Chauvin Is Guilty, but the Trauma Won’t Stop
Another democracy-ish episode, “another insane week of being a Black person in America,” says Toure.
Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, was convicted on all counts after an 11-hour deliberation by the jury.
Just after Chauvin was taken away from the courtroom in handcuffs, news broke that Columbus, Ohio, police shot and killed 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant on her front lawn after she called them for help.
The Nation’s Elie Mystal joins Toure and Danielle to discuss the news of the week, as well as the police killings of Adam Toledo in Chicago and Daunte Wright just outside Minneapolis.
In the hours before the verdict was announced, Danielle felt physically ill. But she thought she would feel more relief than she does now –– that “I’d feel like we could take a deep breath,” she says. “That this could be the first in a series of police being held accountable for killing us like fucking animals in the streets.”
But the three-week trial was constantly interrupted by more killings. Daunte Wright was shot by police just a few miles away from the Minneapolis courthouse. In Chicago, police shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo when his hands were up in surrender.
And as Derek Chauvin was handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom, any attempt at a deep breath was interrupted by news that a cop murdered 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio.
To break it all down, Toure and Danielle are joined again by Elie Mystal, legal expert and justice correspondent for The Nation.
“What we just went through to get here is unsustainable and unrepeatable,” Elie says of the guilty verdict.
“To get this one conviction, we needed 10 minutes of uninterrupted broad daylight video showing the murder, and a victim who was handcuffed, screaming for his mother while he was being killed. We needed a national protest movement over a summer during a pandemic. We needed years and years of work by Black activists to build the infrastructure so those protests could happen.”
We also needed a Democratic attorney general in Minnesota –– “this does not happen in a Republican state” –– as well as a prosecutor who was willing to bring charges, a three-week trial and 10 cops to break the “blue wall of silence” and testify against Chauvin.
“That is a heavy lift,” says Elie, “and it's not a lift that we can count on again.”
Episode Highlights –– Chauvin Is Guilty
Danielle was touched by seeing George Floyd’s family cry tears of joy after all the work they’ve done to arrive at this day.
“But seeing their cheers brought me back to the Zimmerman courtroom, and the devastation of Trayvon Martin's parents –– and of all of the parents and families who never got that moment,” she adds.
Toure “felt tremendous catharsis” watching Chauvin’s exit. He wonders “if there was a small shudder that went through the police officers of America: like, shit, it can happen.”
But he doesn’t feel any joy in terms of whether it means we’ve moved forward on racial justice or police violence.
“This seems to me like an oasis in an impossible losing season: one victory following loss after loss.”
Elie was relieved as well, “and I don't want to soft sell that,” he says. “Because let's never forget the alternative here. As we were waiting for the verdict, I was thinking, if this goes bad, what happens tonight? What happens to this country? What happens to that community? ... The worst that could have happened would have been very bad.”
But when he learned about Ma'Khia Bryant, he “snapped back to reality and remembered that there is no victory. There is only continued struggle.”
The power of video –– and a 17-year-old girl
Danielle points out that the initial police statement “characterized what we saw for nine minutes and 27 seconds as a medical incident.”
Without the bravery of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who recorded the entire incident on her phone, “we wouldn't even be having this discussion,” she adds. “Because they had no qualms about the lie that they put together. And Derek Chauvin wasn't going to lose a night of sleep, let alone his job, had it not been for Darnella’s video.”
When Breonna Taylor was killed, the police report said “something like, a suspect was killed after officers returned fire upon being shot at while trying to execute a warrant,” Elie notes. “Breonna’s name wasn't even mentioned in the police report about her own murder.”
That’s why he always says that “any journalist who repeats a police report uncritically is just as just being a stooge.”
Toure agrees: “We in journalism and media consistently report what the police say as the official word … Have we not learned that the police lie all the time, and that we cannot take their word as official and binding and final?”
