Defining Safe: A Look Inside Minneapolis

Alex Chun, Reporter

SESP junior Jordan Walker shares her experience protesting racial injustice in Minneapolis. Since the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, protests have erupted around the world in response to long-standing systemic racism and police violence. Defining Safe tracked the past two weeks in Minneapolis and looked at the Minneapolis Police Department’s history. Minnesotan Northwestern students shared their experiences protesting.

ALEX CHUN: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun and this is Defining Safe, a podcast about marginalized communities from Northwestern. Before this episode begins, a content warning: this episode includes discussion, live recordings and shared accounts of police brutality, racism and violence, as well as explicit language.

MATTHEW LEE: So right now, I’m on my way to go pick up supplies for a couple friends, and then we’re gonna go on our way to Minneapolis and help do a community pick-up at Nicollet Mall. The reason why I’m going out today is because after sitting at home for the past three or four days, after the murder of George Floyd and seeing all the protests that are happening, I felt like there was something more that I wanted to do. 

ALEX CHUN: That’s Matthew Lee. He’s a Weinberg sophomore who lives in Maple Grove, Minnesota, a suburb outside of Minneapolis. It’s May 30, and he’s spent the past week-and-a-half buying and driving donations to various supply drop-off centers around the city to support protestors and community members in need. Matthew also attended numerous peaceful protests, government sit-ins and memorial gatherings in George Floyd’s honor. 

MATTHEW LEE: We went to the place right outside of Cup Foods, where George Floyd was murdered. They had a bunch of memorial places there. There’s like a mural on the wall where a lot of people brought flowers, and laid it down in front of it. 

ALEX CHUN: In the middle of the street was a chalkboard that asked people to write what they hoped for the future. “Racial equality,” “justice” and “healthcare for all” were just a few of the messages. And people spoke to the crowd.

PROTESTER: I’ve lived over North for most of my life. I’m a native here of north Minneapolis; this is my city too.  Open arms to young black activists like myself, ‘cause once you begin to dig deep and slowly lose that peaceful sleep, you will realize that nothing about this system is good for our black-ass health. Rise above it, y’all! Say his name! GEORGE FLOYD! Say his name! GEORGE FLOYD!

ALEX CHUN: As of June 16, 2020, over 100 black individuals have been shot and killed by the police this year. Last year, there were only 27 days that there were no deaths at the hands of police. 

While the movement for racial justice has been building for centuries, George Floyd’s death sparked mass gatherings and protests that haven’t been seen in decades. From major cities to rural towns, protests have erupted in all 50 states across the country, and they’ve even made their way to other countries. We’re taking you to the spark of the protests: Minneapolis, Minnesota.

PROTESTORS: No justice, no peace! Prosecute the police! No justice, no peace! Prosecute the police!

ALEX CHUN: On Monday night, May 25, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed 46-year-old black man George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Three other officers stood by and protected Chauvin from onlookers. The officers were responding to a call they received that claimed Floyd tried to cash in a counterfeit bill. 

The next day, many people woke up to the news and video of George Floyd’s death. One of them was SESP junior Jordan Walker. She lives in St. Anthony, a sub-region of Minneapolis.

JORDAN WALKER: As finals week is coming up and I’m trying to work on all my homework and all my assignments, like that was already very stressful. And then with like COVID(-19) happening, that’s also very stressful but now to feel like a duty to go out and protest something that’s happening within your own community. It’s just a lot to have to deal with and it has taken away from my ability to just focus on my schoolwork. It’s just very hard to form complete thoughts at the moment and just think as I normally do and as I know, I’m being expected to think.

ALEX CHUN: In 2016, a Minneapolis police officer killed a black man after pulling him over in St. Anthony, where Jordan lives. The victim’s name was Philando Castile. He was 32 years old. The officer was charged with second-degree manslaughter, but was not found guilty. 

JORDAN WALKER: Things here have been very reminiscent of the Philando Castile shooting, because at that time it was nearing summer. It was in St. Anthony. So it’s been just a lot of unrest. A lot of people just being reminded of how change wasn’t brought in Philando Castile’s case. So I think that really just amplifies the movement here. 

ALEX CHUN: Here’s Philando Castile’s mother in 2017.

VALERIE CASTILE: I am so disappointed in the state of Minnesota. My son loved this city, and this city killed my son, and the murderer gets away. Are you kidding me right now? Damn! What is it gonna take? I’m mad as hell right now, yes I am! My first born one son dead here in Minnesota.

ALEX CHUN: So after another racist police killing, people responded with even more grief and anger. Residents of Minneapolis mourned, and leaders called for action. Early Tuesday morning, May 26, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey addressed the public and called for the arrest of Derek Chauvin.

