Cesia Baires, D.A. Bullock, Marian Mohamed, and Mohamed Mohamed come from different communities and perspectives, but found plenty of common ground discussing what justice for George Floyd would mean. Credit: Photo collage Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

After months of anticipation, trial proceedings officially began Monday morning for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, accused of the murder of George Floyd. But a judge quickly ordered a pause in jury selection at least for the rest of the day, while waiting for an appeals court ruling on the potential repercussions of reinstating a third-degree murder charge.

For Minneapolis residents, a delay in the justice process was nothing new. Nine months have passed since Floyd’s death under Chauvin’s knee reawakened a national protest movement and sparked civil unrest that set blocks of the city aflame. For the city’s Black, brown, and Indigenous residents, “justice delayed” has been all too common, especially in police brutality cases. In modern memory, no police officer in Minnesota has ever been convicted for killing a person of color.

“Justice for George Floyd” signs still line front yards, windows, and murals on the sides of buildings. In preparation for the trial, public officials have blockaded City Hall and police precincts with barbed wire and barricades. 

On Monday morning, 400 protesters marched in front of the Hennepin County Government Center downtown to demand justice. And across the city, people waited in uneasy tension to see what would happen next. Will Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes on video for the world to see, be convicted of murder? Or will he, like so many previous officers accused of killing Black people, walk free?

Journalists from across the country have descended on Minneapolis to broadcast the trial to the world. While much of the national media focuses on the machinations of the court proceedings, we decided to focus our coverage on the people and communities who are most affected by what will happen.

Last week, we invited a panel of community members to talk about how people are feeling and what’s on their minds leading up to the trial—the first in what will become a regular series throughout the trial.

Our panel guests this week are:

  • D.A. Bullock, a filmmaker, North Minneapolis resident, and a member of the communications team for police abolition group Reclaim the Block
  • Cesia “Abi” Baires, owner of Abi’s Café, a Salvadoran restaurant and food truck
  • Marian Mohamed, who teaches special education and AVID (a college advancement program for students who need extra support) to Eden Prairie High School 9th graders, who live in both Minneapolis and Eden Prairie
  • Mohamed Mohamed, a University of Minnesota student and Cedar–Riverside resident. 

These strangers come from different communities and perspectives, but, over Zoom, found common ground in what became an open-hearted and deeply felt discussion.

A Chauvin conviction, they agreed, would represent an important step to showing that some kind of accountability exists for police. They aren’t optimistic it will happen. But they believe that regardless, the youth who have been leading the movement will continue to demand change.

Sahan Journal: Let’s start with an overview of how people are feeling and what people are thinking about. D.A., I know you’ve been thinking a lot about the trial and the city’s preparations for it. Can you tell us some of the things that have been most on your mind?

D.A. Bullock: I have noticed quite a bit of buildup around the razor wire and the concrete fencing and all of the preparation to protect buildings. But I haven’t noticed as much how we’ve taken this eight months to really build up the people who are living in neighborhoods. I know we’ve been building each other up. I know we’ve been reaching out to each other in neighborhoods and in small pods and doing mutual aid and those kinds of things. 

But I haven’t really seen a lot of official support for a lot of that work that’s being done—particularly about how we approach this trial whether there is a conviction or not. People are going to need to process through trauma and process through a lot of healing. 

Sahan Journal: Cesia, you knew George Floyd and then you helped protect Lake Street after the civil unrest. What’s been on your mind as we’re coming up to this trial for Derek Chauvin?

Cesia Abigail Baires: I just hope by serving justice to what happened, it will also be serving justice to all the other victims that died from police.

It gets a little harder when you actually know the person, because you know that wasn’t their character. Knowing him and seeing him weekly at the place I used to work, I actually haven’t been able to watch the video after I found out that it was him.

Sahan Journal: Can you tell people how you knew George Floyd?

Baires: I love dancing. Having a restaurant, Sunday is my day off. I go to conga, which is where he used to do security for I believe at least two years. And every time I’ll come in he would always be respectful—not only to me but whoever I’m with, and everyone else in there. Everyone knew him there. He was learning how to dance. 

