Apr 11, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Chauvin trial leaves cities, activists across America on edge

Illustration of a row of gavels, with all but one of them transparent.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The impact of the Derek Chauvin trial is reverberating far beyond the walls of the downtown Minneapolis courtroom.

The state of play: With the trial set to enter its third week, activists across America are watching the proceedings unfold with heavy skepticism that what they perceive as justice will be served.

  • Plus, nearly a year after George Floyd’s death, cities are continuing to confront heightened tensions in their communities while taking steps to curb use of force among law enforcement and hold them accountable for unfair treatment of people of color.
  • "We still fear that this cycle of intergenerational trauma due to state-sanctioned violence will continue," said Apryl Alexander, a psychology professor at the University of Denver and local Black Lives Matter activist.

In Denver, where protests over Floyd’s death renewed attention to the 2019 police killing of Elijah McClain, Democratic state lawmakers recently introduced two bills aimed at preventing both tragedies from happening again.

  • One bill would, among other things, limit law enforcement's ability to use deadly force, allowing it only as a "last resort" after all other deescalation strategies have been exhausted.
  • The other responds directly to the McClain case and calls for guardrails for the use of ketamine — a powerful sedative McClain was injected with after officers used a chokehold on him — outside of hospital settings.
  • The Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the legislation, seeing it as excessive, the Colorado Sun reports.

Meanwhile, in Charlotte, Kass Ottley, a 56-year-old grandmother and one of the city’s most prominent activists, has been dealing with stomach pains while watching the trial. She’s sure they’re from the stress.

  • "I am praying they get this right," Ottley told Axios last week. "Because if not, the reaction is going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before."

Flashback: Both Ottley and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief Johnny Jennings said the Chauvin trial brings back memories of the 2015 mistrial of officer Randall "Wes" Kerrick, who shot Jonathan Ferrell, a Black man, 10 times in September 2013.

  • Like the Chauvin case, it seemed like clear-cut murder to many, including then-police chief Rodney Monroe, who arrested Kerrick within 18 hours of the incident.
  • The city settled a civil suit with Ferrell’s family just two months before the trial, but a jury couldn’t reach a verdict on criminal charges.
  • "I really thought we were going to get this right. This is going to be the one to change everything,” Ottley said of the Kerrick trial, echoing what many across America are saying about the Chauvin trial.

In Des Moines, the city passed an ordinance last June that prohibits racial profiling by police. It also created a new committee to make recommendations about how to further improve police enforcement.

  • But tensions remain high, frequently leading to calls to restore decorum during the city’s virtual meetings. Relations between the public — especially activists — and city officials have become so fraught that Mayor Frank Cownie is now pursuing new rules for City Hall.
  • That includes a weapons ban and the installation of metal detectors before the city resumes in-person meetings later this year.

Across Tampa Bay, organizers and activists felt anxious and hopeful but also jaded as the trial started.

  • Jae Passmore, who has been on the front lines of recent protests and was roughly arrested by Tampa police during a demonstration downtown last summer, said she was avoiding watching the trial.
  • "It's a tale as old as time," Passmore said. "From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, I don't need to re-traumatize myself with the acknowledgment that this country doesn't care about Black life by watching this trial."

This story contains reporting from Axios Charlotte's Michael Graff; Axios Denver's Alayna Alvarez; Axios Des Moines’ Jason Clayworth; and Axios Tampa Bay’s Ben Montgomery. Yacob Reyes contributed to this report.

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