JACOB FREY: How could I not speak out when an offense took place that you or I or many other people through our city would have been behind bars if they did. Yet this particular individual, this officer was not.

ALEX CHUN: Also that morning, the Minneapolis Police Department released a statement calling Floyd’s death a “medical incident,” leaving out the fact that Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Later that afternoon, Mayor Frey announced that the four officers had been fired. At the same news conference, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said the Minneapolis Police Department would conduct an internal investigation. But many people felt the termination of the officers wasn’t enough. And at 5 p.m., the first protest began. 

PROTESTERS: Hands up! Don’t Shoot!

ALEX CHUN: The crowd marched from outside Cup Foods — where George Floyd was killed — to Minneapolis Police’s 3rd Precinct Station. Officers threw tear-gas canisters into the crowd. That evening, a squad car was set on fire and the station was vandalized.

On Wednesday, May 27, Mayor Frey called for the arrest of the officers involved. Throughout the day, peaceful protests took place. Protest groups marched to the Hennepin County Government Center. Others gathered where George Floyd was killed and painted murals and laid flowers in the streets. At night, the protests continued. Police at the scene used tear gas and rubber bullets. 

ALEX CHUN: The next day, Thursday, May 28, marches demanded change while gatherings honored George Floyd’s memory. Governor Tim Walz activated the Minnesota National Guard. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protestors again. That evening, the 3rd Precinct police station was burned down after Mayor Frey ordered police to exit the building. 

ALEX CHUN: That Friday, after three nights of protests, Chauvin was taken into custody, facing third-degree murder and manslaughter charges. This was the fastest an officer has been charged in Hennepin County; typically, these cases take nine months to a year. 

At this point, the other three officers hadn’t been charged, and many people were upset that Chauvin was only charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. 

Third-degree murder is the unintentional causing of a death through dangerous action or “without regard for human life.” Manslaughter charges are placed when someone unintentionally kills another person while committing an illegal act or the unintentional causing of another’s death due to anger after being provoked.

MATTHEW LEE: It was not an accident. He knew what he was doing and he knew that this position that he had on George Floyd was going to kill him. Initially I thought it should be second-degree murder right away.

ALEX CHUN: This isn’t the first time the Minneapolis Police Department has faced charges of police brutality. For example, let’s look at Chauvin — the officer who killed George Floyd. In the nearly two decades that Chauvin has been an officer, he has faced at least 17 misconduct complaints. 

Black residents, who make up about 20 percent of Minneapolis’ population, made up more than 60 percent of the victims in the city’s police shootings from late 2009 through May 2019. Minneapolis’ own current police chief once sued the department for tolerating racism. But the Minneapolis Police Department has been accused of never fully enacting federal recommendations to track complaints and punish officers — with just a handful over the years facing any form of punishment. Jordan says Minneapolis residents are tired of the abuse of power by leadership. 

JORDAN WALKER: Everybody is already very frustrated with how our government has been handling everything going on with corona(virus) going on and just how people are already dying because there’s just so much corruption in our system. It’s almost the last straw. People are like “OK, our government truly does not care about us.” 

ALEX CHUN: So, why would it be so difficult to punish Minneapolis police officers? First, police police themselves. Officers look at cases and complaints in their own departments, then decide if and how the officer should be punished. This usually plays out in the officer’s favor. And it has played out over and over again. 

Like in 2010, when 28-year-old black man David Cornelius Smith was killed after two Minneapolis police officers held him down, one keeping a knee on his neck for four minutes. After an internal investigation, the officers faced no charges. 

Second, police officers are allowed to appeal firings and other disciplinary action. Forty-six percent of the time, the Minnesota board that deals with these cases reinstated officers after they were fired. Next, police unions protect police officers. The union president in Minneapolis, Bob Kroll, has 29 complaints against him. In an interview released on June 3, Mayor Frey stated that the police union is the “elephant in the room with regard to making the changes necessary to combat the institutionalized racism.” 

Police are also protected by the legal concept of “reasonable fear.” If the officer is able to make the argument that an officer would have feared for their life or a fellow officer’s life, the jury is not supposed to convict them. 

That Friday, the 29th, Minneapolis announced a temporary curfew. Despite the curfew, protests continued throughout the day and night. Police and Minnesota State Patrol troopers shot projectiles at protesters and used tear gas. 

ALEX CHUN: On Saturday, May 30, the Minnesota National Guard fully mobilized. Governor Tim Walz activated over 5,000 troops  a move that hasn’t happened in Minneapolis since World War II. Early that morning, at around 2 a.m., Governor Tim Walz addressed the public.

TIM WALZ: This is not about George’s death. This is not about inequities that were real. This is about chaos being caused.

ALEX CHUN: But on the ground, many people felt differently. 

