March 29, 2021
Opening arguments began this morning in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering George Floyd. Chauvin is white and Floyd was black. Floyd’s death sparked a summer of global protests. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The most serious charge of second-degree murder has sentencing guidelines that call for 11 to 15 years in prison. The maximum penalty is up to 40 years. Chauvin agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder before he was even arrested last fall. The plea bargain fell apart when attorney general William Barr and the Department of Justice rejected the deal.
The encounter began on May 25, 2020 around 8 pm when an employee at the Cup Foods convenience store called police to say that a customer later identified as George Floyd had tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. According to video evidence, Floyd was questioned and handcuffed and taken across the street and sat on the curb. While the cause of what happened next is on trial, video evidence from several sources show Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 28 seconds. According to firsthand accounts, this was not the first time Chauvin had used similar tactics. During Chauvin’s 19 years on the force, he had shot one suspect, been involved with the fatal shooting of another, and received 17 complaints, 16 had been closed without disciplinary action. Chauvin and Floyd had both worked security at El Nuevo Rodeo, a Latin night club, until Chauvin was hired by the police in 2001.
Much has happened in the 10 months since George Floyd’s death. Floyd’s family recently settled a lawsuit against Minneapolis over his death for $27 million. The Justice Department has revived its civil rights investigation into Floyd’s killing with a new grand jury. Minneapolis residents remain at war over policing and allegations of excessive force. The site of Floyd’s death has been transformed into a community gathering space where the authorities are not welcome. The intersection has been the location of many protest, rallies, and demonstrations. It also served as a backdrop to media coverage on the protest movement sparked by Floyd’s death and prompted multi-part series on PBS News Hour (“George Floyd Square:”) Minnesota Public Radio (“Making George Floyd’s Square:”). The square has been declared by the people to be the “THE FREE STATE OF GEORGE FLOYD”.
Thoughts: I encountered another “free space” when I lived in Berkeley, California. Sitting on the Quad in front of Sproul Hall is a round cement stone set flat into the walkway in 1989. Another statement is carved around its perimeter, “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” In the center of the stone disc is a small hole that holds a patch of soil about the size of a half-dollar. It is the invisible space directly above the hole that is the actual monument. This tiny tube of unregulated space is meant to be a place where protesters and free thinkers can say whatever they like, without regulation. While individual events can be discarded or forgotten, the symbolism represented by free spaces help keep the focus on the lessons of the past. We need to pay attention. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.