Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin listens as defense attorney Eric Nelson gives closing arguments Monday during his trial. Credit: Court TV via AP, Pool

A Hennepin County jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder in the death of George Floyd, a fateful legal finding in a sweeping conflict over race and policing in Minnesota—and the nation. It marks the first time in modern memory a Minnesota police officer has been convicted in the death of a Black man. 

The guilty verdict stands out as a landmark after a string of Black men died at the hands of Minnesota law enforcement in recent years, including Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Isak Aden, Dolal Idd, and, last week, Daunte Wright. Floyd’s killing last May drew huge international attention: Video footage of the gruesome cruelty, captured by a teenage bystander, went viral, sparking a new phase of the Black Lives Matter movement. Millions of people took to the streets to call for justice, resulting in the largest protest movement in American history.

In early June, thousands marched through the streets in northeast Minneapolis during a rally organized by the activist group Black Visions. The march culminated in front of Jacob Frey’s apartment, where demonstrators confronted the mayor and asked if he would commit to defunding the MPD. Frey declined and was booed by the crowd. Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

Both locally and nationwide, the George Floyd killing triggered some of the most widespread civic unrest in half a century. The protests led all the way to the White House, where then–President Donald Trump deployed troops who used tear gas to clear peaceful demonstrators for a photo op at a church.

On the ground, Floyd’s killing ignited some of the most dramatic turmoil in the state’s recent history. The civil unrest, driven by genuine community anger and outsider agitators with extremist beliefs, inflicted massive damage on south Minneapolis, including many immigrant businesses. It created health care deserts for people of color and exacerbated the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also galvanized organizing in communities of color. Immigrant business owners, frustrated by a lack of police protection, started their own community patrols. Students of color demanded their schools cut ties with police—and often won. This week, Minnesota students joined an almost unprecedented statewide walkout. 

The movement for Black lives resonated across Minnesota’s diverse ethnic groups: Asian Minnesotans organized their own communities to understand anti-Black racism. Young Somalis, embracing their Black identity, stepped forward in solidarity with African Americans. Immigrants from East African backgrounds cited their experience joining the George Floyd protests to lead demonstrations for Oromo rights.

And the movement spurred changes at the state legislature, from a police reform bill last summer to a push to increase teachers of color in Minnesota classrooms.

In a sense, the trial came freighted with that social burden. And yet, what played out in the courtroom focused on the awful and ineluctable facts that emerged over the nine minutes and 29 seconds that Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck.

People raise their fists at George Floyd’s memorial during a rally on Sunday, April 18. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

On May 25, 2020, a cashier at Cup Foods, a south Minneapolis convenience store, called Minneapolis police after Floyd apparently used a counterfeit $20 bill to purchase cigarettes. Two Minneapolis police officers arrived on the scene, pointed a gun at Floyd, handcuffed him, and attempted to move him into the back of a police car. Floyd pleaded that he was claustrophobic. 

Floyd, who grew up in Houston, came to Minneapolis looking for a fresh start. He’d struggled with drugs and spent time in prison in Texas. In Minneapolis, he attended rehab, worked at the Salvation Army, met his girlfriend, and continued to struggle with opioid addiction.

In recent years, he’d worked as a bouncer at a Minneapolis restaurant and salsa dance club, before losing his job in a pandemic-induced layoff. Friends described Floyd as respectful, humorous, and protective of loved ones and customers. He’d been the first in his family to go to college, played football and basketball, recorded rap tracks, kept his Bible close, and loved his mother. 

At Cup Foods that night, two additional officers, including Derek Chauvin, arrived as backup. Chauvin pulled Floyd out of the squad car and pinned him on the ground, pressing his knee into his neck for more than nine minutes. 

Teenage bystanders filmed the encounter as Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe,” describing his pain and calling for his mother. Other passersby, including a mixed martial artist and an off-duty Minneapolis firefighter (who is also an emergency medical technician), pleaded with Chauvin and his fellow officers to stop, pointing out that Floyd was having trouble breathing.

The bystanders called out when Floyd stopped talking and appeared to lose consciousness. They pleaded with Chauvin and the other officers to get off him. But Chauvin did not remove his knee from Floyd’s neck until an ambulance arrived and an EMT asked him to get up. Floyd had already been unconscious for several minutes. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

After Floyd’s murder, the intersection at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue transformed into a makeshift memorial for Floyd. Hundreds of people filled the street in protest. This image was made just after midnight on May 31, amid a curfew and continued Minnesota National Guard presence in an effort to quell the unrest. Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

‘When it comes to the cops, we’re all the same thing’

Mass protests on the streets of Minneapolis and the surrounding area proliferated following Floyd’s killing. The protests for racial justice would take over streets and cities, nationally and internationally, throughout the summer.

In the days and nights immediately after Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, law enforcement cracked down on protestors along Lake Street and outside of MPD’s Third Precinct, frequently showering crowds with tear gas and other nonlethal weapons. Tensions escalated. Soon, looting and property damage across Lake Street and surrounding byways became pervasive at night. On the third night of civil unrest, crowds set fire to MPD’s Third Precinct after officers abandoned the building.

By the end of the upheaval, roughly 1,300 businesses in Minneapolis alone reported damage totalling some $350 million. Several of these businesses were owned by immigrants, who offered mixed emotions when speaking about what had just transpired. Hassan Hamid, who owned a Lake Street electronics shop called Power Wireless, spoke that week of how he wanted to see justice for Floyd. At the same time, he brooded over the fact that he’d lost $100,000 worth of equipment, despite boarding up his shop repeatedly that week.