Toure also gives kudos to prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell, who was “stellar throughout” and concluded his closing argument with an unforgettable line: “You were told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big .... The truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”
That got to the core of the prosecution’s case: “Chauvin's lack of humanity, his inability to see the humanity of George Floyd … his ego in the face of the onlookers,” he adds.
‘We’ve got to get better white people’
Danielle says the defense's case made her feel sick, because it relied on “tropes about Black people that were used to enslave us, like we have superhuman strength.”
According to the defense, even though he had been dead for three minutes, George Floyd “could have somehow leapt back into life” while Derrick Chauvin's knee was still on his neck and he was restrained by handcuffs in a prone position, face down on the pavement. The defense was asking the jury to believe that’s why excessive force is necessary.
“Elie, how do we move from that place?” she asks.
“To quote Chris Rock: we’ve got to get better white people,” he replies. “The only way those arguments stop being made is when attorneys in general understand that making them would so offend the average, least-common-denominator white juror.”
And the only way we get there is “if the least common denominator white person is as angered and outraged and offended by those arguments as we are,” he adds. “We are not there yet.”
The reason why the defense made the argument they did is “because they think it still holds water for the average white person on the street,” Elie notes. “And I can't say that they're wrong.”
Judge Cahill ‘took the bait’ when the defense was losing
Elie says he is “fundamentally a defense person at heart –– anti-carceral and generally anti-prosecution. So I appreciate the difficulty of Nelson's job.”
And it’s crucial that there are intelligent people willing to do that work, he adds. And Nelson “basically held it together until the end, when he just took the low-hanging racist fruit … He was flailing and he brought up Maxine Waters.”
That was something a “noble lawyer making a noble defense of a losing case does not do.”
That was also when Judge Cahill revealed himself as someone “trying to put his thumb on the scale for the defense,” Elie argues. “He took the bait and said, maybe you've got an argument for appeal. That was a white judge and a white defense attorney knowing they were losing.”
Toure isn’t a lawyer, but he has watched every episode of “L.A. Law,” and it appeared to him that Eric Nelson didn’t defend his client effectively –– especially when he replayed the damning video during his closing argument.
“It made George Floyd look even more sympathetic,” he says. “If my life was on the line, I would not want Eric Nelson defending me.”
Imagine a MAGA defense for Chauvin (um, no)
Elie doesn’t think Nelson is a great attorney –– ”but he wasn't terrible,” he says.
“He generally stayed within the corners of his case … Imagine this case if Alan Dershowitz or one of these MAGA lawyers was the defense attorney … They would have made the whole thing about cancel culture, culture wars, Donald Trump –– that Maxine Waters crap? He would have done that at the beginning.”
But why did he show the video? Elie thinks it “was to desensitize the jury to the humanity of George Floyd.”
And yet “we know that it didn't work, not just because we got a conviction, but because we got a conviction in 11 hours,” he says.
The jury’s rapid deliberation, and the fact they asked no questions, tells Toure there was no real argument among them.
Elie agrees and points out that they had to show they were “doing a professional job, taking this seriously and had open minds. But last time he was on the show, he said that I thought the verdict was baked in from the moment they sat the jury –– he just didn't know which way the verdict would go.
What ultimately moved the jurors? Let us count the ways
Toure asks whether Elie has a guess about “the last thing they needed to hear –– the old man crying? The chief of police who said, that's not what we do? The EMT who was like, I told them to check for a pulse, and they said to fuck off? Was there one thing? Or was it a whole group of things?”
Elie thinks it’s the latter.
“Think about it this way: some, though not all, of the jurors hadn't even seen the video. Now, if you're the defense, you thought that sitting those people was a good idea. But most likely, based on the rapidity of the verdict, that was probably a bad idea.”
Maybe if they had selected people who came to the trial with more knowledge about the case, “it would have been easier for them to play the de-sensitization game,” he says. “Because as it was, it seemed like people saw what actually happened and were like, oh, duh –– that's a murder.”
