The Sorrow and Relief in Minneapolis

On Monday morning, shortly after the final arguments in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd began, members of Floyd’s family walked through the deserted streets of downtown Minneapolis toward the fortified entrance of the Hennepin County Government Center. Philonise Floyd, George’s brother, was accompanied by his wife, Keeta Floyd; the Reverend Al Sharpton; Representative Sheila Jackson Lee; and a small swarm of photographers and cameramen. As they approached the fortified barricades of the courthouse, they held up their fists in the symbol of Black power, otherwise ignoring requests for comment. Three thousand members of the Minnesota National Guard have been activated this week, roughly the number of U.S. troops that are currently deployed in Afghanistan. As the family members made their way through a small gap in the wire-topped fence, a red van pulled up. Its passengers, perhaps recognizing Philonise Floyd or Sharpton from television, or simply seeing the upraised fists, slowed down to honk their horn and shout out “Black Lives Matter.” From another car, parked down the street and covered in spray-painted movement slogans, the broadcast of the trial could be heard through open windows.

“His name was George Perry Floyd, Jr., and he was born on October 14, 1973, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to his parents, George Floyd, Sr., and Larcenia Jones Floyd,” Steve Schleicher, an attorney with the state, said, beginning his closing argument. In the next two hours, Schleicher repeated a version of the phrase “nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds” more than twenty times, referring to how long Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. Schleicher urged the jury to set aside any difficulty they might have in conceiving that a police officer can also be a criminal, and reminded them that several bystanders, watching Chauvin kill Floyd, had called the police to try and stop it. “It’s exactly what you saw with your eyes,” Schleicher said, in conclusion. “It’s exactly what you knew. It’s what you felt in your gut. It’s what you now know in your heart. This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”

Outside, the city listened and waited. In the early afternoon, at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings play, high-school students gathered on a swath of lawn, as part of a school walkout, and listened to speeches by their peers. At 1:47 P.M., the time of day that Daunte Wright was shot and killed by the police officer Kim Potter in Brooklyn Center, a suburb north of Minneapolis, eight days before, they sat on the ground for three minutes of silence, representing the time that it took for a fatally injured Wright to drive several blocks before dying. The killing of Wright, a twenty-year-old father of one, seemed to indicate that little had changed in the past year; an overzealous response by law enforcement to the relatively small local protests that followed Wright’s death suggested that the police would handle demonstrations no less brutally than they had last summer. In response to protesters who threw bottles and rocks, law enforcement fired pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets, and arrested more than a hundred people. Nearby residents complained about the tear gas seeping into their apartments. A consortium of twenty news organizations wrote a letter of complaint to the governor, Tim Walz, about police attacks on journalists, including the instances of two Agence France-Presse reporters who were pepper sprayed at close range, a Black photographer on assignment for the Times whom police attacked with batons, and an Asian-American CNN producer, who, after being ordered to the ground and zip-tied, was asked if she spoke English. At a press conference on Monday, Walz called the police attacks on journalists “unacceptable.” Asked by a reporter who was inciting more aggression, the protestors or the police, Walz said, “I think it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg.”

Inside the courthouse, the defense, for its closing argument, offered confusion and ambiguity. “I understand that superhuman strength is not a real phenomenon,” Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, said at one point. “But officers are specifically trained that someone under the influence of certain types of controlled substances exhibit this behavior. They become stronger than they normally would. We’ve all heard the anecdotal stories of the pregnant mom lifting the car off of someone.” He emphasized Floyd’s drug use. He spoke for a long time—so long that, at the two-and-a-half hour mark, as the clock approached two in the afternoon, the judge interrupted him so that the jury could eat lunch. A rebuttal from the state followed, and then the members of the jury began their deliberations, before adjourning at 8 P.M. A few hundred people led a march through the streets of downtown. Jesse Jackson spoke. The police kept their distance.

