In the streets, protesters are assailing years of police violence against Black people as Derek Chauvin goes on trial in the killing of George Floyd. In the courtroom, potential jurors have disclosed their views on racial discrimination.
But the proceedings set to begin with opening statements Monday are unlikely to address those themes directly, even as the case has become a flashpoint for racial justice in America.
Instead, the testimony and evidence will focus on a narrow set of facts about the evening that Chauvin knelt on the neck of Floyd, a Black man, as other officers helped hold Floyd down outside a Minneapolis convenience store.
"Something that's going to be jarring to some is that this trial is not going to be about race," law Prof. Mark Osler said during a recent panel discussion at the University of St. Thomas. "In criminal law, what the government has to prove is the elements of the crime … and none of those elements has to do with race."
He added: "That means that there's going to be a real disconnect between what goes on [outside] the courthouse, where people will be talking about race, and what goes on inside."
Video of Chauvin, a white officer, kneeling on Floyd's neck for close to 9 minutes last May sparked a global movement against racism. To protesters, Floyd's pleadings for his life embodied the suffering of many other Black police suspects slain over the years — most with less dramatic video evidence.
In some quarters, the trial of Chauvin carries the weight of all the police killings that never led to criminal charges or convictions against the officers involved.
Yet Minneapolis attorney Abigail Cerra and other lawyers said that the history of systemic racism and police brutality will not be discussed at this trial, nor will the jury hear statistics about how force is more likely to be used against a Black or Indigenous person in Minneapolis.
Did Chauvin's actions kill?
If prosecutors try to give weight to the fact that Chauvin is white and Floyd was Black, she expects the defense will object and the judge will sustain the objections.
"When someone says racism is on trial, white supremacy is on trial, I understand why they say that and metaphorically, I agree with them. … But none of that is going to be discussed at the trial at all," said Cerra, who sits on the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission.
Instead, she added, the questions of the trial will be whether Chauvin's actions killed Floyd and whether he acted as a reasonable officer would with the knowledge he had at the time.
"It's difficult to put systemic racism on trial, especially with a single officer," said Andrew Gordon, deputy director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis. "To really hold systemic racism writ large accountable, you need to talk about the judges and the county attorney's office and the fact that Derek Chauvin had done similar things to other people over the course of a long career. … It's almost impossible to put that on trial."
Last month, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill ruled that two incidents in which Chauvin used a neck or head restraint on a civilian could be introduced as evidence in the trial, though several others cannot be disclosed.
"Part of the argument that a community member would make and even I would make, especially, is a lot of that misconduct was directed towards communities of color, but I don't know that you're going to hear a prosecutor in this case make that explicit connection at the trial … because they don't have to," said Gordon, explaining that there's no legal need for the prosecution to prove that Chauvin had racial bias.
Still, attorneys have grilled a parade of potential jurors about their views on Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and racial bias in the criminal justice system over the past nine days.
"It's your belief that discrimination exists and it's bad, and that as a result of that discrimination Black and other minorities do not receive equal treatment — you would agree with that?" defense attorney Eric Nelson asked a white potential juror, probing her answers about racial bias on a juror questionnaire.
After she said yes, Nelson continued, "So the question becomes … is that going to affect your judgment of this case? This case is not about race at all, for example; it's a question of police practice and cause of death."
The potential juror told him no, but Nelson ultimately struck her from the jury.
A Black man who said he faced daily discrimination was also dismissed by the defense.
Narrow focus in court
Hamline University law Prof. David Schultz questioned whether, at the trial's end, deliberating jurors would feel pressure to base their verdict on sending a message to society, especially with the potential for riots if Chauvin is acquitted.
"If they feel like at the end of the day they have to make this a trial about racism in America or racism in Minneapolis, at that point this is no longer a fair trial, they're not really considering the facts of the case and it's turned into something else," he said.
Schultz added that that could be grounds for an appeal if Chauvin is convicted. For the prosecution, he noted: "I think what they want to do is figure out a subtle way of making it about racism but without making it so obvious that it runs the risk of tainting the trial or leading to a mistrial."
Given the limitations of the trial to address systemic racism, activists are vowing to continue pressing for broader structural changes outside the court system.
But they still believe a guilty verdict for Chauvin is necessary.
He would be the first white officer convicted in Minnesota for the killing of a Black person while on police duty. The only officer found guilty of murder for a fatal police shooting was Mohamed Noor, a Black officer who killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white woman, in 2017.
"Why is the justice system within this state showing our families that the only life that was valued enough happened to be the white woman that was murdered by a minority man?" asked Toshira Garraway, who founded Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence. "There's no equality. There's no justice for minority people here in Minnesota and around the United States."
Civil rights activist Nekima Levy Armstrong said people shouldn't be under an illusion that a conviction would solve systemic racism.
"However, it would signal to white officers that they are just as likely to be held accountable as an officer of color who killed someone, and that message has not come across," she said.
As an attorney, Levy Armstrong acknowledged that the legal system is set up to look at a case like this in a vacuum. But she believes the problem is much bigger.
"I think that it's important for people to understand that although one officer right now is on trial, this is not just a case of one or four bad apples operating within Minneapolis police, but their conduct happened inside of a broader culture that has been allowed to get away with the use of excessive force, violating people's civil rights and killing people with impunity," she said.
While society wants healing, the question posed in the trial, said Osler, is not the same one being asked in the streets about police treatment of Black citizens: "What are we going to do about racial violence?"