Minneapolis has become a militarized zone. Streets are lined with barbed wire and fencing. The National Guard has been called in and the streets are heavily policed. The city has spent $1 million on this militarization effort as the Derek Chavuin trial begins.
This trial should be an open-and-shut case. A crowd of bystanders watched and filmed Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, choking the life out of him. We all saw what happened — there is nothing ambiguous here at all. If a Black person (not a cop) had done it, they’d be locked up and the system would have thrown away the key.
The currently unfolding trial of Derek Chauvin is a high-profile anomaly, the rare instance of a killer cop potentially facing consequences for his actions. The fact that he is even standing trial is a product of the huge Black Lives Matter uprising over the summer. It is the exception which proves the rule. After all, so many police officers who kill Black people are not even brought up on charges, and fewer still are convicted or punished. However, the racism that is foundational to the criminal “justice” system in the United States extends way beyond coverups by police departments or dismissed charges. Chauvin may be standing trial soon, but the entire process is designed to protect the state and its institutions, not to get “justice” for the murder of a Black man by the police. As jury selection for the Chauvin trial begins this week, the structural racism of American “law and order” is on plain display.
Derek Chauvin Is a Murderer
The murder of George Floyd, captured on camera from multiple angles in broad daylight, lasting an excruciating eight minutes and forty-six seconds, was not Derek Chauvin’s first time brutalizing the people of Minneapolis. Chauvin had received ten misconduct charges before he killed Floyd. Former Presidential contender Amy Klobuchar, who was the district attorney of Hennepin County, overseeing Minneapolis, chose not to prosecute him. In 2005, Chauvin and his partner plowed into the car of three young men, killing all of them. In 2006, he and five other cops shot an Ojibwe man 23 times, for which they were cleared of any wrongdoing. Two years later, he shot and wounded another man during a domestic violence call. At that point, he was placed on paid leave. He was again placed on leave in 2011 after yet another shooting.
Each time, Chauvin returned to the force without skipping a paycheck. In 2008, he was even awarded a medal of valor. With this record, it’s easy to understand why Chauvin was unmoved by the cameras and crowd that watched him suffocate George Floyd — there are clearly no consequences for police violence.
But the brutality of George Floyd’s murder, contrasted with Chauvin’s callouseness and impunity, set off a movement — the biggest movement in U.S. history. In Minneapolis, the City Council made headlines by promising that they would abolish its police.
It’s clear now that this was a false promise to pacify a radicalized movement, assuring protestors that they had been listened to and won reforms, when in reality almost nothing has changed. As The New York Times explains, “In Minneapolis, the most far-reaching policy efforts meant to address police violence have all but collapsed.” In fact, the police budget signed in December was $179 million — a mere $8 million had been cut from the budget. The movement died down after a combination of arrests and repression, burnout after a summer of near-daily mobilization, and co-optation by the Democratic Party, which expanded its voter base and convinced many that the next step of the struggle was to elect Joe Biden. It was a masterclass in quelling radical energy by channeling it into the Demcratic Party, the graveyard of social movements.
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In the meantime, Chauvin has been allowed to leave prison and await trial at home — a privilege often denied Black and brown defendants. And now, almost a year later, he will stand trial for what is evident to the whole world: he brutally murdered George Floyd. The outcome of the trial remains uncertain despite the overwhelming, indisputable evidence of the crime, readily accessible online.
The systemic racism built into the “justice system” is already working in favor of Chauvin and the three other cops who stood at his side. Though prosecutors argue that this will hold more avenues open to secure a conviction, this is an “easy out” for the jury, allowing it to avoid more serious convictions.
In a clear demonstration of the systemic racism and pro-police bias in the legal system, Minnesota law automatically elevates the killing of a police officer by a civilian to first-degree murder, but the only way Chauvin could face a first-degree charge is by having a record of previous convictions. This, of course, has been conveniently precluded by the complete lack of accountability for his past violence.
