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The Memo: Nation relives Floyd death as Chauvin trial begins

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The nation got a reminder, if any was needed, of the horror of George Floyd’s death Monday. 

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is charged with Floyd’s murder. His trial could last a month — a period during which the gruesome nature of Floyd’s demise will be replayed again and again.

Many Americans are holding their breath to see what happens in the courtroom — and what reaction the verdict sparks.

Chauvin’s trial is the most high-profile case of its kind since four Los Angeles police officers were charged in the beating of Rodney King, a 25-year-old Black man, in 1991. 

In the Los Angeles case, all the officers were acquitted despite video showing them raining blows down on King. The acquittals spawned outrage and provoked riots in the city that lasted for almost a week.

“The pressure is high on the court and the jurors, and I think they will take the job very seriously,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “But at the same time, history is not a friend to those who want to see police held accountable. We will see what happens.”

The Chauvin trial has a nationwide audience but is taking place in a sparsely populated courtroom. Only one member of Floyd’s family and one member of Chauvin’s family were permitted as spectators on Monday because of concerns about COVID-19.

Prosecutors played clips from the infamous video shot by a bystander that showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for roughly nine minutes. 

The first witness, a police dispatcher, testified about having a “gut feeling” that something was wrong as she watched a monitor at her desk. The dispatcher, Jena Scurry, was disconcerted enough by what she was seeing that she called a sergeant to express her concerns.

The video is the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case against Chauvin. The defense is already asserting that the situation was more complicated than the shocking images suggest.

Eric Nelson, a lawyer for Chauvin, told the court, “This case is clearly more than about nine minutes and 29 seconds.”

But is it? “You can believe your eyes that it’s homicide,” prosecutor Jerry Blackwell told the jury. “It’s murder.”

NAACP President Derrick Johnson said Monday, “George Floyd is not on trial. Derek Chauvin is on trial, justice is on trial, human rights are on trial, and the right to breathe is on trial.”

Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, told a news conference Sunday simply, “We need a conviction.”

Chauvin faces three charges: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Activists have always expressed skepticism that what they consider justice will be done. 

“I generally have zero expectations for any legal proceedings that happen, just because I haven’t seen nearly enough evidence of police accountability in this country,” Johnetta Elzie, a co-founder of Campaign Zero, which aims to reduce police violence, told The Hill earlier this month.

The trial is taking place when racial issues are already roiling the nation. 

Last week’s passage of new voting restrictions in Georgia has put the issue of disenfranchisement, particularly of African Americans, back at the center of the political stage. Anti-Asian bias is also receiving renewed attention after a gunman in the Atlanta area killed eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, earlier this month.

President Biden is, at least, less likely to lob a match into the tinderbox of racial tension than was his predecessor. 

During the initial protest that followed Floyd’s death, then-President Trump at one point tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He also had protesters cleared from around the White House by force.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden “certainly will be watching [the trial] closely.” The manner of Floyd’s death, she said, “really brought to light for a lot of people in this country just the kind of racial injustice and inequality that many communities are experiencing every single day.”

The result of the trial, whatever it is, will leave some segment of the American public outraged. 

Biden, who enjoyed crucial support from Black voters in his bid for the presidency but who has also always had a moderate image, may be better placed than many politicians to act as a balm on those tensions.

Whether he can actually do much to address the age-old problem of racial prejudice is a far thornier question.

A former senior administration official in President Obama’s White House noted the intractability of issues of racial unfairness generally. 

Inequities in police treatment of African Americans, this source said, had been a problem “for as long as we have had police in this country.” The history of anti-Asian American violence, similarly, has a long and dismal history, including the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

When it comes to Biden, the former Obama administration official added, “He’s not making things worse, which is a big deal.”

“The question becomes, can he make things better?” the source added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

Tags Black Lives Matter Derek Chauvin trial Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Minneapolis Minnesota police reform
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