After the largest anti-racist uprising in the US, historic trials provide important lessons

In the year 2021, it was the turn of the US government, particularly its judicial system, to respond to the protests of 2020.

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Protestors in Manhattan call for an end to police brutality after Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict
Photo: Vincent Tsai
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In the summer of 2020, the people of the United States witnessed the largest anti-racist struggle in the country’s history after a video of the brutal murder of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin went viral. While Floyd’s murder was the catalyst, the first year of the pandemic was marked by increased police and vigilante violence. Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot in a botched “citizen’s arrest” by vigilantes and Breonna Taylor, who was shot dead while asleep by police, were among the most egregious cases.


In the year 2021, it was the turn of the US government, particularly its judicial system, to respond to the protests of 2020. Historic trials of the killers of unarmed Black people and protestors were set to answer an important question: how would the system respond to the outcry of millions against racist violence?


Derek Chauvin: guilty on all charges


In April 2021, killer cop Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges against him: unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. In June, Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.


The verdict was hailed by many as an important victory as police officers who murder civilians rarely face consequences in the United States. In 2020, out of 1,126 people killed by police, officers were charged with a crime in only 16 cases. Even in high profile cases such as those of the officers who killed Mike Brown or Eric Garner, the police involved went punishment-free for the murder of unarmed Black men.


Many also considered it an important step in ending indiscriminate police murder of Black people. Anti-racist activist Jacqui Lewis said of the verdict: “It’s not justice… but this is accountability. Now we demand a new standard: You will be held accountable.”


Even as the trial was underway, two notable police killings occurred, which, though unrelated to the proceedings, drew attention to the systemic issue of police violence beyond Chauvin as an individual. On April 11, young father Daunte Wright was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop 10 miles from the trial, and the same day that Derek Chauvin was found guilty, 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant was shot by Ohio police.


The process of the trial itself also revealed the depths of the epidemic of racist violence in the United States. This was clear in how Derek Chauvin’s defense built their arguments around a character assassination of George Floyd as a large, threatening drug addict, who died of underlying health problems such as drug use, rather than Chauvin’s knee on his neck. The defense even brought out David Fowler as an expert witness, despite his clear ties to the cottage industry of “experts”, such as medical examiners, who work to keep killer police officers free of accountability.


During his time as Maryland’s chief medical examiner, Fowler was key in helping police avoid accountability for the murder of Black people, such as in the case of victim Anton Black. As stated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, “Fowler claimed that Anton died of natural causes, saying that his bipolar disorder was a contributing factor, rather than the weight pressed on Anton while he was held facedown by three white officers and a white civilian.” Fowler adopted a similar attitude for the George Floyd case, attempting to distract from Chauvin’s murder by citing cardiac arrhythmia, heart disease, and drug use as factors in his death.


However, the Chauvin trial broke with the norm in that the Minneapolis police decided against standing with Chauvin. Breaking with what is known as the “blue wall of silence”, in which US police will refuse to report a colleague’s brutality, the police chief of Chauvin’s own department testified against him. It seemed as if the chief of police was attempting to distance his police force from Chauvin’s actions when he said that his murder of Floyd “is not part of our training, and it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.” These words ring hollow in light of the fact that Chauvin has been involved in two shootings, one fatal, and had at least 17 complaints made against him before George Floyd. These actions went unpunished by the Minneapolis Police Department.


If Chauvin’s actions did not break with the norm of the ultra-violent US police, why did George Floyd’s murder result in a guilty verdict? Many point to the massive movement against racist brutality as the pivotal reason.


Activist Kerbie Joseph, an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition and the Audre Lorde Project, who herself lead anti-police brutality fightbacks such as the campaign for justice for Akai Gurley, told Peoples Dispatch, “Because the struggle was that big and lasted for so long, we were in the streets for 28 days…It shifted the narrative of the jurors, it shifted the narrative of the media, it shifted the narrative of the music that was made…All of that shifted because of people being on the ground.”


Killer Kyle Rittenhouse walks free


In sharp contrast to Chauvin, the next key trial witnessed by the people of the United States was that of Kyle Rittenhouse, accused of homicide and related charges. The 17-year-old had crossed state lines with an AR-15 rifle to protect businesses from looting, as he claimed, by protesters after mass demonstrations against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. At the protest, Rittenhouse linked up with a group of armed men, brought to Kenosha by a Facebook post on the right-wing militia page “Kenosha Guard,” asking, “Any Patriots willing to take up arms and defend our City tonight from the evil thugs?” As the night went on, police were caught on video chatting with Rittenhouse and other armed men, giving them water and saying, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.”


That night, Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz. After a national spectacle of a trial, Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges relating to his shooting of those three people.


To those following the proceedings, it soon became clear that the judge in Rittenhouse’s trial, Bruce Schroeder, had a clear bias towards the defense. Before the trial even began, the judge barred the prosecution from using the word “victim” to describe those shot by Rittenhouse, as he claimed it was a “loaded” word. On the other hand, he permitted the defense to use the words “looter”, “arsonist”, and “rioter” to describe the three men. The judge also threw out key video evidence taken of Rittenhouse watching alleged looters exiting a CVS, in which he says, “Bro, I wish I had my f—ing AR. I’d start shooting rounds at them.”