This week, the city reached a $27-million wrongful death settlement with the Floyd family. The timing of this announcement, in the midst of jury selection, is unorthodox, to say the least. The defense has framed this as prejudicial, claiming that it frames Chauvin as guilty without a trial. But it could just as easily be interpreted the exact opposite way: a consolation prize, should Chauvin escape indictment. After all, the family has already been compensated — what good is it to further punish the perpetrator?
The Cops Get Away with Murder
Precedent does not bode well for the possibility of Chauvin’s conviction — the cops almost always get away with murder. Think of Breonna Taylor, who was brutally murdered in her own home. The only legal consequences in that case fell on the cop whose bullets missed their target. Think of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot by police after just two seconds on the scene for holding an orange-tipped toy gun. His murder was excused as an “objectively reasonable response” by former law enforcement officials tasked with investigating it. Killer cops walked free after the high-profile murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Tony McDade, and Philando Castille; these names are familiar, but the list of Black people slaughtered by police each year is much longer. Most names never rose to the lips of protesters, and nearly all of their killers are still on the job.
Racism and pro-cop propaganda run so deep that even the clearest evidence usually isn’t enough to charge and convict. Thanks to the “reform” of equipping police with body cams, we have now multiple instances of police murder captured on camera in broad daylight. Tulsa PD Officer Betty Shelby was acquitted after shooting Terrence Crutcher to death, captured vividly on video by a police helicopter; she is still on patrol. Eric Garner’s death was likewise captured on video in broad daylight, but this wasn’t enough to even bring charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Even when legal action is taken, the victims and their loved ones often receive closer scrutiny than the killer cops on trial. Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel was cruelly and publicly discredited, and branded “inarticulate” based on racist standards. Off-duty officer George Zimmerman, meanwhile, was acquitted of Martin’s murder. In the case of LaQuan McDonald, the defense literally said, “Think about a monster movie” and went on to call McDonald, the Black teenager who was shot 16 times, a “monster.” Ferguson PD Officer Darren Wilson, who murdered Michael Brown, invoked racist stereotypes about Black men, describing Brown as “a demon” and “crazed”. Wilson was also acquitted. Tamir Rice’s mother was accused by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor of having “economic motives” for pursuing justice for her son.
The NAACP reports that 1,025 people have been shot and killed by police in the past year alone. Yet since 2005, only 35 police officers have been convicted of a crime and just three were convicted of murder. These numbers stand in stark contrast to the ease with which people of color, especially Black men, are systematically imprisoned. Some statistics show that one in four Black men in the United States will be jailed or imprisoned in their lifetime.
Jury Selection in the Floyd Case
Already, the jury selection process indicates that this will be far from a fair trial. Four of the jurors — six men and two women — identify as white, one as multiracial, one as Latino, and two are Black. The jury includes a mixed race woman whose uncle is a cop and who has a “somewhat negative” impression of Chauvin. It includes a white man who said, “Floyd appeared to be under the influence of something and was somewhat unruly.” This juror says he believes the system is biased against people of color, but also that “people don’t give law enforcement the respect they deserve.” Another white juror expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but views the organization itself unfavorably. He also has an unfavorable view of the Blue Lives Matter movement, saying that “everyone should matter the same. The whole point of that is that all lives should matter equally, and that should include police.” He says he has not seen the brutal video of Chauvin killing George Floyd.
One Black juror immigrated to the United States from a West African country. He knows that what happened to Floyd could have happened to him, but also believes that both Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. The other Black juror said in a questionnaire that Chauvin may not have meant to kill anyone. While he supports the basic precept of Black Lives Matter, he emphasized that likes to allow everyone to “get their voices heard,” and that he personally knows police who are “great guys.”
Further, the defense keeps striking down Latino jurors. Three have been struck down already and although the prosecution issued a “Baston challenge,” claiming that jurorers were eliminated due to sex, race, ethnicity, or religion, the judge declined the challenge.
