Authorities on Friday filed murder charges against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was captured on video earlier this week atop 46-year-old George Floyd, pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck until the unarmed and handcuffed black man could no longer plead for breath.
Floyd, who was suspected of trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill at a local deli, later died, and Chauvin and three other officers were fired. What many considered an egregious police abuse provoked a wave of protests across the United States as the nation wrestles not only with a devastating pandemic and an economic crisis but also a much older, more intractable scourge: racial injustice.
Though the charges against Chauvin of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter came swiftly in legal terms – “We have never charged a case in that time frame,” Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington told reporters Friday – the perceived delay led to large demonstrations in cities across the country.
It remained unclear whether Chauvin’s arrest might help to quell the mournful, angry and at times violent gatherings that have upended Minneapolis, Louisville, Denver and other cities in recent days. The protests, while triggered by Floyd’s death, also have been fueled by the ever-growing list of black people whose deaths at the hands of white police officers have been documented on video and distributed widely on the Internet.
The video in Minneapolis drew widespread condemnation from police authorities, politicians and countless viewers, who watched Chauvin press Floyd into the pavement during an arrest. Investigators revealed Friday that Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, even as Floyd repeatedly muttered “I can’t breathe,” “Mama” and “please.” Floyd eventually lost consciousness, and Chauvin kept his knee firmly on Floyd’s neck for more than two more minutes, according to investigators.
At the same time, an autopsy did not “support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation,” according to the criminal complaint against Chauvin, meaning it did not appear that his airway was fully cut off.
“Mr. Floyd had underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease,” the statement said. “The combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to this death.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman signaled Friday that three other officers who were fired after the incident – Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and Alexander Kueng – also could soon face criminal charges.
“We are in the process of continuing to review the evidence. There may be subsequent charges later,” Freeman said, adding that his office focused first on “the most dangerous perpetrator.”
Agents with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension arrested Chauvin at 11:44 a.m. in Minneapolis, officials announced. In Minnesota, a third-degree murder charge is defined as “perpetrating an eminently dangerous act and evincing a depraved mind,” while second-degree manslaughter is defined as “culpable negligence creating unreasonable risk.”
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Floyd’s family, called the charges “a welcome but overdue step on the road to justice” but said the family had expected a first-degree murder charge.
“The pain that the black community feels over this murder and what it reflects about the treatment of black people in America is raw and is spilling out onto streets across America,” he said.
The charges in Floyd’s death followed three days of increasingly intense protests and calls from community members, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat, for the officers to be arrested. Freeman acknowledged the ongoing civil unrest, noting that his own home had been picketed, but insisted his office could only pursue cases with sufficient evidence.
“I’m not insensitive to what’s happened in the street,” he said. “But I will not allow us to charge a case before it’s ready. And this case is now ready.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, acknowledged in an emotional news conference Friday that the unrest that has destabilized the Twin Cities is the result of “generations of pain, of anguish” over racism in policing.
“Their voices went unheard, and now generations of pain is manifesting itself in front of the world,” Walz said. “And the world is watching.”
The governor vowed “swift” justice for the officers involved in Floyd’s killing, even as he pleaded for an end to the violence that has followed in its wake. He said the underlying issues involved in George Floyd’s death could not be addressed until the literal fires are extinguished.
“We cannot have the looting and the recklessness that went on. We can’t have it because we cannot function as a society,” Walz said. “And I refuse to let it take away the attention from the stain that we need to be working on.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a Democrat, on Friday encouraged residents to see the state’s National Guard, which Walz activated late Thursday, as a calming force rather than an occupying one.
“The presence you see on the street – don’t react to them the way you might react to the Minneapolis Police Department,” he said at a news conference. “It’s not the same; it’s different leadership, different authority.”
The attorney general recognized the Minnesota National Guard’s recent help distributing covid-19 tests in the state. “Please remember that this is not the group that you associate with unfair conduct, but it’s a group that, in fact, just a week ago was trying to make sure that Minnesota could survive and thrive and live because we are still in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
Even President Donald Trump, who sparked sharp criticism for tweets early Friday that appeared to threaten violence against looters, later in the afternoon urged restraint.
“We can’t allow a situation like what happened in Minneapolis to descend further into lawless anarchy and chaos,” said Trump, who noted that he had spoken with Floyd’s family.