On Tuesday morning, there was nothing to do but wait. Residents posted photographs on social media of military vehicles parked next to neighborhood eateries, or detailed their gnawing anxiety. Shortly before 2:30 p.m., the court announced that a verdict had been reached, and there was a general exodus from the city center, as businesses closed and workers were sent home for the day. More camouflaged vehicles rolled into position, and soldiers carrying rifles materialized on the streets of downtown.

At 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, next to a roadblock, a sign read “You are now entering the free state of George Floyd.” A perimeter of flowers, signs, and rope barriers covered in kente cloth surrounded the empty patch of street outside the Cup Foods grocery store, where Floyd was killed; an angel painted on the ground was outlined by votive candles in jars, with the words “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” written at its feet. The news that the verdict would soon be announced had arrived so suddenly that one person on the street stood dressed in a salon smock, her hair still in foils. Across the street from Cup Foods, under the awning of the former Speedway gas station, its sign now repainted “People’s Way,” a black Jeep Wrangler had been left with the windows open, two dogs inside, and the news from the courtroom being played at high volume. A folding table was piled with cookies and other baked goods. Members of the media trained their cameras on a few people giving impromptu speeches as the rest of the crowd waited.

A Black man wearing a Twins cap and a mask with “#ICan’tBreathe” written on it told me that his name was Gregory A. Lee and that he had lived three and a half blocks away since 1978. Racial profiling was at its worst in the nineteen-eighties, he said, and he had been pulled over dozens of times—in a baseball uniform after playing a game, in a suit coming from his job as a mortgage broker. Once, he said, he was driving with a white girlfriend and they were pulled over because of a crystal he had hung from his rearview mirror to reflect prisms of light. There were protests in the eighties and nineties, too, he said, but fewer white people came to them. “We, as Black people, you know, we look at the police as basically a fraternity of racist white guys,” he said.

Lee said that he probably frequented Cup Foods five times a week. “For some reason, I’ve been beating myself up, because I didn’t come to the store that day,” he said, of the day Floyd was killed. He paused and put on a pair of sunglasses; he’d already said that he might get emotional. I asked if he thought he might have done something. “I would have,” he said. “I’m sixty-six and I live a good life; I’ve lived a great life. On that day I would have felt I had nothing to lose.”

Shouts began to ring out of “Verdict! Verdict!” and people gathered in clusters around phones, straining to hear over chants of “Say his name!” There was a moment of quiet, and then a voice shouted out “guilty”—no one knew which count, but the crowd erupted in screams. A woman next to me burst into tears as she held her phone to her ear, trying to listen. Lee raised his hands in the air in triumph. “Guilty!” the shouts continued, as the judge announced that the jury had convicted Chauvin on all three counts he faced. People hugged each other, and wept. It was not a joyful scene; it was something else. “We shook up the world,” a man in a maroon and gold University of Minnesota sweatshirt shouted, standing on a platform. On a changeable-letter sign that had once advertised gas-station prices, and that now read “JUSTICE FOR GEORGE FLOYD,” a man began adding new letters, spelling out “Justice served.” After the cheer of the crowd died down, he added a question mark. Then there was a call: “One down.” And the response: “Three to go!” Three officers who were present when Chauvin murdered Floyd face charges of aiding and abetting.

More people from the neighborhood began to arrive, in couples and small groups, with children in tow. I ran into Lee again as he greeted some neighbors. “I can’t believe it’s real,” he said. He had spoken on the phone with a brother in Los Angeles, who asked him if Minneapolis was going to burn. Lee said he didn’t think so.

Within the hour, several hundred people gathered in downtown Minneapolis for a rally. It was a younger crowd, more eager to demonstrate. Some danced around a van with a loudspeaker playing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” A slow march past the plywood-covered storefronts began. The National Guard had dematerialized, and the police were nowhere to be seen, although helicopters hovered overhead. The crowd marched through the streets, chanting slogans that have become familiar. And they chanted the name of Daunte Wright, whose funeral will be held on Thursday, at the Shiloh Temple, in north Minneapolis.

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