At nighttime if I was a little intoxicated and I needed an Uber, he literally walked me outside. “Hey, Abi, we need you to get home safe, see you here next week.” 

He was very attentive, respectful, nothing like some of the media people portray him at all.

Cesia Baires, who owns a Salvadoran restaurant and food truck in Minneapolis, used to see George Floyd every week when she went out dancing where he worked as a security guard. “He was learning to dance,” she said. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Mohamed Mohamed: I think that’s something that we become desensitized to. We see so many murders happening and so many police killings that it takes the humanity out of it. And we see that in Cesia’s case: She knew this person personally. There’s this humanity and empathy. Sometimes people forget that this was an actual person that had people that loved him.

This person was another human being, not just another victim or another person that died from police brutality. So thank you, Cesia.

Baires: Of course. The first protest that was happening, I closed the restaurant that day. So I tell all my staff who this man was and some of them actually know him as well. And they’re like, Yeah, let’s close. We wrote posters and we started walking towards where it happened, where everything was peaceful until nighttime, where it was like, No, this is not how it was supposed to go.

Sahan Journal: Marian, can you tell us what you’ve been hearing about how students are  feeling about the trial?

Marian Mohamed: Yes. So in my AVID classes we have been talking about how we are going to emotionally take care of ourselves during this whole thing. Because what people don’t fully understand is that it is retraumatizing seeing those videos circulate again, seeing Derek’s face again. We anticipate people are going to have footage of the Minneapolis streets circulating again. 

A lot of kids who live in Minneapolis are like, We want justice but at the same time we don’t want to be torn down by what the media is going to say about George. We don’t want to be torn by what they’re going to say about Black Lives Matter, about Black people. 

I think the common theme is the distrust they have in our legal system. And that is just roaring through my kids. All of the other cases didn’t turn out the way that they wanted to—a good chunk of them didn’t. They’re like, How is this one going to be different? 

It’s hard. We’re in that weird middle of having hope, but gearing for the worst. Because it’s a reality in America for the worst to be a very high possibility. 

I want my students to always have a love for their country and love for our justice system—or at least respect it. How do you respect a justice system if they see it play out this way?

Marian mohamed, eden prairie high school teacher

Sahan Journal: Jumping off of that, what hopes do you have for this trial and what would justice look like. And can justice even happen through a trial? 

Bullock: Yeah, I think it is important to mention the history, from Jamar Clark to Terrance Franklin to Thurman Blevins and Chiasher Vue. I’m just thinking of people who were killed by police on the Northside. Travis Jordan. All the names that we really don’t know, that didn’t even receive a trial. I mean, Dolal Idd was killed right before the beginning of the new year. 

We carry all that trauma collectively, regardless of the circumstances of how they had that interaction with police. 

I think it also builds that skepticism that Marian talked about with her students, even down to very young people. They have a very healthy skepticism about receiving justice when it comes to police. 

And then all of this security apparatus is building us up to the disappointment of justice denied happening again. Even talking about how hard it is to make this case of murder—on a murder that we all witnessed on video. They’re still talking about how hard it is to make a case against a police officer. 

I feel like a lot of people are preparing themselves for the worst and not having a lot of hopefulness about receiving true justice through the criminal justice system.

Baires: Right. Based on the history, I think that’s why more people are on their last nerve. They’re like, “There’s like a 95 percent chance that we’re not going to get this justice, so we’re ready. If we don’t get justice, we’re ready to maybe take it to the next step.” 

I know a lot of business owners are scared. Just because, hey, the city could burn down again. 

Everybody’s on the line just watching, waiting for justice to happen. But if it doesn’t happen, I feel like a lot of people, especially our youth, are going to come up and do what they’ve been doing to get attention, to hopefully get some type of justice. 

Mohamed: For me, I would definitely want to see Chauvin be brought to justice and be held responsible for his actions. But I think justice for me would also be holding the city accountable. The leaders that have been elected have to be held accountable to the city, to the community that put them there. 

