Derek Chauvin Trial Breaks 'Blue Wall Of Silence,' But Will It Transform Policing?

21 hours ago
Originally published on April 7, 2021 8:19 am

Updated April 7, 2021 at 10:39 AM ET

The Minneapolis police chief and other members of his department have testified that former officer Derek Chauvin's restraint of George Floyd was excessive and that it violated the department's policies on use of force.

"I think it's amazing to see police officers willing to cross that blue wall of silence and be willing to speak up about Derek Chauvin's actions," says Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and activist in Minneapolis. "But I'm not sure yet if this is going to create a paradigm shift within the institution of policing or if this is just being seen as an isolated incident."

Levy Armstrong is among those in her community and around the world who have been closely watching Chauvin's trial on charges of murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death last May.

"It is very traumatizing at times, especially when the bystander videos play over and over again," Levy Armstrong says in an interview Wednesday with NPR's Morning Edition.

"It can be very difficult to watch. There are people in our community who refuse to watch because of the emotional and psychological impacts that they experience," she adds.

Those impacts include "a great deal of stress and anxiety surrounding watching what happened to George Floyd and hearing him say 'I can't breathe' nearly 30 times," she says. "Not to mention the anxiety that's created from watching the bystanders plead with the Minneapolis police officers to release George Floyd."

Levy Armstrong says the trial is having an impact on people's everyday lives.

"It comes out in terms of folks not feeling at ease as the trial is unfolding," she says. "Difficulty that people may have when they're going into work and trying to have normal workplace conversations, knowing that this trial is in the backdrop. And also thinking about the racial dynamics that are connected to this trial."

Levy Armstrong hopes the high-profile trial will mean that "officers will be more willing to intervene when they see their fellow officers engaged in misconduct or abusing someone out on the streets," she says.

But she remains skeptical of the trial's outcome, given the history of juries often failing to convict police officers around the country.

"I think that it's a long shot in terms of thinking about whether justice will be served in this case and whether there will be a conviction," she says.

"I think that so many of us in Minneapolis are outraged about what happened to George Floyd," Levy Armstrong says. "We are hoping that in this case, an officer will be convicted for what he did. Beyond that, I think that people are cautiously optimistic in terms of what the future holds. They're watching. They're sharing information. And my hope is that it leads to results in terms of transforming the way that policing happened in Minneapolis."

Milton Guevara and Steve Mullis produced and edited the audio version of this story. Avie Schneider produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

George Floyd's brother Philonise has attended several days of this trial and called the experience life-changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHILONISE FLOYD: After we get the verdict and we get this conviction, we'll be able to breathe.

INSKEEP: How do other members of the community see the trial? Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights attorney and an activist who lives in Minneapolis, and she's on the line from there. Good morning.

NEKIMA LEVY ARMSTRONG: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to note that this is live on television every day in Minneapolis. Are you watching every day?

LEVY ARMSTRONG: Yes, I am.

INSKEEP: Do you feel a duty to do that?

LEVY ARMSTRONG: I do feel a duty to watch the trial so that I can analyze what I'm seeing and relay it back to members of the public.

INSKEEP: What is that like to just have it on? I mean, you're going about your day, you've got other things you've got to do, and this trial is just on.

LEVY ARMSTRONG: It is very traumatizing at times, especially when the bystander videos play over and over again. It can be very difficult to watch. There are people in our community who refuse to watch because of the emotional and psychological impacts that they experience.

INSKEEP: What are those impacts?

LEVY ARMSTRONG: Those impacts include a great deal of stress and anxiety surrounding watching what happened to George Floyd and hearing him say, I can't breathe, nearly 30 times - not to mention the anxiety that's created from watching the bystanders plead with the Minneapolis police officers to release George Floyd.

INSKEEP: How does that anxiety come out when you have conversations with other people who, I suppose, are in their own homes and watching this on television?

LEVY ARMSTRONG: Well, it comes out in terms of folks not feeling at ease as the trial is unfolding, difficulty that people may have when they're going into work and trying to have normal workplace conversations, knowing that this trial is in the backdrop and, also, thinking about the racial dynamics that are connected to this trial.

INSKEEP: I want to note that as this trial has proceeded, there has been testimony from police, and it is testimony on the prosecution side. The police chief of Minneapolis effectively testified against Derek Chauvin and said that what he did was not remotely within police rules. Other officers are prosecution witnesses this week. How, if at all, has this trial affected your view of the police in Minneapolis?

LEVY ARMSTRONG: Well, it hasn't much affected my view of the police in Minneapolis. I mean, for one, I know that the chief is trying to set a new standard as far as the expectations within the department and the ways in which police officers interact with the community. Beyond that, I think it's amazing to see police officers willing to cross that blue wall of silence and be willing to speak up about Derek Chauvin's actions. But I'm not sure yet if this is going to create a paradigm shift within the institution of policing or if this is just being seen as an isolated incident.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, we don't know what the verdict is going to be. It is often quite difficult to convict police officers of excessive use of force or of murder, and that's just a matter of the way the laws seem to be written in most places and in most cases. Watching this trial day by day, without knowing the verdict granted at this point, do you feel that this seems like a fair process, that there's a chance that justice, as you see it, can be done?

LEVY ARMSTRONG: I think that it's a long shot, in terms of thinking about whether justice will be served in this case and whether there will be a conviction. As you noted, it is very difficult to convict police officers, and now the world gets a bird's-eye view into the courtroom to see why that is the case. The legal aspects of this case, the expert testimony, the medical testimony - all of those things play a role in terms of how the jury will perceive the actions of Derek Chauvin on the day in question.

INSKEEP: What changes, if any, in Minneapolis do you think this trial could lead to? I know that since the incident itself, there's been a call to restructure the police, to defund the police, to abolish the police. There's been a huge debate in Minneapolis and all across the country. What changes seem possible to you now?

LEVY ARMSTRONG: Well, my hope is that officers will be more willing to intervene when they see their fellow officers engaged in misconduct or abusing someone out on the streets. Now, we don't know if that is what will happen, but there is a new duty-to-intervene policy within the Minneapolis Police Department. I think it'll be interesting to see what happens during the next election cycle because these questions could be on the ballot in terms of what the future of the Minneapolis Police Department will look like.

INSKEEP: This is obviously a divisive issue and has been all across the country, but is there any way that this experience of maybe not everybody but an awful lot of people in Minneapolis watching this trial together has brought people to some common understanding?

LEVY ARMSTRONG: Well, I think that so many of us in Minneapolis are outraged about what happened to George Floyd. We are hoping that in this case, an officer will be convicted for what he did. Beyond that, I think that people are cautiously optimistic in terms of what the future holds. They're watching. They're sharing information. And my hope is that it leads to results in terms of transforming the way that policing happened in Minneapolis.

INSKEEP: Nekima Levy Armstrong is a civil rights lawyer and activist in Minneapolis. Thanks for joining us so early. Really appreciate it.

LEVY ARMSTRONG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.