Episode 81: Organizers and activists prepare for the Chauvin trial

In this episode, we talk with activists and organizers to learn how they have been preparing for the Derek Chauvin trial and their experiences protesting on the first day of public court proceedings.

Megan Germundson and Ethan Quezada

INTRO MUSIC

MEGAN GERMUNDSON: Hi everyone, I’m Megan Germundson.

ETHAN QUEZADA: I’m Ethan Quezada and you’re listening to “In the Know,” a podcast by the Minnesota Daily. 

NAT SOUND — PROTEST SOUNDS, CHANTING  “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE”

GERMUNDSON: On Monday, hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Minneapolis for the first day of the trial against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. As the jury selection began inside the courthouse, outside, activists demonstrated in front of a barricaded government center. 

QUEZADA: In today’s episode, we spoke with local Minneapolis activists to learn how they are preparing for the Derek Chauvin trial, and to learn what it was like for them on the trial’s opening day.

NAT SOUND — PROTEST SOUNDS FADE INTO NAT SOUND BELOW

NAT SOUND — CALL TONE — FADE OUT

GERMUNDSON: Jae Yates is an organizer with Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, a group that came together after the 2015 police killing of Jamar Clark. I spoke with Jae last week to find out how Justice 4 Jamar is preparing. 

YATES: I think we feel as prepared as you can be for something that’s going to have national attention. We have, I think, events planned for the duration of the trial. But right now, honestly, we’re focusing a lot on just trying to get access during that first day, because the city is already putting up all kinds of barricades and barbed wire.

GERMUNDSON: I’m wondering, you know, is there even an outcome that could give a sense of — not peace — but a desired outcome that could come out of this trial?

YATES: Yeah. Wow. That’s such a hard question. I think that the best case — I feel like it’s not even like desired outcomes at this point. I feel like it’s best- and worst-case scenarios, which sound really hardcore and dark. But I think that because it’s not clear if the other officers will ever face any consequences, I think that this does sort of feel … I don’t know, maybe not the one-shot, but there is that possibility that the other officers won’t actually go to trial. I think that like for us, and I guess to even speak for myself, the best-case scenario is, Chauvin, a police officer, finally faces jail time for murdering someone, but like that’s literally never happened. except for one time, and that was when a white woman got murdered. 

GERMUNDSON: Here, Jae is referencing Mohamed Noor, a Black former MPD officer, who was sentenced to prison in 2019 for shooting and killing Justine Ruszczyk. Ruszcyzk was a white woman who called 9-1-1. Noor was the first police officer in Minnesota to be convicted of murder for his actions on-duty. 

YATES: So, I don’t know. It feels overly optimistic maybe to be like, ‘Well, yeah, like this will be the time,’ but also, if there is going to be a time that that happens, it would be now, wouldn’t it? With all of this momentum behind finally having officers face consequences for their actions.

GERMUNDSON: Within your own community, how are people preparing mentally and emotionally for this sort of trial that you know, is so high-profile and will be live broadcast and all of that?

YATES: I mean, honestly, I think for a lot of us in TCC4J, this kind of snuck up on us…

So, I think there is a little bit of that, ‘Oh God, it’s already here,’ and then I think there’s a lot of like, I don’t know, I feel like fatigue around preparing for big historic events (laughs). 

Like, yeah, I feel fatigue is like, the word that’s coming to mind, of living through like multiple traumatic, major historic events in a row in a way that I don’t feel like has happened in America in a while. Where it’s like every single thing that happens is bad and terrible. And people just have to continue to anticipate it and prepare. So, I guess to answer that question, I don’t know if people in my community or myself have really been engaging in any sort of healthy coping or preparation. I think people are just kinda like, ‘Yup, here we go.” Like, “I’m going to, I guess, update my will again.” [LAUGHTER]

NAT SOUND — CHANTS FROM PROTEST

GERMUNDSON: On the street, there are protests unfolding against police brutality and the systemic racism that’s tied to it. Meanwhile, despite race being at the center of this trial and many other police brutality cases, it isn’t typically something that’s explicitly acknowledged in court. Last summer I spoke with Abigail Cerra. She’s a practicing attorney and commissioner on the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission. She told me that many judges “don’t want you to talk about race.” And they won’t allow that kind of questioning. I asked Jae about this dichotomy between what’s happening on the ground in Minneapolis and what happens in the courtroom.  

YATES: I have very little faith in the justice system, right? For obvious reasons. And so I think that, for me, it’s a matter of not looking to the justice system as our only source of justice in this case. I guess it’s not, it’s not even about like, you know, being comfortable, like, however the outcome comes out. I actually think it’s the opposite, of however the outcome is, this murder did happen because of racism and this murder did happen because of a corrupt system that treats Black life as expendable.

And so, to me, the takeaway is always that we have to fight for gains within the system for sure, but we also have to be organizing to dismantle it and organizing outside of it. So whether or not Derek Chauvin actually faces consequences, I wouldn’t say is immaterial, but it’s not the end of the line, I guess.

GERMUNDSON: Justice 4 Jamar has been active for years in advocating for a restructuring of policing in Minneapolis through efforts like the creation of a CPAC or “Civilian Police Accountability Council.” This civilian council would have specific powers, like the hiring and firing of police officers, and it would serve as an independent check on police accountability in the city.  