Danielle adds that, because Darnella Frazier’s video offers a clearer view and a wider angle than a bodycam video –– and also because it was so long –– Chauvin’s lawyers “couldn't argue the split-second defense. You know, they roll up on a situation and don't know what you expect. It's like, no –– for nine minutes? You knew what to expect.”
The brave bystanders: straight out of central casting
Toure thinks “most people, especially white people, will forgive the cops for making a millisecond decision, especially in the case of their fear of a Black person, especially a young Black person.”
But “this was no crime of passion,” Elie adds. “That's how we get to murder in this case. In other situations … a least-common-denominator white person thinks it's fundamentally okay to shoot black people if you do it quick.”
Toure notes that the bystanders in the video almost seem like they were chosen by a movie casting director.
“There's the girl who thinks: phone first, getting a really good clear vision of what's going on on the ground. There's the older guy who's identifying with Floyd and talking to him and saying, stop fighting them; you can't win … And there's the younger guy who's the martial artist, who can see what [Chauvin is] doing –– I trained in that maneuver, you are killing him.”
Altogether, they’re a “chorus” that displayed remarkable “courage in their passion to stand there and say, this is wrong,” he says.
To ‘die in the fullness of our rights’: Damn, Elie
“I hate to put it like this, but it's also that George Floyd died in a way that is acceptable to white people for us to die. He died on his knees. He died on the ground. He died submissively, handcuffed, unable to defend himself. White people don't want us to die on our feet. They don't want us to die fighting or arguing for ourselves.”
Instead, “they want us to die calling for our mother,” he adds. “When we die that way, perhaps they're willing to see a little bit of our humanity. But when we die in the fullness of our rights, they don't have time for that.”
That’s because “our compliance looks like submissiveness,” Danielle says. “Our compliance to them looks like slavery. Put your head down. Say: Yes, sir. No, ma'am. Be apologetic about our very existence. That’s why I say this system works the way it is supposed to work. I don't know how you argue your humanity for people that refuse to see it.”
Will Chauvin serve just 10 years? It’s up to the judge
Toure asks Elie his thoughts on what Chauvin’s sentence might be.
“Whatever the minimum is –– 10 years, I believe?” Elie replies. “They will not count the 18 complaints about excessive force on his record. They'll count this as a first-time offense and he'll get the minimum. He'll be out before my kids are done with high school.”
Danielle disagrees: “I remember you saying Cahill doesn't want to make news here, even though he should have kept his fucking mouth shut about Auntie Maxine.”
She thinks that, “after one of the most consequential trials that this country has seen,” Cahill wouldn’t want the blowback he’d get if he gave Chauvin a light sentence.
“We give low-level drug dealers with an ounce of weed fucking 10 years in this country. This is not the legacy the judge wants to have his name wrapped around. He will not get the maximum, but I don't think that he's going to get the minimum.”
But, Elie counters, “he also doesn't want to get bumped on appeal. And while the Maxine Waters comment is not legitimate grounds for appeal, although I'm sure they'll try it now, an over-sentence could be. If you call him a first time offender and then put them away for 25 years, that could –– I'm not saying it should –– get knocked on appeal.”
White people can rethink everything but policing
After the Daunte Wright killing, Elie wrote an article in The Nation arguing against the practice of armed traffic stops, period. And he learned that most white people can’t seem to wrap their minds around one particular point in the piece: The Brooklyn Center cops could have just let Daunte go.
After all, they had his license plate number –– and “frickin’ Google knows where we all are at this point,” so they could have just caught up with him later.
“But the thought that they could just let this scary Black man go when he was trying to get away,” was just too much to bear, says Elie.
“It's so hard to get white people to think critically and differently about the police. You can get white people to think about the most radical reorganization of any economic policy, even what currency is … but we can’t tell them we need to completely reimagine what the police do.”
“No, but let's send more helicopters to Mars,” Danielle says.
