On August 4, the British Daily Mail published previously withheld body camera videos from Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Keung, the first two Minneapolis cops who approached George Floyd on May 25. The footage reveals that police racism against Floyd was even more extreme than shown in the original video of his murder.
Responding to a 911 call, Lane and Keung entered the Cup Foods store and spoke for fifteen seconds to a man holding a supposed counterfeit bill that Floyd had allegedly paid with. This man, apparently a store manager, was carrying a handgun in his waistband. The cops did not take the bill to examine it. All three men hurried out the door, and the manager pointed out Floyd in his car and urged the cops to stop him.
Lane went to the driver’s side and Keung to the passenger side. Fifteen seconds after approaching, Lane drew his gun and pointed it at Floyd’s head. Without telling Floyd why he was under suspicion, he ordered, “Let’s see your hands. Stay in the car,” and then, “Put your fucking hands up right now!” Far from doing anything threatening, Floyd said, “I’m sorry…Please…Alright. What’d I do though?…I didn’t do nothing.” Holding his gun an arm’s length from Floyd’s face, Lane pushed Floyd in his shoulder and ordered him to put his empty hands on the steering wheel and then on his head.
Floyd was very distraught and said he had been shot before and was terrified. “I’m looking at you eye to eye. Please don’t shoot me, man!” As Lane ordered him out of the car and twisted his arms behind his back, Floyd pleaded that he did not know why he was being arrested and promised, “I’m not gonna do nothing.” Lane repeatedly ordered him to, “Stop resisting,” which he denied doing. The videos show that Floyd never threatened the cops. They cuffed his hands behind his back and had him sitting defenseless on the sidewalk. He was very fearful and upset and refused to get into their squad car, shouting that he was claustrophobic and suffering from anxiety. He also shouted that he was in a bad frame of mind because his mother had recently died and he had had COVID-19. None of the police were wearing masks, and they did not question whether they should put someone in a crowded jail during a pandemic over an alleged fake $20 bill. They treated Floyd’s anxiety as evidence that he was a dangerous criminal rather than a man under stress. Officers Derek Chauvin and Tou Thao then joined the first two cops. As the whole world saw in May, Chauvin pushed his knee into Floyd’s neck until he killed him, as the other cops restrained him and kept watch on shocked witnesses.
Video Withheld for Months
This new evidence shows that Chauvin was not the only cop who threatened George Floyd’s life. MPD officers called to a grocery store about a reported fake $20 bill immediately decided, undoubtedly based almost exclusively on the color of Floyd’s skin, that he was guilty and that they should treat him as a potential killer and prepare to use deadly force. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune pointed out that the previously concealed videos show that “neither officer told Floyd nor his two passengers why they were being investigated that night until several minutes after the encounter began and after Floyd had already been handcuffed.”
Why did it take nearly two months for these facts to be reported in the media and longer for the videos to be seen by the public? Police body cameras are city property. Prosecutors cited this footage when they charged Lane, Keung, and Thao and in fact revealed that Lane had drawn his gun on Floyd. But they did not demand that the video be made available to the public so that they could see what happened during Floyd’s arrest. Details of these recordings only began to be revealed when Lane’s lawyer submitted them in court on July 7. Incredibly, he argued they show Lane is innocent in a motion to dismiss charges. Evidence submitted in a trial legally becomes a public record. Yet it took another month for the public to see these videos.
Part of the delay was because Judge Peter Cahill did all he could to limit public knowledge of this evidence. He declared trial exhibits would be available for viewing only in person at the courthouse by appointment with his media contact person. On July 13, a “Media Coalition” of virtually every major national and local news company filed a memo objecting that their reporters had not yet been permitted to see the recordings and the judge had banned their publication, which they called a violation of the First Amendment and trial norms. Media outlets were permitted to watch the recordings on July 15 but not to copy and release them. The Daily Mail published key segments on August 4 from a leaked video of the original recording taken by an anonymous source who secretly used their camera in the courthouse viewing room. Judge Cahill officially agreed to the Media Coalition’s demand to release the videos publicly only after this leak and the full videos were finally shown to the public on August 10, over a month after Lane’s lawyer submitted them.
Protesters and the Public Deserved to Know
When he reversed his publication ban after the leak occurred, the judge said that he had been trying to “avoid…unduly tainting the prospective jury pool endangered by the intense media interest and reporting” on the case. In other words, one of the key authorities in the handling of George Floyd’s murder argued that for the sake of neutrality, this video evidence could not be widely shared with the public. But there is no real difference between the public learning of Derek Chauvin’s actions from a witness’ video and learning of Thomas Lane’s actions from police video. It is a dishonest and instrumental concept of “neutrality” that says that regular people must be shielded from information.
