The specter of fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's murder trial hovered over an anxious Twin Cities on Monday as legal proceedings began at the heavily fortified Hennepin County Government Center.
Crowds of peaceful protesters seeking a conviction in the death of George Floyd gathered outside the building in downtown Minneapolis. Worshipers prayed for the judicial system in houses of worship across the Twin Cities at high noon. Neighbors of the former police officer expressed fears that last year's tensions on the streets will repeat themselves during and after the trial.
The drama surrounding the trial was especially poignant for Minnesotans who recall last year's visceral feelings watching bystander video of Floyd struggling to breathe under Chauvin's knee — and also the days of rage and fear afterward, when the region erupted in protests and violence.
"Whatever outcome it is, each side is going to have their own spin," said Jake Jaap, who on Monday took his children to a park in Oakdale, the St. Paul suburb where Chauvin lived. "It doesn't matter who wins — we all lose."
At the intersection 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where Floyd fell unconscious as Chauvin and two other officers pinned him down, a planned vigil and gathering of Black men were canceled following a deadly shooting there Saturday. The space, still blocked off and known as George Floyd Square, had been expected to be a place for a dynamic community gathering during the trial. On Monday, though, the atmosphere was quiet.
Outside the courthouse, which was surrounded by temporary concrete barriers, metal fencing and concertina wire, about 1,000 protesters gathered peacefully as court convened Monday morning. They chanted: "No more killer cops!" and "Ain't no power like the power of the people!" And they held banners: "The world is watching." "Justice for stolen lives."
Protesters there spoke of hope mixed with skepticism: Hope that a jury will believe the video of Floyd's death is so convincing that Chauvin will be convicted, but skepticism because historically, convictions of police officers are rare.
Bethany Gilmer, 32, remained hopeful Chauvin will be found guilty.
"We're often doomed to repeat ourselves," she said. "But hopefully this time something can change."
Outside the courthouse, Floyd's youngest sister, Bridgett Floyd, told reporters how emotional it had been to sit in the courtroom, face-to-face with Chauvin.
"My family and I are glad the wait is finally over and the day is here," said Floyd, visiting from North Carolina. "I'm hoping that justice prevails and we can all use this as an opportunity to be better and do better for those around us."
DeShaun McDonald, 36, took the day off from work to come downtown and to call for a conviction for Chauvin. He wishes more people would raise their voices to support the cause.
"I wish they would speak up for the injustice," he said. "Use your platform, use your privilege — whatever you've got — and speak up."
Away from the noise, activists displayed several pieces that were designed to make people think about racial justice. A large mirror spelling out the word "Reflect" stood on a quiet courtyard outside the government center, decorated in red roses and red paint that ran like blood down the mirror.
University of Minnesota student Justin Patterson, who plans to attend law school, said there's far too much injustice happening in the country for students to keep up with in school.
"I'm tired of having to study this over and over again," Patterson said. "At the end of the day the justice system is us and there's not much we can do right now other than this [protesting] and continuing to expose the deep gaps our system has."
After one man died in a Saturday shooting at George Floyd Square, organizers canceled their planned vigil Monday.
"Our hearts are broken," the organizers wrote on Facebook. "We understand that there is an impulse to gather in-person during times of struggle and grief. We have been asked NOT to gather in person … out of respect for the grieving community."
The Agape Movement, a peacekeeping group contracting with the city to patrol the Central community, said the square will reopen for gatherings in a couple of days. "They're kind of letting the tensions die down, giving these young brothers some space to heal," said Agape co-founder Marquis Bowie. "You've got trauma on top of trauma. Things are heavy over here."
Bowie said that during the trial, Agape will pull back into George Floyd Square and focus more of their attention on the Floyd memorial than in past months.
"This is kind of like the protest zone," he said. "A lot of people like to come here and get their voices heard, get their frustrations off, and we allow that to happen to a degree. We don't want no negative rhetoric ... so we're trying to cut that, because that's not what we're about."
Twenty-five miles to the northeast, in the suburban Hugo neighborhood of retired Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll, residents spoke of a different type of trauma. Neighbors recalled the tense months after Floyd's death, when Kroll's house was a spot for protests. As kids played hockey in driveways Monday afternoon and residents walked their dogs, neighbors told of protesters threatening to burn down their houses last summer. Several residents — all of whom asked their names not be used — spoke of the hope that the justice system will mete out whatever justice is proper. But they also fear a repeat of last summer's protests.
"What am I supposed to tell my kids about tolerance?" said one man who lives a few houses from Kroll, referencing protesters there that he considered threatening. "We tell our kids to judge the character of the person, not what they look like. And I told [an organizer of the summer protest], 'What you said and what you did created more racism and more divide than anything else.' "
Police officers have remained on edge since Floyd's death, knowing they are under a microscope. Former Minneapolis police officer Shawn Williams said he hasn't spoken with any law enforcement friends who consider Chauvin's actions acceptable. Now a criminal justice professor at St. Cloud State University, Williams has played videos of Floyd in class as he teaches students about appropriate use of force, a police officer's duty to intervene and how to prevent such an incident from happening again.
"I think the legitimacy and trust of the department is always on trial, but especially now," said Williams. "It's up to law enforcement to now show that professional face … day in and day out to try to win back the trust and legitimacy of the communities they're serving."
"I'm hoping that everyone involved allows the judicial system to just do its work," he added.
As she took her 19-month-old son, Aristotle, for a walk Monday morning in Anoka, Monica Bernal, 24, said the fortifications in downtown Minneapolis showed that the city is preparing for the worst. No matter the outcome, she hopes Chauvin being charged will hold police more accountable.
"If he doesn't get convicted, it's going to be hell," she predicted. "There will be more riots. There will be more destruction — I hope not as much. … I'm worried people are going to lose more faith in the court system, and in humanity. People are going to be deeply hurt if he doesn't get convicted. It just shows that a cop can murder someone in broad daylight and there's no consequences."
At Redeeming Love Church in Maplewood, one of dozens of places of worship convening prayer services as part of a grassroots group called Pray for MN, parishioners whispered prayers for the integrity of the court proceedings, and for Floyd's family as well as for greater peace in the Twin Cities. Pastor Mike Smith led a congregation with several prayers for unity and security.
"Let's pray right now for the integrity of the entire judicial system," Smith said.
Staff writers Nicole Norfleet, Maya Rao and Liz Navratil contributed to this report.