PROTESTOR: Malcolm X once said I am black first. I am not interested in being American because America has never been interested in me. Confused, abused, shut up and locked up, and I’m supposed to adapt to this society? White face, finger trace, cold face, black space, fill it with the black man’s name that has been misplaced. And that man could be my father. Accused of stealing cigarettes or twirlin’ a little girl’s barrettes and then shot, killed, dead before being put under arrest. That man could be my brother. Walking down the street with Skittles and a sweet tea then shot dead for disturbing the peace. This has to stop! This has to end! Constantly worrying about my brother, my father, my friend. We are fighting for y’all.

ALEX CHUN: This particular memorial was at the site where George Floyd was killed. Flowers dedicated to George lined the street and speakers shared poems, thoughts and memories through an open mic. Matthew Lee had been to a few peaceful protests, memorials and the Minneapolis government sit-in by this point but he said the memorial was especially powerful.

MATTHEW LEE: The emotions there were so raw, and you could really feel the sense of anger and sadness from the black community. It’s something that you can’t really feel when you’re just watching from the sidelines at home. And just being right there, we’re on the same street where George Floyd was murdered, and really feeling the grievances from the black community was very, very impactful in me. I’m trying my best to understand somewhat of what the community is going through.

ALEX CHUN: On Sunday, May 31, a no-bail protest for the officers involved in George Floyd’s death took place in Minneapolis. The protestors wanted to start at the U.S. Bank Stadium at 3:15 p.m. Jordan, Matthew and I were at the protest.

ALEX CHUN: So, I’m currently here with Jordan Walker. Jordan, can you tell me a little bit about your decision to come out today?

JORDAN WALKER: Yeah, absolutely. My parents were definitely very worried about my safety, but in all actuality, we are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for our safety, so I decided to be here regardless of whatever homework I have because no matter what, the fact that people need to live, like you cannot deny people the right to live and the right to safety. That is more important than any assignment I have ever been assigned, so I’m just going to be here today.

ALEX CHUN: How big is the crowd here today?

JORDAN WALKER: It is really big. I can’t even count how many people are here. I have to say, like a lot of the city. I know people are coming from out of the state and out of the city, too.

ALEX CHUN: What does it mean for you to see these numbers of people here?

JORDAN WALKER: Honestly, it means that people care, like people are willing to give up whatever they were going to do today and come out here and risk their safety for this issue, so it means a lot to see all these people.

ALEX CHUN: The crowd was around 6,000 people. We were near the front. The crowd moved through Minneapolis and stopped at University Avenue just above the 35W highway.

ALEX CHUN: Protesters have filled the city, have filled the bridge. They’re on the streets and honestly, it’s just numbers here.

ALEX CHUN: So, the group is now moving down to the highway and protesting there.

PROTESTORS: Hands up! Don’t shoot. Hands up! Don’t shoot. Hands up! Don’t shoot.

JORDAN WALKER: Not a lot of cars are being able to get through, some are on the other side, not on this side. But for the most part, we’re occupying the entire freeway just marching right now.

PROTESTORS: Say his name! GEORGE FLOYD. Say his name! GEORGE FLOYD. Say his name! GEORGE FLOYD.

ALEX CHUN: Protestors took both sides of the highway, filling any space they could. There were so many people that when I turned around, I couldn’t see the end of the group. As we marched, the freeway turned into a bridge. To our right was the city of Minneapolis. The group stopped, kneeled and took a moment of silence. A leader of the protest began to address us. She told us that Mayor Frey was on his way to listen to the protestors.

PROTEST LEADER: I’m gonna pass the microphone, but I wanna say just one more time. YOU ALL ARE BEAUTIFUL!

ALEX CHUN: The moment was just that, beautiful. 

PROTEST LEADER: WE’RE ALL HERE TOGETHER, IN A UNIFIED VOICE, AND THE ONLY THING WE WANT IS JUSTICE. (Cheers). We’re sitting here, we’re causing no harm, no damages to buildings. The community is supporting us, people at home are supporting us.

And then just a few moments later…a semi-truck drove through the crowd. The only thing separating Matthew and Jordan from the truck was the highway divider.

MATTHEW LEE: So we were all just on the highway, sitting peacefully on the highway, we were waiting for Mayor Frey to come to the highway and speak to us, and out of the blue we hear a bunch of commotion and everyone saying, “Move, move, move. Get to the side, get to the side.” And I saw a glimpse on the other side of the highway of a big semi-truck just bulldozing through, and that’s when chaos just started. Everyone started dispersing trying to get off the highway, and it’s just, and everyone was just scrambling to get to safety. I’m here with my, the group that I came with, and luckily we’re all safe but I don’t know about everybody else… I just don’t know… it’s just so upsetting. Just so upsetting.