“I just want healthcare,” says Toure, who rejects the notion that police “should be this traveling bureaucracy, making sure that everybody has paid their registration, is wearing their seatbelt, doesn't have air freshener or 32% tint on their windows, and all these other little ticky-tack things that aren't speeding or DUI.”
Police across the country are doing exactly that –– but it’s “not intended to create public safety,” he argues. “It's intended to create an opportunity for them to look for guns and drugs, fine us and claw money from us.”
‘4th Amendment? No problem’ – SCOTUS
Elie points out that there’s literally a Supreme Court ruling that gives them the power to do so: Whren v. United States, which in 1996 “literally said that the cops can use minor traffic infractions as an excuse to get around the Fourth Amendment,” he explains.
Usually, law enforcement officers need probable cause before they can stop or search someone.
“But if I miss a turn signal or roll through a stop sign, then because I've committed a moving violation, that allows the cops –– who do not care about the turn signal –– to stop me, pull their guns out, toss my car and look for contraband,” Elie says.
And it’s important to note that Whren, as well as the Graham v. Connor case Elie talked about two weeks ago, were unanimous decisions.
“The liberal justices are not the friends you think they are when it comes to issues of police violence against Black people,” he says. “In 1996, Ginsburg was on the court.”
Toure is shocked: “Even Clarence Thomas?” he asks.
“Especially Clarence Thomas,” says Elie.
Adam Toledo, a ‘13-year-old man’
In Chicago, police released body-worn camera footage of the killing of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old who was allegedly holding a gun but dropped it when an officer told him to do so. The cop shot him anyway, even as his hands were up in surrender.
“People are saying, well, he’d only thrown the gun away a second earlier,” says Elie.
“He was only unarmed for a second because the cop didn't give him two seconds. If the cop had given him two seconds, he would have been unarmed for two seconds. If the cop had given him a minute, he would have been unarmed for a minute, but the cop didn't wait that long. He just shot.”
Those folks may think they would be scared if they encountered Adam Toledo in an alley, but “if the cop had tactically pursued him in a different way, he wouldn't have had just one second to decide whether Adam was holding a gun or not,” Toure points out.
“To say nothing of the studies that show that Black and white police officers are more likely to see, quote-unquote, a gun in the hands of an unarmed Black person than than an unarmed white person. They visualize guns in our hands when we're not holding them.”
Meanwhile, noted Fox News asshat and Trump bestie Sean Hannity called Adam a “13-year-old man” and warned about “unrest” in the city.
Why Elie became a lawyer, not a veterinarian
The presumption is that “police officers don't have fucking training and don't have weapons,” says Danielle. “Again, we're socialized into having this unnecessary amount of empathy for people who choose a profession that puts them in harm's way.”
She thinks we have to understand that the issue isn’t training –– it’s choices.
“You can do as much cultural bias and tactical shit as you’d like. They are making conscious choices and decisions to execute who they choose to, because they know it doesn't matter at the end of the day.”
That’s why Kyle Rittenhouse and Dylann Roof are still alive, but “we have a litany of people who have hashtags attached to their names,” she says.
“If I was alone in a small room with a rabid dog, I would be afraid. And that's one reason I'm not a fucking vet,” Elie shouts.
“We make our choices based on what we think we can handle. Cops have to be able to be in high-pressure situations and make good decisions –– not based on fear, but based on the law and the Constitution, and think about things like rights and responsibilities and legal structures. If you can't do that, then you can't be a cop.”
‘Call of Duty’ on a Columbus street
Sixteen-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant was allegedly armed with a steak knife when Columbus cops rolled up in response to a 911 call. It’s unclear whether Ma'Khia was the one who called, but apparently she was in the midst of an altercation with other teenage girls outside her foster home.
We know that now, but the cops didn’t, Toure notes.
“Was she at home, where she has the right to stand her ground according to Ohio law? … And for all the folks who are like, well, she had a knife … at least three other cops were there. And none of them pulled their guns. Why this one cop was like, I need to start blasting because it's Call of Duty out here, I have no idea.”