At the end of the day, the city belongs to the people that live there. It doesn’t belong to any one mayor, it doesn’t belong to the police chief, it doesn’t belong to the city council people. It belongs to the community that lives in that city. 

The way the city is preparing right now as if they already know the verdict is scaring a lot of people. I’ve talked to a lot of my friends. A lot of people in my neighborhood that I meet mentioned, Hey, you know, we saw the barbed fences. You know, the wires, all the blockades. They’re scared because they’re like, Hey, does the city know something we don’t? Does the city believe he’s not going to be convicted?

Mohamed Mohamed, a University of Minnesota student who lives in Minneapolis’ Cedar–Riverside neighborhood, says the city’s security preparations have put residents on edge, creating tensions that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Credit: Courtesy Mohamed Mohamed

Marian: I just think about how shitty, if I’m allowed to say that, how shitty it would be if justice isn’t served. What message that gives to our youth that were actively participating in these protests, who witnessed this murder on camera. How do you in your right mind say, The evidence is here, this is what happened, we all saw it. And he got off. 

I want my students to always have a love for their country and love for our justice system—or at least respect it. How do you respect a justice system if they see it play out this way? 

Bullock: And I just want to remind residents that if we treat this like individual accountability, then we would have seen a fundamental change after Officer Noor was convicted of killing Justine Damond. The effect of that was, it didn’t change the system. 

I think people are starting to have an awakening: This is not about accountability for one officer—even though Derek Chauvin and the other officers were the most culpable for the murder of George Floyd—but the whole system of policing. The whole Minneapolis Police Department and the way they operate is where the true accountability and culpability lies. And if we keep depending on them to reform themselves, we’re going to keep having the same happen over and over.

Baires: Definitely. One of my cousins serves in MPD. So when all this happened, it really hurt me for him. We talked a lot, even when I opened my business. He’s like, “Hey, I know people don’t want you to open a business in south Minneapolis because it’s ‘ghetto,’ with so much crime happening.” 

He’s like, “I don’t want you to get discouraged. Just remember that the only way to make change within these communities, and also the police department, is by getting in. You can’t really do much outside.” So he decided to become a police officer, just to make the little slight change from all the other officers doing it for a different reason. 

It was hard for him because he’s like, “I’m looked at as if I am one of them, doing the same thing that they are doing, which is taking power in just wanting to kill people for no reason.” It was really painful for him to go through this, especially when he still had to go out during the riots and people are throwing rocks and hurting them while they’re just doing their job. 

I think it would also be justice for all those police officers that are in there for the right reason. It wouldn’t just be on the victim side. 

Mohamed: I did security for a time downtown. And I have a couple of friends that work as cops. And we’ve all heard not all cops are bad cops. My friend, he’s a good guy: He does right by his community. It sucks having to see them going through this, and feel all this hate and anger. 

But I think we also have to look at how they’ve treated Black people in this country and the way that we’re stereotyped. For example, if you’re stopped by a cop, you’re in fear for your life. You’re scared. You’re like, Hey is this where I die? You think about all these thoughts that normally you shouldn’t be having because they’re supposed to be protecting you. 

Even if you did a crime, if you did the worst crimes of crimes, they still should not be killing you when you’re not any threat at all. 

Bullock: I would also put out the challenge for those police officers like your cousin, like a lifetime friend of mine who passed away last year—he was a police officer all his professional life, Chicago police and Evanston police. The challenge I put to him was, “Look, you realize the weight and inertia of that system. How you as a goodhearted individual cannot change that sort of larger inertia.” 

My challenge to him was to be part of the community that’s designing something new, designing something from the ground up, that doesn’t require this military force in order to have a social contract, to respect each other and respect the laws that we come up with together. And that challenge is something I think a lot of individual police officers have to understand and navigate: At a point where you’re a part of that larger system, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a good-hearted person or not because you have to do your job, like Cesia just said. 

And the system sort of prescribes what that interaction has to be. Who are the criminals, who are the people you need to stop. 

How many times have I been stopped for the same broken taillight that Philando Castile was stopped for? And most of the time I was stopped by decent individuals who are like, Yeah, I had to stop you and just run your plates and make sure you didn’t have any warrants. It was like they were decent individuals performing this indecent act, because that’s part of the system. 

