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Derek Chauvin's Trial Is A Significant Moment In Our History


Watching the ongoing murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd, has been excruciating. The testimony of the witnesses, many of whom wept on the stand, the video evidence that played over and over - the last minutes of Floyd's life with Chauvin's knee pressed on his neck. The emotions have been particularly sharp for Black people in this country, and those who are from Minneapolis. Yesterday, I spoke with Michele Norris and Charles Blow. Norris is a former NPR host who was raised in Minneapolis. She's now a columnist for The Washington Post. And Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times who recently went to Minneapolis for the trial.

Michele, I'm going to start with you. This is all playing out in your hometown. You grew up 10 blocks from where George Floyd was killed. And you wrote on Twitter - and I'm going to quote here - "Y'all take care of yourself and your people. If you're tracking this trial, this is trauma. Watching it, watching others who watch it and are forever haunted, watching and waiting to see the impact on the 12 jurors watching all of this. So take care." Tell me your thoughts watching this trial.

MICHELE NORRIS: I'm traumatized, and I'm hurt and I'm angry and anguished for my hometown and for the nation. What we are seeing here is collective trauma. Everyone who took the stand who witnessed this talked about being haunted, talked about feeling helpless. I've been talking to my people in Minneapolis, you know, all week, especially this week. And, you know, there are a lot of tears. I think people watching this not just in this country but all over the globe are stunned and saddened by what they're seeing because you may have seen the video, but now you're seeing it in 3D, and this is a new dimension of this trial. You know, you saw it inside, out, close. You heard his breathing in a way that was so intimate. So what Derek Chauvin did was horrible on so many levels, but we look in this trial at what he did to George Floyd. This trial invites us to think about what he did to a nation and what he did to the city and what he did in particular to that community and the people who drive by that block every day, to the children, to the elders, to the homeowners. And I can say with certainty that he probably would not have done that 20 blocks west or 20 blocks south or even 15 blocks south, where people sit in sidewalk cafes and - you know, and go to patisseries and artisanal pizzerias. He was making a statement about George Floyd, and he was also making a statement about that community, and we all pay the price for that now in our pain.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charles, you visited the place where George Floyd was killed this past week. And on Twitter, you said that watching the trial made you not sad or hurt but angry. What are you thinking?

CHARLES BLOW: Well, first, I agree with what Michele said about trauma. There's this idea within trauma research called vicarious traumatization, which is, you know, when something doesn't necessarily happen to you but because you see yourself in the person who is being harmed, you experience the trauma in very much the same way as if it were you. And so that is happening. And what it recalls for me is all the historical resonance that this has, particularly for Black people in this country. You know, when the enslaved were punished, it was - part of it was demonstrative illustration to the rest of the enslaved community - a terror tactic. And so that idea, when I hear the voice of Chauvin on the tapes talking about how big he was, and he had to be controlled - that idea of controlling Black bodies, Black populations is almost inherent in American history and the American narrative. The second part - the thing that I would point out is police officers are granted, by culture and by politics and by the judiciary, a kind of hero status. And we collectively look at them as not the perpetrators of criminality and violence, but the protectors of us against it. And so they walk into the courtroom with a privilege that we have granted them. And in addition to that, what we are waiting to see is whether or not this particular case is egregious enough. Did it - can it clear the hurdle that society has put up to protect officers from ever being held accountable for any action?

NORRIS: You know, to Charles's point, one of the many extraordinary things about this trial is that, in many cases - in fact, in most cases, when police officers are put on trial after a racialized killing of an unarmed Black person, there is usually this so-called blue wall of silence. The officers - the Fraternal Order of Police - the police fall in line. What you're seeing here is - under direct and then under cross-examination, are cases where the police officers are stepping outside of that and questioning or interrogating this claim made by the defense that Chauvin was just following his training and one after another suggesting that, no, he was not, that he continued to use excessive force long after it even might have been necessary. And it will be interesting to see the impact that that might have on the larger police community.

BLOW: But also that - the fact that people stepping forward from the police ranks is anomalous (ph) is also devastating. You know, there's a part of me that just wants to say, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here's a tape. Deliberate.


BLOW: Because what are we doing? Do we have to have emotive witnesses in order to make you empathize with this person who has been killed? Does he have to be a perfect person, devoid of all defect, in order for you to empathize with this person who has been killed? There's a rage inducement in having to convince the country and the world that this particular life and, by extension, life should not be taken in such a capricious way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you both this. What, then, does justice at this trial look like to you? Because by any measure, what the country has experienced by seeing the death of George Floyd - they have already sort of made that indictment. There has already been a sense that there was a wrong committed by simply the reaction that we saw over the summer. So I'm wondering what this trial could deliver - that you hope it could deliver. Is there something?

NORRIS: I shudder to think what would happen if there was not a conviction. I have a hard time allowing my mind to even go there. But when you ask about, what does justice look like? - I think about justice, but I also think about the judicial process. You know, one change is evident. The defense attorney, Nelson, is continuing to rely on certain kinds of tropes in his cross-examination, you know, assuming that some of these tropes are so deeply embedded that they can somehow prey upon them. The notion of an angry Black man or a crowd that starts to look like it might turn into a mob or an EMT who was off-duty instead of being someone who was there to help - is portrayed through the questioning as someone who is perhaps bossy or pushy. And what's interesting is every one of those witnesses came ready for that and deflected it like lint off their shoulder and were able to lean against that in some way. And that is, in some way - I don't want to necessarily call it progress but a maturing of the general public in understanding how these systems work and how you sometimes have to lean against them in the pursuit of justice. And the optimist in me - and because I'm from Minnesota, I have a little bit of that. It's truly in the waters up there. The optimist in me hopes that what we're seeing is the possibility that things might change.

BLOW: I would just like to add a nuanced point, which is, you know, Michele grew up there. I was only visiting, so I'm doing research about it, and I read in one report that it was a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. And, you know, one thing that I have noticed in my reporting about social justice, including police killings over the years, is that there's a particular intensity of policing in neighborhoods that begin to experience gentrification. It is almost a protection of the newcomer or helping in the conversion of these neighborhoods. And so, you know, Chauvin was the commanding officer on that scene. This is not - he's not a rookie, you know? So if he were not caught in this instance, would that mean that this aggression would have been the behavior in this gentrifying neighborhood, and no one, basically, would have said a word? Very often, these large northern western cities are - consider themselves to be relatively liberal, and yet they allow this in the shadows of their liberalism.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michele, what are people telling you? What are your people telling you?

NORRIS: Lulu, people are really hurting. And they're really worried. And it's visceral, and it's long-term. They're worried about what will happen regardless of what the jury decides. Minneapolis is left with a deep tissue wound. And if you've ever had a deep tissue wound, it never goes away. It always sort of speaks to you, sometimes louder than others. And this will be definitional for the city. And the people who live in the city and its surrounding communities will feel this for decades and probably generations.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was journalist Michele Norris, author of "The Grace Of Silence," and columnist Charles Blow, author of "The Devil You Know, A Black Power Manifesto." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.