YATES: So I think people have to prepare themselves for that moment, if he gets acquitted… preparing yourself for like, ‘Okay, am I going to be paralyzed by how deeply unjust that is?’ or ‘Am I going to allow it to galvanize me and continue to fight for justice, maybe in other ways, or continue to fight for things like community control of the police, and self determinant policy in our neighborhoods?’ 

GERMUNDSON: Right now, much of downtown, south Minneapolis and police precincts around the city are barricaded. According to the Star Tribune, Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials have reportedly spent at least $1 million boarding up the city in preparation for the trial. Jae said the extra security isn’t making them feel safer, but actually causing anxiety. 

NAT SOUND — CHANTS FROM PROTEST

GERMUNDSON: A few days after I interviewed Jae, protesters and activists gathered outside the courthouse on the first day of Chauvin’s trial. Here’s Ethan Quezada at the protest. 

NAT SOUND — PROTEST SOUNDS

QUEZADA: Squeezed in between barricades and the walls of the U.S Bank Plaza, protesters gathered to prepare for the day of emotions and protest ahead of them. Tables with coffee, food, and merchandise lined the sidewalk, and people with clipboards collecting signatures for petitions roamed the street. The tension in the air was almost tangible, as all who participated were unsure of how the day would go. Early on in the morning, I spoke with Sam Martinez, an organizer for the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar.

SAM MARTINEZ: Today, we’re with a bunch of coalition groups to talk about prosecution for Derick Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd along with a couple of officers back almost going a year ago. And so we want justice. 

QUEZADA: Sam said Twin Cities Coalition 4 Justice 4 Jamar and others plan to hold protests throughout the trial, a process which could take several weeks. They expressed that this is only the beginning of the demonstrations. They also said that, while demonstrations that hold those in power are important, they acknowledge the necessity for a long-term strategy. 

MARTINEZ: Our long-term organizing strategy is community control of the police. Because have we seen, some people have been involved in our organization for 20 years — and even before that — killer cops were never held accountable. 

NAT SOUND — CROWD CHANTS

QUEZADA: After the protest, I spoke to roommates Bella Carpentier and Arnthi Jegraj, both of whom attended the demonstration.

BELLA CARPENTIER: I’m Bella. I’m a freshman. and my major is – like right now I’m planning on double majoring in poli sci and journalism and minoring in social justice.

ARNTHI JEGRAJ: I’m Arnthi. I am a freshman too and I plan on double majoring in developmental psych and poli sci.

QUEZADA: Both Bella and Arnthi describe being anxious in the moments leading up to the protest, citing the heavy law enforcement presence.

CARPENTIER: At first, I thought that once I was in the large group, that I would be like, having feelings of like safety in numbers, like they can’t arrest us if there’s like, I don’t know how many actually showed up. I think it was actually a similar number to the Nov. 4 protest. 

QUEZADA: At the Nov. 4 protest late last year, both Bella and Arnthi were arrested, processed and given plea deals contingent on not getting arrested again. They were then put into black armored cars and driven to an unknown location, where Arnthi’s relative picked them up.

JEGRAJ: Yesterday’s protest was definitely very nerve-wracking. Especially because you could like see a lot of people in army uniforms with like, massive, massive guns. Guns that should not be needed!

QUEZADA: In addition to heightened nerves, Arnthi expressed that Monday’s protest was, for her, more emotional than past protests.

JEGRAJ: And I remember like, very vividly, I was sobbing. I was like, standing in the crowd. And I was like, ‘Damn, this really hurts.’ And I feel like, for me, it’s more frustration than anything else. Like, yes, I’m scared shitless like, I’m a person of color and I’m going out to protest. I’ve already been arrested. And my plea deal literally depends on me not getting arrested again. But I feel like my problems are definitely not the worst in the community. And I can definitely manage them well enough to go out there.  

QUEZADA: When asked about the trial, Arnthi and Bella expressed concerns over jury selection

CARPENTIER: You’d think that because the video of the event exists, and you think that’d be enough to charge them. But that’s a very optimistic point of view.

CARPENTIER: Yeah, when I heard the process, or like the questions that potential jurors are asked, like, ‘Do you support the Black Lives Matter movement?’ Or, like, ‘What do you think about the video?’ I think…

JEGRAJ: Rage.

CARPENTIER: Yeah, pretty much like, if you’re undecided on either of those things and you are a member of the jury, then … I don’t know, it’s just scary to think of what the outcomes of the trial could be.

JEGRAJ: It feels like it’s already skewed. Like it’s already been decided based on the jury.

NAT SOUND — PROTEST CHANTS

QUEZADA: The events that unfolded this Monday foreshadow a turbulent future, and there are still a plethora of protests planned for the remainder of the trial. Among the outcries of protesters, the careful words of attorneys, and the boom of the judge’s gavel, one thing is certain: The world is watching.

OUTRO MUSIC

MEGAN PALMER: In other U news: University medical professionals are urging equitable vaccine distribution to address racial health disparities; Dinkytown organizations are offering haircuts and other resources to unhoused neighbors; and two new faces are challenging Ward 2 City Council incumbent Cam Gordon. We’ll see you next week.