“I understand the hurt, I understand the pain,” Trump said. “The family of George is entitled to justice and the people of Minnesota are entitled to live in safety. Law and order will prevail.”
Despite the pleas for calm, the nation seemed anything but as a fitful week drew to a close. Recent days had seen the death toll from the coronavirus eclipse 100,000. More than 40 million Americans have now filed for unemployment. Floyd’s disturbing death – and the disturbing trend to which it belongs – appeared to merely push some already beleaguered communities past the boiling point.
While most protests have remained peaceful, some demonstrators have damaged buildings, blocked traffic and demanded justice for Floyd and for other victims of police violence.
At the center of the fury was Minneapolis, where protesters on Thursday breached the police department’s 3rd Precinct, set fire to the building and launched fireworks toward police, forcing officers to evacuate.
C’Monie Scott, 22, held up a gun belt complete with dangling handcuffs in one hand, and screamed into a megaphone, “F— the police!” Scott said none of it would be happening if the city had quickly moved to prosecute the officers involved in Floyd’s death.
“My people are only doing this because there is no justice,” Scott said. “Before this happened, we have never gone this far. This is on you guys. We’re three days in, sleep-deprived, dehydrated, hungry, and he still hasn’t been charged.”
The unrest unfolded from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Columbus, Ohio, as hundreds of people converged in city centers and descended on state capitol buildings in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets from police.
Gunfire broke out in multiple cities, including Louisville, where police say seven people were injured in a shooting that sent dozens scattering. Several hundred people there were protesting the March fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in her apartment, which police entered while she was asleep.
Shots also were fired near a crowd in Denver on Thursday evening, but a police spokesman said no one was injured. Late into the night, officials pleaded with protesters to remain peaceful.
“I certainly understand everyone’s frustration and sense of pain and disgust following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, a Democrat, said in a video message. “But I want to plead to everyone, let’s demonstrate, but let’s demonstrate peacefully.”
By Friday afternoon, protests denouncing incidents of black people dying in police custody continued to draw thousands around the country, with demonstrations forming in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Houston and elsewhere. Some gatherings appeared peaceful in videos shared on social media, while others triggered tension between demonstrators and police.
In Detroit, hundreds of people congregated outside police headquarters in the afternoon, chanting “black lives matter” as officers handed out masks. In the nation’s capital, demonstrators gathered in a District of Columbia neighborhood and began a march to the White House.
In New York City, where police said more than 70 arrests or summonses were made during Thursday night protests and where video captured more arrests Friday, hundreds gathered in and around Foley Square as the mother of Eric Garner addressed the crowd. Garner, a black man, died in a 2014 struggle with police after repeatedly crying out, “I can’t breathe.”
“They have to stop coming into our neighborhoods and brutalizing, terrorizing, murdering,” Gwen Carr said through a megaphone in front of the plaza’s fountain. She wore a mask that said, “I can’t breathe.”
“It just keeps happening over and over again,” Carr added. “We can’t do this anymore. . . . We have to take a stand.”
In Denver on Friday, the chants of several hundred protesters echoed through downtown as marchers took over the state capital’s outdoor 16th Street shopping mall.
“No justice, no peace!” the protesters shouted, and, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The marchers carried signs that read “I Stand With My Black Brothers and Sisters” and “George Floyd’s Blood is On Your Hands.”
Back in Minneapolis on Friday afternoon, a small group of protesters stopped to hear Korey Dean, 46, founder of the Man Up Club in Roseville, Minnesota, deliver a mini sermon.
“What you see is people coming together, unified under one solidarity of justice. And we will make sure we receive justice,” Dean said. “Yes, we’re angry, and there’s nothing wrong with being angry. You cannot suppress a people and not expect a reaction. But now they have a voice, and it’s the sound of justice.”
A peaceful crowd of several hundred protesters also made their way to the Cup Foods store where George Floyd died on Monday.
Imam Makram El-Amin reminded the crowd that even though Chauvin had been charged, the broader fight for fairness remained. “This is one step towards justice,” El-Amin said. “I also understand the long arc towards justice.”
“All four!” the crowd continued to chant, referring to the three officers who had yet to face charges. Music played. The drumbeat went on and on.
(c) 2020, The Washington Post · Robert Klemko, Brady Dennis