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George Floyd: Derek Chauvin trial unleashes painful dis...



George Floyd: Derek Chauvin trial unleashes painful discussions about race relations in the US

Protesters march through downtown Minneapolis during the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged in the death of George Floyd. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Craig Lassig)

The ongoing trial of former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, charged with killing George Floyd, leads this writer to contemplate Minneapolis, Minnesota, and their connections to the American experience — bright and dark sides both.

For decades, many Americans were regaled by the lives and foibles profiled by Garrison Keillor, a teller of tales about the mythic town of Lake Wobegon located not so very far from the very real Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Keillor would signal each broadcast, saying, “Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” He wove his stories into several best-selling books and an enormously popular show, on air for four decades on National Public Radio, The Prairie Home Companion, relayed from Minneapolis. There was even a feature film about the show. (See Keillor’s show performed live here and here.

The inhabitants of Keillor’s imaginary landscape were almost inevitably calm, courteous, taciturn, introspective and unfailingly kind. Always kind.

Like the real inhabitants of that part of the country, they were significantly the descendants of Scandinavian immigrants to America who had arrived in the latter half of the 19th century, eager to improve upon their hard lives back in northern Europe where, too often, the primary crop on their peasant fields had been rocks.

Industrious and hard-working, these immigrants had turned open prairie and northern forests into bountiful grain and dairy farms, a living evocation of a rural and small-town world that only needed a good soundtrack to be redolent of earthly paradise.

But, along the way, there were a few serpents in that garden. The aboriginal inhabitants had to be removed, generating, first, skirmishes and then larger conflicts between the arriving settlers and those Native Americans, and then between US Army detachments and the original inhabitants. 

Even amid the American Civil War, some of these battles had taken place, and the Native Americans who had been defeated were then driven into smaller and smaller expanses of tribal lands or forcibly deported to lands yet further west. In some cases, their warriors were tried and found guilty in summary courts martial and sometimes hanged for their efforts at having defended their way of life and lands.      

Even now, Minnesota — and especially its twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul — remains an urban home base for one of the largest populations of Native Americans on the continent. And many of these people — although not all, of course — still exist at the margins of the larger society, with higher than average rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and other social pathologies.

For anyone not a resident of that place, the prevailing image of Minneapolis can derive from sources such as the long-running television series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It took place in the television newsroom of a local Minneapolis TV station, and conflicts among staff members were almost always polite and friendly — typical of Minnesotans — by the time each episode ended. 

Some years ago, while I was back in the United States on an extended vacation and family visit from an overseas assignment, I had been crisscrossing the country to catch up with friends and relatives living and working in such far-flung places as Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Minneapolis-St Paul. One cousin was living in the Twin Cities, working on his PhD, and so I stayed with him and his wife for a week or so to catch up and look around at things. 

Foolishly, perhaps, I did this in the middle of a Minnesota winter. Winter in that part of the world is nothing to sneeze at, with its weather patterns arriving directly from the Arctic. We’re thinking here of “Dr Zhivago”-style winters. Garages have small engine heaters hung from their ceilings so vehicle motors don’t freeze up overnight, cracking the engine block once the oil has congealed in the subzero temperatures. 

Fortunately, the city had a good public transit system and a bus stop very close to my relative’s apartment and the city’s buses came along frequently and predictably on time.

The Twin Cities seemed prosperous and thriving. They served as headquarters for several national manufacturing, food processing and financial giants; the state capital’s offices and legislature (in St Paul) were there; various professional sports teams, several renowned universities; first-class orchestras, excellent museums and art galleries were located downtown and in expansive public parks; and a compact but interesting neighbourhood of small galleries, coffee shops, and book stores was worth exploring as well.

Looking at much of it on my own, Minneapolis-St Paul seemed a really pleasant, civilised place to live and work in, just so long as you had warm, well-insulated clothing, sturdy winter boots, and good heating in your home — and a car engine heater, of course. It had much of the flavour of an urban version of Lake Wobegon.

One morning, when I had boarded the bus en route to one of the city’s museums, I had hardly sat down when an older woman also boarded and promptly sat next to me. She smiled in a big, open and friendly way, and started a conversation about where I was from (she obviously had spotted an outsider); did I like this city; what did I do for a living; tell me about your family, a whole roster of questions. Then she pulled a small folder of photographs from her bag to show me pictures of her grandchildren and her prize garden. By the time our ride was over, I was half expecting a dinner invitation. 

After a few days of this kind of thing, and from all the other conversations I was having in public spaces with strangers, I began to realise that the old Scandinavian virtue of grim taciturnity had largely been turned on its head in Minnesota. People felt no compunction to hold back, and they genially eased into conversations with total strangers.