I think that’s the challenge for them: They’ve got to extricate themselves from that system and become part of this new design that we’re putting together.

Everybody’s on the line just watching, waiting for justice to happen. But if it doesn’t happen, I feel like a lot of people, especially our youth, are going to come up and do what they’ve been doing to get attention, to hopefully get some type of justice. 

CesiA Abigail Baires, owner of Abi’s Cafe

Sahan Journal: We have this trial coming up, and the systemic issues that you all have been mentioning are not on trial. Derek Chauvin, the individual who allegedly did some specific actions is on trial. And I’m wondering how you see the relationship between that trial and a broader sense of what justice would look like.

Marian: I’m going to be honest, I want the man to rot in jail. I want him to be put away for the rest of his life. But just like we were talking about, it fixes one problem, it fixes one bad apple. I don’t like the narrative of reforming the police, because the start of the whole police system is trash. We need something new. 

Justice would mean for him to go to jail, but to hold the city accountable. It would be to change up our police system.

I want all of them to pay for what they did. Minneapolis police, Minnesota police departments, United States police departments. We need to take away that narrative of, they are untouchable. That’s when we’re going to get true justice, to me. Because I feel like a lot of immigrants, and a lot of my students, are starting to think that the police are untouchable. And I hate that. I hate that because I believe that.

Bullock: Everything that Marian just said. I think my instinctual body wants individual justice handed down. But I know justice, from our community, is about a path forward. That does not include the police, because the police and interaction with me and our community equals too many of these violent encounters. 

Justice means a path forward, which means we’re building something from the ground up that really speaks to public safety for everyone. That you don’t have to be a certain class of person, to be a certain racial identity of person, that we all are receiving equal justice under our laws that we agree need to be in place. 

That means justice is about how people are living. It means people are not living in these conditions where they are so desperate that their whole interaction with us socially is so twisted. That’s really what a lot of what we consider “crime” comes out of: People are living in such hopeless conditions that they actually consider that as a way forward. 

It’s not easy to go out and, you know, be a shooter or commit crimes. That’s a hard lifestyle, always looking over your shoulder: When is somebody coming to get you with their gun? Nobody chooses that: This is the life I want to have. That’s how the condition is put upon you, based on poverty, based on not having housing stability, based on not having family stability, based on having love and care around you constantly. 

So to me justice is really about the vision of our path forward. And that does not include this current police understanding.

For D.A. Bullock, a filmmaker and longtime community activist who now works with police abolition group Reclaim the Block, justice means not only a conviction for Derek Chauvin, but a path forward to build public safety without the current police framework. Credit: Courtesy D.A. Bullock

Mohamed: Like Marian said, I want him to pay for what he’s done and I think that’s important. There have to be consequences, and we have to show that police officers are not above the so-called justice that they claim to protect and uphold. 

And I think that’s important, that we need to hold them to the same standards. To be honest, I feel like we don’t even hold them to the same standards we do regular citizens. There’s no standards or expectations that we hold our police officers to. 

For me, justice is to see consequences, to see not only Chauvin, but the other police officers that watched as that murder took place, for them to also get the consequences for their action. If we look at it truly from the lens of justice, he has committed a crime. 

He has committed a crime against George Floyd, against George Floyd’s family, against George Floyd’s friends, all the people that knew who George Floyd was. He took the life of another man,  which is one of the biggest crimes. To see him brought to justice in this case is for him to go to jail and pay for his crime.

Baires: I feel one way for the whole department to wash their hands, they’re going to lean a lot towards the medical results of things: He didn’t die from that, he died from an overdose or he died from whatever he had in his mouth. I feel like that’d be like their last recourse: It wasn’t our fault. Let’s try and see if this man was really on something. So we can let you know this is why we’re not charging this police officer, because he is an overdose, or he was already on some type of controlled substance

Other than that I don’t see how this will play out for them. This time I feel like the percentage of people watching this trial is a lot higher. So they have to be really smart: If Floyd doesn’t get justice, then how are we going to avoid all this mess that could happen. 