Judge Schroeder also shot down what was viewed by some as the easiest charge to prove against Rittenhouse, one count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18. There were multiple other examples of Schroeder cozying up to Rittenhouse, such as telling the courtroom to applaud for a defense witness, calling a recess after Rittenhouse cried on the witness stand, and allowing Rittenhouse himself to draw the names of jurors from a raffle-style tumbler.


Meanwhile, after 15-year-old Guyanese-American Prakash Churaman was accused of killing his best friend in 2014, he was arrested, handcuffed to a pipe on the wall, and interrogated until he finally said, “I’ll say whatever you want to hear.” On the other hand, Rittenhouse walked directly towards police with his hands up after murdering two people, and was only arrested the next day.


Kyle Rittenhouse is now being courted by the right-wing, and was the keynote speaker at an event organized by the conservative organization Turning Point USA. Following his forced confession, Prakash Churaman spent six years in the infamous Rikers Island Prison and is still fighting to clear himself of charges, 7 years later.


Lynchers found guilty against all odds


Soon after the Rittenhouse trial ended, the killers of unarmed Black man Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty of murder. The guilty verdict came after a trial which put on display the reality of racist lynching, an unsolved problem in the United States that dates back to the slavery era.


In February 2020, three men, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan, pursued jogger Ahmaud Arbery in two separate vehicles. These men believed, without evidence, that Arbery was behind recent burglaries in the area. In the shocking video of his murder, Ahmaud Arbery struggles to defend himself, and is in turn shot by Travis. According to William Bryan, Travis McMichael called Arbery a “f – – – ing n – – – er” as he lay on the ground, dying.


Despite the seemingly clear facts in the case, reports showed that the judicial system in Georgia was prepared to let the perpetrators off scot-free. Jackie Johnson, the then District Attorney of Brunswick, Georgia, where Arbery was murdered, had a personal connection to Gregory McMichael, who had worked as an investigator in her office until 2019. According to reports McMichael contacted her shortly after the murder, pleading for advice.


Johnson then recused herself from the initial investigation, transferring the case to another district attorney, George Barnhill. It was later found that Barnhill’s son had also worked alongside McMichael. It was also later discovered that Johnson had told officers not to arrest the McMichaels. On September 8, 2021, Johnson was indicted for obstruction of justice.


Still, it was only after the video was made public at the request of Gregory McMichael himself, that arrests were made of the trio. McMichael believed that the video would defend his public image, but the video evidence of the brutal murder ignited nationwide protests.


Here too, the trial of the defendants revealed how racism permeates policies and institutions in the US. During the trial, the defense did everything they could to keep Black people out of the courtroom, despite claiming that the case wasn’t about race. 11 out of 12 Black jurors were struck from the case, leaving a jury of 11 white jurors and one Black juror. When Black pastors attended the trial alongside Ahmaud Arbery’s family, providing moral support, defense lawyer Kevin Gough brazenly requested that there be “no more Black pastors in here,” citing concerns of “intimidation”.


The defense mounted a case based on Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, a law enacted in the era of slavery that emboldened white Georgia citizens to arrest escaping Black people, and the claim that the murder was motivated by “self-defense”. This exchange between Travis McMichael and the prosecution exposed the self-defense claim as a lie:


Prosecutor: He [Arbery] never yelled at you guys?

Travis McMichael: No ma’am.

Prosecutor: Never threatened you at all?

Travis McMichael: No ma’am.

Prosecutor: Didn’t brandish any weapons?

Travis McMichael: No ma’am.

Prosecutor: Didn’t pull out any guns?

Travis McMichael: No ma’am.

Prosecutor: Didn’t pull out any knife?

Travis McMichael: No ma’am.

Prosecutor: Never reached for anything did he?

Travis McMichael: No.

Prosecutor: He just ran?

Travis McMichael: Yes, he was just running.


Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law was repealed by an otherwise conservative governor, Brian Kemp, earlier this year.


Kim Potter, Valentina Orellana-Peralta, and the ongoing struggle


Kim Potter, the police officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright in Minneapolis during the Chauvin trial, was found guilty of first and second degree manslaughter on December 23. Her defense was fashioned around Potter’s ongoing claim that she had mistook her taser for a gun. Much of the news coverage has focused on the same claim, along with a sympathetic spin exemplified by headlines such as Kim Potter on Daunte Wright death: ‘I’m sorry it happened’, or Kim Potter gives emotional testimony; defense rests its case. However, as a juror remarked, “The Taser kind of feels like a mouse click whereas the trigger has some trigger draw weight,” a difference one would expect to be obvious to a 26-year veteran of the police force.


The recently released footage of police opening fire in a clothing store in Los Angeles and killing 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta in a dressing room has once again sparked anger over the disproportionately violent responses of police. The LAPD officers claim they were trying to apprehend a suspect, Daniel Elena Lopez, who was also fatally shot.


The epidemic of racist violence in the United States is far from over. Movement leaders, such as those involved in the 2020 uprisings against racism, believe that a stronger movement is needed to truly end this violence.


“We have to keep the struggle at a high. If people aren’t in the streets, we have to keep building, that’s our role,” declared Kerbie Joseph. “Even though it hurts us…But it’s through that pain that we’re able to put seeds to make some type of victory. And that’s what we got. This wasn’t possible 10 years ago. It wasn’t possible five years ago. It’s because of movements before 2020 that made it possible for these verdicts to happen. It’s because of years, decades, centuries of struggle, but not just struggle, but organizing. So every step is a victory.”


December 31, 2021
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