One morning, while sitting at a bright, cheery, artisanal coffee shop near one of the big galleries, I struck up a casual conversation with the waitress (the word, waitron, had not yet been invented). She was a young woman taking university classes part-time, as is often the style of Americans. I mentioned to her that Minnesotans seemed particularly friendly and open to total strangers, telling them nearly everything about themselves in a matter of a few minutes. That was not something I was particularly used to in Washington, or in any of the places outside the country I had lived in.

True to form, my server proceeded to tell me her life story too. As I remarked on this proclivity on the part of people there, I learnt she was studying art and marketing, and that I shouldn’t be completely deceived about the warmth and friendliness of Minnesotans. She told me, among other things, that her partner was an artist and instructor — and, oh, he was an African-American — and that many people she knew were less than sanguine about that particular detail, including some family members. 

I wasn’t really expecting such a disclosure, possibly because of Minnesota’s small percentage of African-Americans among its total population, and also, perhaps, because of the relatively recent history of the Twin Cities and the state.

Minnesota had been a place where many of its leading politicians — first as local officials, then as congressmen and senators, and then, later, as vice presidents in the cases of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, to name but two — had been particularly active in pushing hard, and pushing early, for federal civil rights legislation during the Democratic Party’s national conventions, and in Congress, back when the party was still substantially in thrall to Dixiecrat, segregationist Southerners.

Launching their own, new pro-civil rights and other progressive measures Farmer-Labor Party, they had eventually taken over the old, staid Democratic Party itself, in that state. Moreover, Minnesota was never really fertile ground for any of the three incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan.

Derek Chauvin trial
A mother and daughter pose for a photograph at the George Floyd memorial on 29 March 2021, the site where Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US. (Photo: EPA-EFE b/Craig Lassig)

To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about that particular conversation for some years, that is, until the death of George Floyd in 2020, following his confrontation with police over a counterfeit $20 bill. Thereafter, of course, following Floyd’s death, there is now the still-ongoing, globally televised trial of now-former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder.

The trial is tied to the undisputed fact that after apprehending Floyd, Chauvin put his knee across Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes, virtually guaranteeing the already handcuffed man would die at the hands of arresting officers. 

Chauvin is now standing trial on second- and third-degree murder charges, and he has already been fired as a policeman. The trial is firmly on course to become a national bellwether of police behaviour and community relations for American cities and towns — representing a bitter truth that far too many black men lose their lives at the hands of the very people sworn to maintain peace and order in America’s towns and cities. As a result, Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s trial are now paired metaphors for the larger, difficult state of race relations in America. 

Such a painful observation has become the case for black and white Americans, but also for observers, friends, and critics of American society around the world. In the unlikely chance Chauvin is found not guilty of the charges, or if he is judged guilty but the sentence he receives is a mere slap on the wrist, such results are almost certain to exacerbate the already rocky state of police-civilian relations in many jurisdictions.

Such an outcome would prove to many that when the police are called out for dangerous, violent behaviour against African-Americans, the police wagons are quickly circled and police too often get away with their behaviour, regardless of its egregiousness. The blue wall holds, almost no matter what, is the view.

Trying to reconcile these contradictory images of Minnesota and the Twin Cities means embracing the reality that the country is not some giant-sized Lake Wobegon, overflowing with love, respect and the milk of human kindness. There remains unfinished business in the achievement of racial equality and equal treatment for all its citizens. Police forces need to build — or, importantly, rebuild — relationships with their respective communities in many places, and, simultaneously, to find ways to move away from the increasing militarisation and forceful operating styles in many police forces that pour flammable liquids on to potentially or already dangerous flashpoints. 

As The New York Times reported the other day, “After Mr Floyd’s death and the unrest that followed, Lieutenant [Richard] Zimmerman [the most senior policeman in Minnesota, who had just testified at Chauvin’s trial] was among 14 veteran police officers who published a public letter condemning Mr Chauvin. He had ‘failed as a human and stripped George Floyd of his dignity and life’, the officers wrote, adding that a ‘vast majority’ of police officers felt the same. The officers said in the letter, which was addressed to the citizens of Minneapolis, that they hoped to regain the public’s trust. ‘This is not who we are,’ they wrote.”

The nation as a whole needs to remember police forces are, too often, an imperfect tool for dealing with many of the problems of the country’s cities, even in the best of circumstances. But levels of acceptance of that fact, as pointed out by Lt Zimmerman and his fellow officers, depends on rebuilding trust between civilians and police forces where it has now been sundered. That will be no small task in many cities.

Along with everything else, of course, in light of the ongoing plague of mass killings by civilians of other civilians in locations scattered across the nation, it would certainly help if the national flood of firearms could also be reduced, but that deserves its own, separate, and painful discussion. DM


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