Mohamed: We see a lack of empathy, we see a lack of humanity, and we see them acting like people are going to destroy their own communities. When this whole thing was happening, we saw people coming out to protect and stand up for what’s right. But also to make sure that they are there for each other, and that’s something that they don’t focus on. 

In my community we were together literally walking in the streets all over Cedar. They had the tanks and everything in the area. And we were all out there, and they act like we’re the problem. It pains me to see this. 

If justice is not served, I think the city should be afraid. Because people are not here to hurt each other. They’re out here to see the city also pay for their consequences for their part in this whole situation.

Marian: Mohamed said this really, really well. I don’t like that people are considering us dangerous. I don’t like that. I don’t like the fact that people are saying they’re ruining our city or they’re going to take down our city. And I’m already hearing some of that now. And our kids are hearing that too. 

It is interesting that people are not understanding the fact that people would be upset if this goes left. They have every right to be upset. And the fact that there’s no grace given to the citizens at all annoys me.

I think my instinctual body wants individual justice handed down. But I know justice, from our community, is about a path forward. That does not include the police, because the police and interaction with me and our community equals too many of these violent encounters. 

D.A. Bullock, community activist and filmmaker

Mohamed: Police officers are supposed to help de-escalate these situations, to ensure that people are safe and that they’re also safe. But you have these police officers escalating these situations. And then when the community reacts, they expect you to be quiet. They expect you take it easy, they expect you to de-escalate, they expect you to calm down. 

Marian: They have all the tools to de-escalate. And they have all the tools to escalate a situation. And they fully choose to escalate a situation. They want to show that sense of power.

Bullock: The governor recently proposed $35 million to do all this security. Now imagine if we would have taken that $35 million, and invested that in Cesia so she could have some community meals every week. Build around the community and the people in the community. Or invest it in Marian and her classroom, and have an opportunity for them to build and connect.

That investment is what is going to protect us and our buildings, regardless of what traumatic incident comes our way. That’s what’s going to protect us from going out on the street and feeling desperate and feeling like we want to destroy things. It’s a sense of a building around community and around people. 

What they’re investing in—the protection going around City Hall and the police precincts–is still not protecting her restaurant. So, it’s not even true protection that we’re investing in. It’s a protection of a handful of buildings, because they don’t want to be embarrassed and lose another police precinct.

Mohamed: Yep.

Bullock: We’ve just got to do better than that. That should be unacceptable from this point on. We really could be looking out for each other and protecting each other. 

Mohamed: Tensions weren’t even high coming into this. People were like, We want to see justice for George Floyd. We want to see Chauvin pay for his crime. But the moment they erect all these fences, all these protections and everything, people are like, What is going on here? Why are you doing this? I think people are fired up over that. And it’s just adding oil to the fire.

Bullock: It’s a provocation, for sure.

Marian: I was thinking, back in the summertime, early fall, when the idea of police reform was going crazy in the media in Minneapolis, the police officers banded together. Instead of saying, the community noticed that we need to do better, they got defensive. They got egotistical. 

The same people who have vowed to protect the community are the same people who are saying, Well, we hope that you guys have a situation where you need to call the cops and we’re not going to come. Why would you hope the worst on your community that you have said to serve? Why? So you can burst into my door and assume that I’m the one who’s doing the wrong when somebody could be attacking me in my home, and I’m the one who called you? 

They all have the theme of this fake power, this toxic masculinity. 

If I was the head of the police department, I would have seen everyone who said that. It would have been like, OK, you’re out. All you guys saying the same thing should have been out of the police department from the get-go. 

Marian Mohamed, an Eden Prairie High School special education and AVID teacher, says as her students prepare for the trial, they’re in a “weird middle of having hope, but gearing for the worst.” Credit: Courtesy Marian Mohamed

Sahan Journal: How are you and people in your communities preparing for the trial—mentally or otherwise? Marian, I’d like to hear about your students. 

