MONDAY January 15, 2024 was Martin Luther King Day. It not only commemorated the birth 95 years ago of the most instrumental figure in the US civil rights movement. It also prompted reflection on how that movement has evolved since his assassination in 1968 and how the death of George Floyd in 2020 and its mass media coverage has changed the nature of that ‘rights’ debate in the four years since. The Fall of Minneapolis, a recently released documentary, throws new and disturbing light on all this. Despite raising profound and disturbing questions about the fairness of police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial and safety of his conviction, it has not received the attention it ought.
The documentary follows the arrest of George Floyd, the subsequent events in Minneapolis and the trial and conviction of Chauvin for Floyd’s murder. It is, unlike previous documentaries on the matter, from the perspective of the police. Investigative journalist Liz Collin is the narrator and her co-producer JC Chaix the director. Collin’s partner and Chaix are both former police officers. Many of the interviewees are ex-officers or their relatives. The views expressed are not unobjective, though the contributions were necessarily limited to those who are prepared to speak out.
At a hundred-plus minutes it’s no quick overview of the events but a painstaking, forensically methodical analysis. For anyone with the slightest passing interest in social history and the politics of organisations such as Black Lives Matter (not mentioned throughout) it is essential viewing.
It also has implications for the role of the police in contemporary society and politicians’ approach to maintaining law and order, or failing to, if what is described as the ‘distortion’ that black men are at a unique risk of being killed by white cops goes unchallenged. This was the word used and the crux of Glen Loury’s and John McWhorter’s discussion about the documentary’s revelations. It’s not about whether George Floyd was a good person or not, McWhorter said, but that ‘we were lied to’ and why we can’t even question whether he was murdered or not. The case Collin makes in The Fall of Minneapolis, in McWhorter’s view, is ‘painfully clear – making the whole way we think about George Floyd wrong, ‘including the way I thought about him . . . I had no idea that Derek Chauvin didn’t kill him’. Loury points to new bodycam evidence which appears to show Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s shoulder (not neck) as per the approved subduing technique of the training manual, but which was not allowed to be introduced as evidence into the trial. Such, he argues, is the power of ‘confirmation bias’.
Glenn Loury teaches at Brown University and is a senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. John McWhorter is a professor at Columbia university who writes for the New York Times. They are both black.
Talking through the high likelihood of jury intimidation with politicians baying for a murder verdict, they ask us to consider a reverse situation in 1930s America of a black man being wrongly convicted with a lynch-mob waiting outside. Revolted by Floyd being made a hero, they point to the contrast with the palpable humanity of the police officers in the documentary, who don’t fit the ‘scumbag, racist rapist’ characterisation so often used. ‘If you think abolishing the police is the solution, you’ve got your head up your ass,’ Loury states.
A sceptic might point to omissions from the documentary such as the court video showing Chauvin’s decision not to take the stand and the 18 complaints logged against him in previous years (plus two official reprimands), all of which related to excessive use of force. But the new evidence is worrying and points to a serious miscarriage of justice with the prosecutors appearing determined from the start to find him guilty one way or another. Chauvin was charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
What is indisputable is the media frenzy that followed, which exploited Floyd’s arrest and death and opened the door to a Black Lives Matter ideology, different to the civil rights concerns of the past.
According to the Pew Research Centre based in Washington DC, on the day of Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, roughly 218,000 tweets contained the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Three days later there were nearly 8.8million. What had previously been a marginal movement transformed overnight into a significant international political phenomenon, as the fashion of taking the knee exemplified. First practised in American Football in 2016 as a symbolic gesture against racism, it became widespread in English football after Floyd’s death. ‘Celebrities’ including Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Meghan Markle, Stevie Wonder and Sir Keir Starmer followed suit – using a gesture which intentionally echoed the supposed murder of George Floyd.
It is easy to see how public opinion was driven. Mayor Jacob Frey’s performative tears over the coffin and the biblical tones of many authority figures came close to mass manipulation, especially of those who believe they are oppressed. The elevation to sainthood of George Floyd is understandable within this context. Likewise the response to Floyd’s statement ‘I can’t breathe’. Yet a New York Times report was to reveal that it originated not with Floyd but from 2014, when Eric Garner died after being put into a choke-hold by a New York City police officer, prompting the question of whether Floyd could breathe or not throughout his arrest or was echoing a mantra.
Floyd’s death at the hands, it was decided, of a white policeman was the trigger for mass protest and insurrection in Minneapolis – already loaded with the cumulative layers of resentment fuelled by messages targeted at a section of society that they were oppressed and subject to injustice. Thus what could easily have been an everyday drug arrest became the signal to rise up as described by Karl Marx; a catalyst for the events that followed and its growth into a global phenomenon.
Should this documentary receive the coverage it deserves, many more will have to acknowledge the possibility that they ‘got it wrong’. Those who have pronounced on Floyd’s death and associated themselves with BLM might well have to revise their positions – one can only hope.
Chauvin claimed in his appeal against conviction that he had not received a fair trial because jurors may have had a vested interest against acquitting him, out of fear of instigating more street protests and violence. Chauvin’s lawyers have said there were various reasons to overturn his conviction, including a state district court depriving the former officer of his right to a fair trial by denying his request for a change of venue, despite ‘pervasive adverse publicity’.
On November 20, 2023, the Supreme Court rejected Chauvin’s appeal without comment or a recorded vote.
On November 24, a fellow jail inmate was charged with attempted murder. Prosecutors said ex-gang member John Turscak used an improvised blade to stab Chauvin 22 times at a federal prison in Tucson, Arizona. Chauvin survived the attack and was said to be in a stable condition.
Turscak, 52, told FBI agents he attacked Chauvin on Black Friday – as the day after US Thanksgiving is known – as a symbolic connection to Black Lives Matter and the Black Hand symbol linked with the Mexican Mafia, according to prosecutors.