When hundreds of people gathered outside the Hennepin County Courthouse on March 8, 2021, the first day of the Derek Chauvin murder trial, they set the tone for the month to come: they would be visible and clear in pursuit of justice, not just for George Floyd, but for all lives taken at the hands of police.
Against the backdrop of a barricaded and boarded-up county courthouse and city hall, civil rights activists gathered and marched in the streets. Apart from a couple of National Guard members standing behind a chain-link fence, law enforcement officers were not present or needed for the peaceful hours-long protest that wound its way through downtown streets.
At the head of the crowd, people stretched a large banner across the street that read: “Justice 4 George Floyd & All Stolen Lives. The World is Watching.” Inside the block lettering spelling George Floyd were the names of Terrance Franklin, Thurman Blevins, Philando Castile and hundreds of others slain by police. People carried signs that read Convict Chauvin, Justice for George Floyd, Convict Killer Cops, Black Lives Matter, and Community Control of MPD. Organizers led chants of “No Justice, No Peace. Prosecute the Police” and many others as nearly two dozen speakers took turns at the microphone.
Several expressed frustration at the fortification of downtown and trepidation about the trial – the first time in Minnesota a White officer was on trial for killing a Black man while on duty. DJ Hooker, of Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar (TCC4J), said he was nervous, stressed out and only had about an hour of sleep.
“You don’t think I got stuff to do? I play chess. I play Tetris. I go to Super Smash Brothers competitions,” he said, to laughter. “But you know, right now I’m out here fighting for justice. Do you know why? Because it’s a duty to fight for my people.”
Hooker said the case seems pretty open and shut, referring to the video seen around the world of Chauvin with his knee to George Floyd’s neck.
He was concerned that building a fortress downtown seemed like “they’re preparing not to do the right thing.
“We’re here to make sure that they do the right thing,” said Hooker. He also spoke of the need to fight for George Floyd as well as for those whose lives were taken without the public knowing it.
“We want justice here, in the case of Chauvin,” he said. “But we need to make sure we get systemic justice. To make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Push for police accountability
TCC4J is calling for the establishment of a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), an elected body of civilians only (no police or former police) who would have the power to hire, fire and prosecute the police. This requires a change in the city charter, under which control over the police currently lies with the mayor.
Hooker’s sentiments were echoed by many: that despite the Chauvin trial taking place steps away, this was about seeking justice not just for George Floyd but for those whose lives were lost before and after his.
“This is about all of the people that they have slain in these streets for no just cause. All of the people that have shed blood for no true real reason and purpose,” said Toshira Garraway Allen, who lost the father of her son, Justin Teigen, at the hands of St. Paul police in 2009. “This is for all stolen lives.”
She pointed out that of the hundreds of lives taken by law enforcement in Minnesota in the last 20 years, just one has been held accountable - Mohamed Noor, a Black man who killed a White woman.
“There’s no time for sugar coatin,’” she said. “I call these police departments the Ku Klux Klan with badges on.”
Garraway Allen said Teigen was killed by police and then thrown into the trash. When she sought answers, officers sat outside her house, followed her, intimidated her. When it happened in 2009, there was no Black Lives Matter movement, no one out there to hear her story. She listed the names of many others killed by police – Hardel Sherrell, Kobe Heisler, Cordale Handy, Marcus Golden, Jaffort Smith, Jamar Clark, Travis Jordan – whose stories are now being heard. She said for their families this trial was retraumatizing.
“We have to look at a trial that we only wish and pray that our families could get, that our loved ones could receive that same day in trial,” she said. “George Floyd hasn’t even got justice yet, but to even get a trial. Most of our families didn’t even receive that.”
Garraway Allen founded Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence to provide support to family members and friends who have lost someone or have been brutalized in any way by the police. She said families will not be quiet.
“They silenced me for years,” she said. “Well, guess what? I’m done bein’ quiet.”
Bills before MN Legislature
In front of the U.S. Bank Stadium under a sun-soaked sky, CAIR-MN Deputy Director Mohamed Ibrahim asked for a moment of silence.
“And the reason why we need to have a moment of silence is because we’re talking about human life,” he said afterward. He called for passage of police accountability bills supported by MN Coalition that have been introduced at the Minnesota Legislature. One such bill would end qualified immunity as a legal defense for police brutality.
“The time is now. And it is always the right time to do the right thing,” Ibrahim said. “The right thing to do is give us justice.”
MN Coalition, according to its website at mncoalition.org, is a group of community organizations working together to transform police accountability, supporting families of stolen lives.
Students shaking unjust system
South High Student Zach Moore fired up the students who were missing school to be downtown.
“You know, [Gov.] Tim Walz is trying to send us all back to our classrooms on this day, blocking us from taking part and demanding justice,” he said. “We won’t stand for that. We are gonna be here, just like we were here during the Uprising. We are gonna stand up for justice.”
He said youth demand justice for George Floyd and community control of the police, so people “can hold these killers accountable.”
He scoffed at the fencing and barricades and the signs welcoming protesters into a free speech zone, “like a lion welcoming a mouse into its jaws. But I’ll tell you this. The system may be a lion, but the people are no mouse,” he said. “We have managed to move mountains. We are an earthquake shaking the very foundation of this racist, unjust system.”
He led the crowd in another chant: “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop.”
Class was back in session once Chauntyll Allen of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities Metro stepped up to speak. Allen, who is also a St. Paul School Board member, said she was glad the students were there and gave them a quick history lesson.
She relayed the role students played in St. Augustine, Fla., which became a pivotal moment in passing the Civil Rights Act. Young Black people went to a “Whites-only” beach and despite, as Allen told it, getting their “asses whooped,” kept returning day after day.
When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. staged a protest at a local motel there and protesters were told “Y’all Black folks ain’t coming into this hotel,” students went around back, hopped the fence and jumped into the pool. This moment was captured in a now-historic photograph that, according to Allen, was sent on to President Lyndon B. Johnson who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law soon afterward.
“I know we’re a long way from actually gaining our rights – that’s why we’re standing in the streets,” said Allen. “But we do know that that was a milestone in that space. And I wanna say that it was young people that made that happen.”
She encouraged them to take to the streets and make their voices heard.
For those downtown during the trial and who have been at rallies since last May, a conviction of Chauvin (as well as the three officers charged with aiding and abetting, whose trial is scheduled for August) will mark not an end, but a starting point – with the real work for justice ahead.
Demonstrations are ongoing, with more planned for March 29, when opening remarks are expected to begin, and April 5, when closing remarks are expected. Events are listed on Facebook at The People vs. Derek Chauvin.