Marian: It’s really cute. I love seeing how engaged my students are. My students were born in 2005–2006, so they had Obama and they had Trump. That’s all they know. So, a lot of them are in the dark, and they don’t know a lot of trial cases. But a lot of them are really jumping in and I love it. 

In the past I would have to embed a lesson where we would have this conversation. But now in my classes students are just openly talking, Oh Ms. Mohamed, did you hear they’re picking the jury. I was like, Oh, yeah! Let’s talk about it. And they’re having these discussions, and they’re having better discussions than a lot of adults are having at the moment. 

And I think that’s something that I really didn’t expect, mainly because our kids are sheltered. I have students from Eden Prairie who’ve lived in Eden Prairie. And then I have some students in Minneapolis who are giving their perspective. I have students who have immigrant families and parents, and they’re seeing America in a different light and they’re just drinking it up. 

They’re like, We need to have a say. I have kids who are planning on going to the silent marches, who are making posters, who are already being involved here at the high school. Quiet kids who are openly asking their teachers, Do you know what’s going on in the world? Do you know what’s going on in Minneapolis? They’re calling their teachers out and saying, Do you know what’s going on March 8? And just schooling them. 

I love that. I love that because I feel like true learning is when you grasp your own learning. 

Bullock: I love hearing that. I think the youth have been so brilliant and so in tune. And in many ways they’re the leaders in where we’re going to go with all of this. I feel like, especially my generation—I’m Generation X, I’m an old dude—we kind of failed. We failed the moment. 

The 30th anniversary of Rodney King and the L.A. uprising recently happened. And we did not embrace the moment to make sure that change actually happened. We were mollified and satisfied with a lot of just talk about change and reform and all these things, and put a lot of trust back into the system that we knew was corrupt. 

So I’m really, really happy to hear that young people are not taking that right now. They’re not going to believe that. They’re only going to believe what they see and feel in reality. Change is not going to be able to be tucked behind reform language. The same old stuff that they’re trotting out currently.

Police officers are supposed to help de-escalate these situations, to ensure that people are safe. But you have these police officers escalating these situations. And then when the community reacts, they expect you to be quiet.

Mohamed Mohamed, university of minnesota student

Just what I’m seeing in terms of community members doing for one another, I know at George Floyd square, they’re doing a lot of preparation around having kits for folks. Reclaim the Block and Black businesses are also helping in that and collaborating in that. The trial preparedness kids have everything from PPE to Know Your Rights information—the type of information that we know we need to have in these instances. 

We know how the system is going to respond. We know the system is going to say, yeah, you have all your First Amendment rights, and then they’re going to turn around and try to snatch those away from us immediately. 

I feel like there’s a great deal of preparation and people know what they need to do for their neighbors. They have mutual aid pods: Who do you call when you’re in this type of distress. And it’s not 911; it’s not 311. It’s this group of neighbors that you know is going to be there for you. 

I feel like there’s a great deal of responsibility and a great sense of rising to the occasion that’s happening right now. And I’m very heartened by that because my faith in the system is at an all-time low. 

Mohamed: Honestly, I think they’re scared of us. They know that people are fed up. The younger generation especially, they’re fearless. They are not scared to go out. Obviously police will escalate, they will provoke you, they will treat you as hostile just for being out of there, for standing up for what’s right. They’re going to treat you with a lot of hostility. They’re going to treat you as if you’re a number-one enemy. 

We see a lot of kids, we see a lot of young adults, we see a lot of teenagers that are going out there. Because they’re not afraid of police, they’re not afraid of the system. They are not afraid. I think that’s something that happens as you get older. It becomes harder to stand up because you’re just so used to it that you almost accept it. That’s something that I love about the younger generation: They’re not accepting this at all. Give us something better, we need better. And I think that’s something that we need to ask for as a community. 

In my community, they’re going to be out in the streets, I’m going to be out there with them. We’re going to be all over the place. But I think that’s something we have to show: If all of the city stands up at once, they really can’t do anything to us. It’s easy for them to stop one person, it’s easier for them to stop 100 people, 1000 people. But if there’s tens of thousands of us all over, it’s going to be very hard for them to stop us and to put a stop to our fight for justice.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.