Chauvin trial highlights divide between US city, activists

As jury selection begins on Monday, the City of Minneapolis touts community partnership while organisers remain sceptical.

A protester holds a sign outside the Florida home of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was recorded with his knee on George Floyd's neck before his death, in Orlando, Florida, on May 29, 2020 [File: Scott Audette/Reuters]

The tumultuous months that Minneapolis has experienced since ex-police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck as he died last May are coming to a head as the city readies for the commencement of his trial. Jury selection begins on Monday, March 8.

While the city has been preparing for months to host the trial in collaboration with local, state, and national law enforcement partners under a plan it is calling Operation Safety Net, local activists and organisers have as well, as they promise to demand justice for Floyd through peaceful protest beginning the morning of jury selection.

Community and activist groups are planning a number of events, from pre-protest information and safety training sessions to various actions near the trial’s location in downtown Minneapolis and its capital twin city, St Paul, leading up to March 8 and beyond.

Protests are also planned for George Floyd Square, the intersection where he was killed.

This is all to “demand justice for George Floyd and all stolen lives and an overhaul to our system of policing in Minneapolis and that of Minnesota”, local activist leader Nekima Levy Armstrong told Al Jazeera.

However, the city’s preparations in advance of the trial, particularly its claims about community partnership and transparency, have already drawn criticism from local activists and organisers in the Black community in particular.

David Rubedor, the director of the Minneapolis Neighborhood Community Relations Department, told Al Jazeera the city’s approach is about keeping the community centred and ensuring two-way communication throughout.

Michelle Gross, a police accountability activist with Twin Cities-based Communities United Against Police Brutality, told Al Jazeera she has had a different experience. She said the city “hasn’t been in touch with any of us” who are actually planning protests, save for an email she got from the city offering masks.

Minneapolis is fortifying its police force by adding roughly 2,000 National Guard troops and 1,000 out of state police officers to the growing list of more than 12 external law enforcement partners working with the city throughout the trial.

In a news briefing on March 4, city officials said both traditional and additional de-escalation training has been given to external law enforcement officers.

“I don’t believe that they’ve received adequate de-escalation training,” Levy Armstrong said of Minneapolis’s home police force. “We have not seen de-escalation in practice typically. We’ve seen a shoot first, ask questions later mentality in practice.”

She believes the police have been focusing on constraining peaceful protests for months, citing a November 5 anti-Trump protest Levy Armstrong and other protesters held. In Minneapolis, it is common for peaceful protesters to spill onto the Interstate 94 highway, a main artery that runs through the city.

When protesters did this in November, “the police had already shut it down and blocked us from being able to exit [the interstate] for five hours and wouldn’t let us leave”, she said. “It ended up being a mass arrest of 646 people, so we know they’re practising on us.”

Preparation of the trial grounds at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis has included the erection of barricades consisting of concrete barriers, razor wire, and fencing around the court. The same has been done for nearby City Hall, the Public Service Building, and the city’s five police precincts.

These measures are “clearly meant to keep people out of The People’s Plaza”, a park in downtown Minneapolis, “and away from the Government Center where the County Court and the trial is being held”, Levy Armstrong said.

Protesters hold a die-in outside the Hennepin County Family Justice Center where four former Minneapolis police officers appeared at a hearing on September 11, 2020, in Minneapolis [File: Jim Mone/AP Photo]

These measures have racked up a cost of approximately $650,000 according to city spokesperson Sarah McKenzie. The city hopes to be reimbursed through a $35m State Aid For Emergencies (SAFE) account that has been proposed but is locked in a largely partisan impasse at the Minnesota legislature.

No word from the city

“Part of our lack of trust is that the city has, bit by bit, been trying to reframe this whole issue as a problem with protesters, not with police violence,” Gross said. “We see it with what they’re doing with the buildings in downtown Minneapolis that are all ringed with chain-link fences and barbed wire, razor wire, and all that.”

Further, Gross interprets the barricades as hinting that “they fully expect that Chauvin will either get acquitted or else will get a slap on the wrist kind of thing”, and that the city is already preparing for the backlash.

Rubedor said he has not heard “a lot yet” from the community members and groups he works with about the barriers, but said his office’s job is “letting people know that [the barricading] is happening and why it’s happening”. When asked why it is happening, he said the question would be better answered by the police department.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said at the March 4 briefing that “while some in our communities may find some of the environmental structures that they see — barricades and barriers and fences — perhaps a little daunting, but as we saw from the events of January 6, that is a preventive tool that we have to consider and have to look at.”

Moments later, Arradondo said the plans to barricade city property were in place before January 6 as preparations began as far back as late August.

Beyond physical preparations, the city is taking a number of communications-focused measures as well.

The city briefly launched a programme to pay social media influencers – people they dubbed “trusted messengers” – $2,000 each to disseminate city-approved messaging to traditionally marginalised groups like the Hmong and East African communities as a part of what they are calling joint information systems, two-way streets of information flowing in and out of the city in partnership with community groups.

Rubedor said in a statement the city planned to share information on everything from affected transit routes to the “security infrastructure” being set up downtown to communities that are typically disconnected from “the city’s traditional routes of sharing information”.

Terrence Floyd, brother of George Floyd, after a recording session for an album of protest songs on Monday, December 28, 2020, in New York [File: Frank Franklin II/AP Photo]

The influencers element was swiftly walked back days later after community outrage over what seemed to many to be the city’s approach to paying people to influence opinion rather than simply share information.

“Influencers was the wrong term,” Rubedor said. “It brought a connotation that the city was going to try to persuade public opinions and that wasn’t the intent.”

Despite the influencer setback, the city continues with the rest of its strategy to disseminate information through community groups on everything from trial updates to road closures and much in between.

On Friday, the city launched a website for such information. That’s also when the city’s Office of Violence Prevention plans to open an invitation for community organisations to apply for contracts of up to $175,000 each from a budget of more than $1m to create a communications network designed to ensure the flow of information from the city to communities and vice versa.

This will be in addition to the shows the city regularly has on cultural radio stations that service the city’s Latinx, East African, Hmong, and other communities.

Continued scepticism

Gross remains deeply sceptical.

“There are little groups of people who always have their hands out for city money and this is just more of the same,” she said. “The fact that they’re handing out these grants of like $175,000 for like six weeks of work is revealing to me. Our group is all volunteer and super low budget and we should never take this stinky money. We would never allow ourselves to be in a position of lying to the community.”

In response to the accusation that the money is for lying to communities, McKenzie pointed to the city’s Office of Violence Prevention’s (OVP) request for application for community groups “that can be activated during periods of heightened tension during the remainder of 2021, including during the trials of the former officers involved in the killing of George Floyd”.

Bottom Line
The site of the arrest of George Floyd, who died while in police custody, in Minneapolis, Minnesota [File: Eric Miller/Reuters]

Gross also draws distinctions between city-chosen communicators, the media, and groups such as hers that are regularly communicating with the communities they serve.

In addition to noting the city already has a variety of ways, like text messaging, to communicate with its citizens, she said: “The media has the ability to look at these messages critically. [The city] doesn’t want that to happen, they want people to repeat what they want them to say.”

Gross added that Communities United Against Police Brutality has already been working on communicating about the trial for weeks. “We have some cable programming we’re working on to be able to explain some of the more legalistic parts of the trial,” with the help of a lawyer, she said.

“We’re also doing work with a lot of social media and writing newsletters and things of that nature. We had a press conference last week and different things like that to make sure the community understands what’s going on. And the city didn’t have to pay us to do that!”

Source: Al Jazeera