The Jury Selection Process Is Racist
Jury selection is portrayed as a neutral way to guarantee a democratic trial by one’s peers, but in reality, it’s a structural feature of a racist system which ensures cop can get away with murder. Most juries aren’t representative of the city, much less the neighborhood, where police violence took place. For example, in Chicago, a city which is less than 50 percent white, only one Black juror served on the trial of LaQuan McDonald. The only juror of color that the defense did not try to dismiss was a Hispanic woman who was trying to join the CPD. To this day, it is not illegal to have an all-white jury.
Further, the selection process itself is biased: members of the jury are selected based on DMV and voter registration rolls. People of color are far less likely to own a car, and less likely to be registered to vote, which already narrows the pool of people of color that can be selected. In other words, from the get-go, people of color, especially those who are low-income, are under-represented in those called to be jurors.
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Juries are not just narrowed demographically — they’re also filtered by political opinion. Once summoned, candidates go through the voir dire process, in which they can be asked questions like “Have you had a bad experience with a police department?” This could be a reason to be struck from the jury, creating an obscenely pro-police and racist bias. Excluding every single person who has had a bad experience with the cops means striking the majority of Black people, especially Black men, from the jury. After all, seven in ten Black Americans say they experience police harassment. In a nation of systematic police violence, these kinds of questions define “unbiased” as white, wealthy, and pro-police.
For the Chauvin trial, jury candidates were asked to fill out questionnaires that included questions like, “How favorable are you towards BLM?” and “How favorable are you to Blue Lives Matter?” This is a grossly false equivalency: Black Lives Matter is a movement in response to police killings of Black people, while Blue Lives Matter is an attempt to justify police murders. Blue Lives Matter is an explicitly racist slogan, while “Black lives matter” is a very basic assertion that Black people should matter. Yet again, supposedly “unbiased” opinions are structurally slanted towards pro-police positions.
This is all in addition to the use of the “peremptory strike” which gives attorneys the right to strike down the participation of any potential juror with no explanation or justification. A strike based on race is not technically permissible here, but attorneys can use virtually any other reason — from attending a BLM protest, to listening to hip hop, to having a beard. Across the country, peremptory strikes are used to exclude people of color from juries, even in cases that on the surface do not involve racial bias.
This is what institutional racism in a “color-blind” system looks like. Every step in the jury selection process is meant to cut out people of color, people who have had bad experiences with the police, and people who believe that Black lives should matter. The “impartial” jury selected is almost certain to be more white and middle- or upper-class than the city as a whole. The people of color it does include are those who have accepted pro-cop propaganda or who come from wealthier strata in which police brutality is less common.
It means that the “unbiased” jury chosen is entirely biased — towards the cops. And this isn’t a coincidence or a mistake — it’s part of a whole system based on police impunity and police terror against communities of color and working-class people. The justice system isn’t neutral or democratic. The deck is purposefully stacked to favor the police, white supremacy, and the murder of Black people.
It’s Not One Cop, It’s the Whole System
A conviction of Derek Chauvin would be an important win for the movement, and for the millions of protesters who took to the streets last summer. He would be one of the few police officers to face any consequences for the murder of a Black person — a low bar to begin with.
But putting Derek Chauvin in prison will not exonerate the racist police or the racist system. Convicting one killer cop does not, by itself, change the structures that enable this brutal system. Every aspect of the system is created for the wealthy and powerful, and built on the repression and exploitation of Black people, people of color, and the working class. This is abundantly clear from the fact that Chauvin has been systematically allowed to brutalize and kill people for his entire career as a cop, from the fact that he is awaiting trial at home, and from the racist jury selection process. Institutional racism lives in every crevice of every institution of U.S. democracy, giving the cops ample opportunity to terrorize people of color with impunity.
“Justice for George Floyd” was always meant to be for more than just George Floyd. Justice for George Floyd, and for all victims of police violence, means tearing down the system that inherently and systematically brutalizes Black people with impunity. As so many of us chanted this summer, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”