Derek Chauvin Trial Represents a Defining Moment in America's Racial HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Police, Minneapolis, George Floyd
The trial itself is about what happened that May evening, but it will also be a vessel into which a splintered society places its rage, anxieties and hopes. Like the trial after Rodney King's beating, like the trial after Emmett Till's murder, like the Scottsboro Boys' trial, this case will be viewed as another chapter — perhaps a turning point — in America's racial history.
"Everything is riding on the outcome of the trial," said Keith Mayes, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of African American and African Studies. "Yes, Chauvin is on trial, and it's about the Floyd murder. … But an argument can be made it's about all the other folks that didn't receive justice, too. That's why a conviction is necessary for us to reimagine what a future can look like, because these cases continue to happen until the police are thoroughly reformed."
Still, while some look at Chauvin as emblematic of law enforcement as an institution that's misguided at best or racist at worst, others see what happened last Memorial Day as an anomaly: that Floyd's death was the rare exception instead of proof that police are the bad guys.
"I try in my head to better understand that broad-brush mentality, but I have a hard time," said Tim Leslie, the Dakota County sheriff. "If a plumber gets arrested for DUI, are all plumbers drunks? If a pilot crashes a plane, are all pilots incompetent? No. Yet Chauvin does that, he murders somebody, and all law enforcement needs to be reformed. Is that the same?"
History on video
When Mayes saw the Floyd video, the 53-year-old professor had a visceral reaction: What if that were me?
"You almost see yourself lying on the ground with the police officer's knee on your own neck," Mayes said. "You can't help but … be engulfed in this kind of anger and rage and disappointment in the system that continues to allow this to happen."
Growing up in Harlem, Mayes had two distinct types of interactions with police: One with housing police, who were familiar and respectful, and the other with city police, who were feared. Decades later, even as an author with an Ivy League degree, those feelings linger.
After Floyd's death, Mayes joined protests and paid respects at 38th and Chicago. That's how he processed it: by sharing his grief with the grief of the community. He thought about George Floyd, but he also thought about Philando Castile, and Jamar Clark, and Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant killed by New York police while Mayes lived in New York.
"I put this incident along this spectrum of other incidents," he said, "where police either assaulted or killed Black people. And they just get stacked up."
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