JORDAN WALKER: People were yelling “Run! Run!” People saying, “I don’t deserve to die,” there were people in so much shock they couldn’t even move. They were just having breakdowns in the streets. And after that, there was no news coverage. No one knew what was going on. We heard there were cars driving around without plates. People weren’t sure if people were gonna start shooting. It was just a fear for our lives at that point. But luckily, we are at a safe place right now thanks to the generosity of a Minneapolis resident. That’s just what’s happening right now. It’s just a lot of shock right now. 

ALEX CHUN: The driver of the truck was eventually released without charges, on the grounds that his action was unintentional. 

MATTHEW LEE: My initial thoughts was that somebody was going to jump out of the truck and start shooting everybody. And so I remember being told by someone that we had to run off the highway onto the other side into the grass, get off the road. Once we got off, just emotion and sadness started to fill my body because in my head, I was thinking that a big group of 5,000 or so of us were peacefully protesting. And someone terrible, with terrible intentions in their mind came through to disrupt that peaceful protest. It felt like my hope that things could change was just shattered at that one moment.

ALEX CHUN: On Tuesday, June 2, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights filed a civil rights charge related to Floyd’s death and launched an investigation examining the “policies, procedures, and practices over the past 10 years” to determine if the police department “has engaged in systemic discriminatory practices towards people of color and ensure any such practices are stopped,” a statement said. 

The next day, all four officers were charged in Floyd’s death. The other three officers involved in the incident were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. Derek Chauvin also received an additional second-degree murder charge. But protests against long-standing systemic racism haven’t stopped.

JORDAN WALKER: I have met a lot of representatives who have advocated for change within how our city treats black people, but also Minneapolis has a long history of segregation. I would say that’s like anti-black in itself by seeing that there is a problem and by just continuing on and not working against it. You are part of the problem if you do nothing because you recognize that there is something that should be done. You’re not working against it, so therefore you are working in favor of it.

PROTESTOR: Jacob Frey, we have a “Yes” or “No” question for you. Yes or no: Will you commit to defunding Minneapolis’ Police Department?

ALEX CHUN: On Friday, June 6, Mayor Frey attended a public protest.

PROTESTOR: What did I say? We don’t want no more police.

ALEX CHUN: The protestors demanded an answer, reminding the crowd that Frey is up for reelection next year.

PROTESTOR: And if he says no, guess what the f–k we’re going to do next year. What did you say? Louder, one more time. 

JACOB FREY: I do not support the full abolition of the police.

PROTESTORS: All right! You’re wasting our time. Get the f–k out of here. Get the f–k out. Go home, Jacob. Go home. Go home, Jacob. Go home. Go home, Jacob. Go home. 

ALEX CHUN: But on June 7, the Minneapolis City Council voted to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and redirect funding to community-based initiatives. However, to make significant changes to the MPD, they will likely need a public vote of approval as well. Minneapolis City Council President, Lisa Bender, announced the plan.

LISA BENDER: Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.

ALEX CHUN: On June 12, 2020 protestors gathered outside of the police union headquarters and demanded the resignation of the union president Bob Kroll. A banner held by protestors read, “Bob Kroll has blood on his hands.” Around the words were the handprints of protestors in red paint. George Floyd’s death happened around three weeks ago, and protests continue to take place in Minneapolis.

ALEX CHUN: And protests have continued to pop up across the country, with some people calling for the abolishment of the police…. Protests have even spread to South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

JORDAN WALKER: I would say a big thing I think we should remember from this, it’s the responses people were having, to not just the death but to the protesting. One, taking notice to how the police responded to this situation. Two, taking notice to how the media has been just narrating what’s going on in a way that’s not actually true of what’s happening. 

The moral is some people are just never going to be OK with any type of protest if it’s truly for a situation they don’t care about. After the protest of kneeling, people were like, “Oh my god, like, why are you doing that? There’s a better way to do it. After the protests of people sitting on the freeway, people were like, “Oh, there’s a better way of doing that.” Like no matter what form of protest, people are just not going to be happy. It’s not because they actually believe that there’s a better way of doing it, it’s just because they truly just don’t believe the issue is that big enough or that impactful not to disrupt their daily lives. 

MATTHEW LEE: For now, I just want justice for the black community. For what happened to George Floyd. And I want to make sure the black community’s voice is heard. And I just hope that the conversation doesn’t die out, and we continue to have these dialogues.

JORDAN WALKER: I hope that more people are coming to us to the realization that the system is corrupt, and our government truly does not care about us. They don’t really care about the working class people. And like, how the fact that it’s so difficult to make change in this country just shows how broken our system is, and I hope people just wake up to that.

ALEX CHUN: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by me, Alex Chun. The audio editor of the Daily is Molly Lubbers. The digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The summer editor in chief is Emma Edmund. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @apchun01

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