“I don’t even have enough cash to bring this business back again,” Hamid said at the time

Similarly, Mauro, the general manager of La Mexicana Grocery on Lake Street, told Sahan Journal that he and other business owners chased people with crowbars during the night—self-policing their businesses. While lamenting how his store got looted, Mauro, who didn’t want to disclose his last name, also backed justice for George Floyd.

“He should not have gone through that, and died that way,” Mauro said. “I hope he’s in heaven, and may his soul rest in peace.”

While immigrant entrepreneurs absorbed what was happening, younger immigrants identified anew with the racial justice movement. People like Hanaan Osman, a young Somali, regularly brought medical supplies and equipment to the intersection that would later become George Floyd Square. Hanaan spoke about how her perspective on race differed from people in her parents’ generation. 

“We have a different viewpoint than our moms and aunts and uncles because we learned in our schools American history,” she said. 

Abdihakim Abdi also frequently went to the spot of Floyd’s death in those days to show his solidarity, pumping his first in the air and shouting, “No justice, no peace.” As an immigrant who came to the U.S. as an infant, he made it a point to also identify as Black. 

“When it comes to the cops,” he said, “we’re all the same thing.”

Protesters clad in hats, gloves, and winter jackets march in front of the boarded-up Third Precinct in late October. Demonstrations continued throughout the Twin Cities area long after national attention faded in early summer. People continued to demand justice for Minnesotans killed by police and held rallies in solidarity with other victims of police violence. This march was for Walter Wallace, a Black man who was fatally shot by Philadelphia police the day before. Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

A diverse jury comes to a quick verdict

The court interviewed 131 potential jurors. Two jurors who were originally selected were dismissed after the city of Minneapolis reached a $27 million settlement with Floyd’s family before testimony began. 

The 12 member jury included three Black men, two of whom are immigrants; one Black woman; two multiracial women; two white men; and four white women. The jury was half white, half people of color, making it more racially diverse than Hennepin County, which is 74 percent white and 14 percent Black.

The state called 38 witnesses in 11 days to make the case that Chauvin’s actions were criminal and unjustified. Eyewitnesses, law enforcement, medical experts, and policing experts testified for the prosecution, which also used video evidence, to try to prove that Floyd was killed by Chauvin and that the former officer’s use-of-force was unjustified and against department policy.  

Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, called seven witnesses over two days including an eyewitness, a use-of-force expert, and a retired medical examiner. The defense argument attempted to show that Chauvin’s use-of-force was reasonable and that Floyd’s health problems and substance abuse were primary causes of death.

After less than a day of deliberations, the jury found Chauvin guilty on all counts: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.

As the judge read the three guilty verdicts, Chauvin’s body remained stiff, while his eyes darted back and forth. He blinked, curtly nodded his head, and then rose, placing his hands behind his back in anticipation of being handcuffed by a Hennepin County Sheriff’s deputy.

In late June, a family walks among the headstones in Say Their Names Cemetery, an art installation in south Minneapolis memorializing victims of police violence. Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

‘An unprecedented moment’

Immigrant activists who have been at the forefront of protests since the killing of Floyd say that they hope the verdict will lead to broader change. 

Jaylani Hussein, the executive director for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he welcomes the guilty verdict but that justice will have to happen outside of the courthouse.

When asked what that would look like, Jaylani said, “It means accountability for police officers. It means police officers are held to a higher standard. For the first time in a long time, police officers will not be given excuses when they kill Black and brown people.”

Burhan Israfael, a Somali American community organizer, said he hopes Floyd’s family will find relief in the verdict. Among his fellow community activists, Burhan added that people are exhausted.

“They’re really frustrated with the whole process of how police continuously have the benefit of the doubt,” Burhan said. “It takes a lot of effort, a lot of cameras, and testimonies. It takes a mountain of evidence for someone to be found guilty of something.”

Still, he was surprised to see how the trial played out and said the fact that Minneapolis police officers testified against Chauvin was “an unprecedented moment.”

For Burhan, it’s not just about Chauvin. There are other families who lost loved ones to police brutality waiting to see accountability. He hopes that this one verdict will encourage more accountability. 

Iman Hassan is a pro-bono civil rights lawyer in Minneapolis who has also participated in protests against police violence. She also said she hopes the verdict will bring peace to the Floyd family, but she added that it is just one form of justice.

“Chauvin had the ability to murder someone on the streets of Minneapolis in front of multiple people because of a system that has backed his impunity for many years,” Iman said. “True justice would be full reform of a legal system that allows men like Chauvin to get away with killing our community members.”

The three other former Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s killing will face trial in late August. Former officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao, face charges for aiding and abetting second degree murder and aiding and abetting second degree manslaughter.

Some efforts are in place to reform the legal system in Minnesota. Several local activists are calling for a federal investigation for patterns of systemic violations in police departments. Democrats in the Minnesota House are pushing for police reform in the state legislature, with Senate Republicans agreeing to hear public safety measures this session. 

Minneapolis residents will also have the opportunity to vote to amend the city charter and create a reimagined public safety department in November.

This is a developing story; it will be updated throughout the day.

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

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...