right president, Bolsonaro. We’ll go to São Paulo to speak with a Brazilian doctor who’s coordinating Brazil’s largest scientific COVID-19 task force. Stay with us.

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