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Black Leaders In B-N Filled With Hope, Unease As Chauvin Trial Unfolds

Person holding sign at protest
Jim Mone
A protester holds a sign across the street from National Guard soldiers guarding the Hennepin County Government Center Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Minneapolis where testimony continues in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Communities of color battle with a loss of hope as they seek justice for the death of George Floyd, another Black man who died at the hands of a white police officer.Twin City African American leaders say they have guarded optimism as they watch Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, while police in Bloomington-Normal say they also want bad cops removed from the ranks.

Bloomington-Normal Black Lives Matter leader Olivia Butts said watching police officer Chauvin stand trial for killing Floyd feels like reliving the tragedy again.

Olivia Butts
Credit courtesy
Olivia Butts

“It transported me back to those initial feelings that a lot of folks had in the summer of 2020. Having the trial now is kind of reopening some of those old wounds that haven't healed for a lot of people and it’s just reminding folks that justice has not been done,” Butts said. "We're reminded of that every day that this trial continues.”

Prosecutors in the Chauvin trial have tried to demonstrate the veteran officer has a history of using excessive force. Bloomington-Normal NAACP president Linda Foster said the organization is taking time to take in all the evidence revealed at the trial, but she questions officer Chauvin's motives even more now.

“We saw what we saw up front, but hearing about the training and the history of this police officer, obviously there was some hidden agenda and it was never intended for Mr. Floyd to make it through,” she said.

As Illinois State University nears the end of its semester, its Black students also zfd coping with emotions from the trial.

Black Student Union president Lexi Epps said juggling school work and surviving COVID all while trying to stay informed is a lot of stress, but she tries to stay positive. She said the trial has demonstrated Chauvin's guilt, but if the verdict comes back not guilty, she won’t be shocked.

“If the verdict comes back as not guilty, I think it’s gonna hurt the Black community once again, but unfortunately this is something that we've been through,” she said. “There's a lot of us that already have no faith in the justice system as it is, but I feel like some people have that little tiny hope that he's going to get convicted. So if he doesn't, I think that's just going to completely erase it from here on out.”

During the trial, Chauvin's lawyers have tried to attribute Floyd’s drug intake and other health problems as the cause of death. Angell Howard, coordinator of professional development at ISU, said that defense confirms what she calls the "racialized drug-crazed rhetoric" people use to excuse violent behavior toward people of color is still alive. Plus, she said, it’s proven that her Black skin is a threat.

“At this point I think what it does is confirm. As a Black person and as a Black woman, I already know how folks feel about me and there's only been more proof to pile on to confirm that what I already believe is true,” Howard said. “I'm looking for people to prove me wrong, but nobody's proved me wrong yet. Even if you hated me as an individual you still have to feel some pain to see somebody do that to me, so I'm struggling. I'm struggling big time with all of it.”

Police officer points to badge
Credit Court TV via AP, Pool
In this image from video, witness Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testifies as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides Monday, April 5, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd.

Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo condemned Chauvin's actions during his trial testimony, and other department officers spoke out as well.

Howard said she was surprised officers broke their so-called blue wall of silence, but she wonders if the jury will find the police chief’s testimony as credible since it’s coming from a person of color.

“I didn't expect that to be said because there does seem to be a lot of solidarity in just protecting the system of policing, but even though it's being said, one of those things was said by a Black man. Is blue just as important on a black body?” Howard said. 

“Will they minimize what he says as a Black man and not hold what he said as a person in a position behind a blue uniform? Where is the loyalty? Is it really within the police officers? Is it really within whiteness? For me, that's what I will be very interested in seeing, but my heart still feels like we will probably see a not guilty verdict.”

Greg Scott, Bloomington's interim police chief, said he wasn’t surprised that officers in Minneapolis are speaking out against Chauvin's actions. He said Chauvin was wrong and that his actions have amplified the distrust that communities of color already feel toward police.

“When I first got hired that would have surprised me, but law enforcement has been changing over the years so it's really not surprising," Scott said. "As a profession, we're pretty well regulated and when somebody steps out of line and does something that's just wrong, it reflects so poorly on all of us. You have to say something.” 

Scott said breaking through public perception is hard, but he said he’s ready to prove everyone wrong.

“I think we've been under an extra measure of scrutiny. However, I think most of the community at large respect us and that's not to say that we can't improve,” he said. “We're eager to do better and quite honestly it hurts when we see those bad things happen, not at the same level, but we can see and understand the pain and the anguish.” 

Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said his officers agree that what Chauvin did was wrong. Bleichner said he doesn't like that Chavin's actions unfairly gives all cops a bad name.

"I would hope that as we move forward we get away from the whole broad brush painting and want to have more local conversations with the police departments. That's where we are really impacted," Bleichner said. "We see things on a national level, but we're not in Minneapolis, we are in Normal, Illinois."

Aaron Woodruff standing next to police car
Credit Illinois State University
Aaron Woodruff

ISU police chief Aaron Woodruff said officers have a duty to speak out when their colleagues dishonor the badge. He said that's what happened here.

Woodruff said policing a college campus and building relationships with students of color is a challenge because of what he sees as a cycle of mistrust.

“The struggle with us on a college campus is we're gonna have a whole bunch of new students coming in who have their own experiences and their own distrust and we start that process all over again, so it is a rolling challenge every single year, but we have to just try to make little impact where we can.”

Linda Foster with the NAACP said she was surprised and more hopeful after hearing the officers condemn Chauvin. She said if more officers spoke out against wrongdoing across the country, the distrust against police would start to fade.

Linda Foster
Credit Tiffani Jackson
Linda Foster

“I know we’re just looking at Minnesota and what happened there, but this whole country is on trial. I want the communities and our country to see that justice can prevail,” Foster said. “I am so proud of the law enforcement in Minnesota and how they're coming out and they are clearly stating that what occurred is not what they've been trained to do. If we continue to hear that I believe that every community is going to be a better community.”

Woodruff said he joins communities of color in the hope for justice in the Chauvin case.

“Everything I've seen leads me to believe that there will probably be some type of conviction based on just the facts that I've heard, so I would be surprised if he wasn't convicted of at least something,” Woodruff said.

Not knowing what reactions to expect after the verdict, Scott said BPD is prepared for possible protests, but added he doesn't anticipate any problems.

“We've got plans in place and hopefully don't have to enact any of it,” Scott said. “We support people coming out and expressing their view and how they feel about it. The only time we're going to get involved is when it crosses the line into something that's illegal or unsafe.”

Olivia Butts with Black Lives Matter said last summer the group didn’t have to organize many protests because the community came together on its own after George Floyd was killed. Butts said she’s waiting to hear what the community wants first before making plans after the verdict.

“I'm just hoping that will be led to see what the community wants," Butts said. "If people just want a space to come together and have some type of vigil to grieve or if people are more interested in talking about action and next steps, I hope that we can be a group that gives them that space.”

Butts said regardless of the outcome America still has work to do to bridge the racial divide.

The prosecution in the Derek Chauvin trial rested its case after 11 days of testimony. The judge expects closing arguments will begin next Monday.

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.