Elected officials had a multi-sided response to explosive protests following Floyd’s murder. Mayors denounced those who destroyed property and defied curfews and said they were not real anti-racist protesters. They pledged that they themselves sympathized with the Black Lives Matter movement. But they desperately wanted “disorder” to stop, so they authorized police to use tear gas and rubber bullets. They told protesters that they would fix systemic racism through reform. Institution of body cameras over the last five years was supposed to scare cops out of murdering Black people or make it easy to convict them if they did so. Neither happened in Minneapolis. That the police chief, mayor, and judge all prevented people from viewing the body camera evidence for themselves shows why officials’ reforms can’t be trusted.
Police chief Medaria Arradondo promised to review MPD policies and discipline individual problematic cops. Mayor Jacob Frey, promised “deep-seated structural reform in terms of how the department operates…that recognizes that the way things have been done for decades and decades is not acceptable.” However, a mass protest asked Frey if he would abolish the MPD and chanted, “Go home,” when he refused. At the time these men made these statements they were actually holding Lane and Keung’s body camera videos back from the public.
The mayor and the police chief wanted to avoid what they reasonably predicted would happen if people saw the full truth about officer Lane’s actions – further rejection of the system, larger protests, and more intransigent demands. They said they sympathized with the protesters’ feelings. But if they kept the Lane and Keung videos hidden, were they actually committed to justice?
No doubt officials would argue that the appropriate place to examine this evidence is during the full course of the officers’ trial. But this is misleading. Judge Cahill has set the trial for March of next year. Lane and Keung are free on bail. Cahill ordered the Minnesota Attorney General’s office to tell elected officials not to speak publicly about the trial and both parties’ lawyers to avoid public statements. “The court is not going to be happy about hearing about the case in three areas: media, evidence and guilt or innocence.”
The unnamed journalist who “leaked” footage of what Lane did to the public is a hero. The concept of “neutrality” being imposed here is in direct opposition to democratic accountability, and hinges on hushing up the full facts of police violence. The goal is to keep ordinary people from directly intervening in decision making. Real objectivity would mean evaluating police actions based on all the evidence, not insulating their trial from the informed mass opinion of the Black community and everyone else protesting routine police brutality.
The legal system is not neutral. A real “presumption of innocence” is not given to most Black, Brown, or poor defendants who receive almost worthless attorney services and are intimidated into plea bargains. The fact that the system originally charged Chauvin with only third degree murder, it now charges him with second degree murder, and Lane faces no charge for threatening to shoot George Floyd, all show how biased it is.
The use of body cameras was the most important reform after the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings. But it hasn’t stopped police racism.
In a very serious way, the release of this new video evidence poses a test and a question to the Black Lives Matter movement. When protests exploded across the country, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles said, “We’re throwing everything we have [i.e. the LAPD] at maintaining the peace, and we’re going to throw everything we have on promoting justice, and nobody out there need pick between those two.” Democratic officials appealed to people to trust in their good faith and promised action to end police racism. Portland NAACP leader E.D. Mondainé recently denounced protesters and argued that police racism should be ended through negotiations “in boardrooms, in schools, in city councils, in the halls of justice, in the smoky back rooms of a duplicitous government.”
The body cameras from Minneapolis show again how false the excuses are of “a few bad apples” and “inadequate training” openly or implicitly given by those in power. It wasn’t just one cop who was guilty of brutality. While Chauvin was a veteran officer with decades of “training,” Lane was a rookie fresh out of the police academy with the most up to date “training.” Lane didn’t “just follow orders.” He threatened Floyd’s life with no provocation on his own initiative.
If police brutality against the oppressed and the poor, especially Black people, is not an exception but the norm, then it is determined by core features of their actual mission. A force set up to “enforce the law” in a profoundly unequal society will always target people of color and working class people. It is not an accident that the MPD mobilized four cops and used deadly force over the alleged use of a counterfeit bill to shoplift a pack of cigarettes. The police exist to protect profit and property, not to serve or protect the vast majority of people.
But if police racism is a built-in, constantly reproduced feature of their social nature, it is impossible to change it without major confrontation. The exposure of what happened when the cops first approached and arrested George Floyd should have provoked a massive wave of struggle in response. The same forces of order and reassurance that say the police should be evaluated in the calm quiet of a courtroom nine months after the fact and not in the heat of public controversy have done everything they can to demobilize and “tone down” the practical intervention capacity of the Black Lives Matter movement. Hiding these tapes was practical complicity with the racists who automatically shout, “Not all cops are bad,” and promote grassroots racist campaigns of yard signs, bumper stickers, porch lights across American homes to “Back the Blue.”
The Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t need to tone itself down. It needs the strength to overcome the forces that maintain and reproduce massive racist action in the meat of this society. Therefore Black Lives Matter needs to build its hegemony and mobilize decisive sectors of the working class in an anti-racist agenda. The Democratic Party claims to be the indispensable tool to fight the racist right in the U.S. But this example of decisions by Democratic state officials shows they hid evidence which gives the perfect response to defeat the prevailing conservative argument in public life today: the claim that Derek Chauvin may be a racist but that the police as an institution are necessary and trustworthy. On multiple interlocking levels, the predominant influence of the Democratic Party amounts in practice to the deliberate disarming of Black Lives Matter.