Minneapolis Braces for Verdict Over George Floyd’s Death

Businesses boarded up and residents held their breath, fearing a repeat of last year’s unrest if the jury brings back a decision that the public sees as unjust.,

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MINNEAPOLIS — Around midday last Monday, Samir Patel received a phone call from his friend, a dentist: Gunshots had rung out, his friend told him, and the contractors who were rebuilding the office he lost in last year’s unrest had fled. He was boarding up, and he told Mr. Patel he should move quickly to protect his own business, a dry cleaning shop.

And so Mr. Patel got in his car and drove to his shop, cleared out all of his customers’ clothes and brought them home. Maybe he couldn’t protect his building, he said, but at least he could save the clothing his customers had entrusted to him.

“We don’t know what will happen,” said Mr. Patel, an immigrant from India who said he suffered half a million dollars in damage in last year’s civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. He had to deplete his savings and retirement accounts just to get his business open again. “We can’t predict now,” he said. “It’s beyond your imagination now.”

Elite Cleaners, Mr. Patel’s shop, is on a side street, not far from the shell of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct station house, which burned last year in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s death. The surrounding community of Lake Street, a corridor of immigrant-owned businesses — taquerias, furniture shops, liquor stores and cafes — was devastated by looting in the days of protests and the riots that followed. The city has said that the unrest led to $350 million in losses, with more than a thousand buildings either destroyed or damaged.

Now, almost a year on, Minneapolis is a place consumed with grief and fear.

As the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former police officer charged with murder in the death of Mr. Floyd, a Black man, draws to a close, the city is on edge, fearing that a not-guilty verdict would bring anger, chaos and destruction once again.

ImageElite Cleaners burned last year in the aftermath of George Floyd's death. It reopened in February.
Elite Cleaners burned last year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. It reopened in February.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

Last week, as the community was consumed by televised testimony in the trial, the Twin Cities region was rocked after Daunte Wright was shot dead by a police officer following a routine traffic stop in the suburban community of Brooklyn Center. Hundreds came out for mostly peaceful protests, although dozens of businesses were looted and vandalized near Lake Street. Elite Cleaners was spared.

Pastor Brian Herron of Zion Baptist Church, in Minneapolis’s historically Black neighborhood of Near North, spoke to his congregation on Sunday in personal terms. He said the news of yet another police shooting had sent him to “a dark place,” bringing back memories of traveling as a young boy with his father, also a preacher, to the rural South and seeing how Black people were treated there. “It triggered my trauma,” he said.

Sara Stamschror-Lott, a therapist who specializes in trauma therapy in Minneapolis’s minority communities, said that the trial, and the painful emotions it has resurfaced among Black citizens who have suffered from abusive policing, has consumed her sessions. One client asked Ms. Stamschror-Lott on Wednesday to spend a regular therapy session watching the trial, which has been carried live, gavel to gavel, on most local television stations. The client did not want to watch alone, Ms. Stamschror-Lott said, and wanted instead to be in the presence of someone to process the pain that arose from the testimony.

If she is not watching the trial with clients, she said, they are talking about it in their sessions.

“I would say the vast majority, like 95 percent of my clients, have talked to me about the trial in every session since it started,” Ms. Stamschror-Lott said.

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Sara Stamshror-Lott, a therapist who specializes in trauma therapy in Minneapolis’s minority communities, with her husband and daughter. Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The testimony in the Chauvin trial is done; closing arguments are scheduled for Monday, and then the case goes to the jury. As the city awaits the verdict, which could come down as early as this week, there is a sense of life suspended — an inability to imagine what the world will look like after the jury of seven women and five men reaches its decision.

“A lot of people are immobilized, they are afraid,” said Andre Marshall, a deacon at Zion Baptist Church. He said he was optimistic about the outcome after seeing the evidence, but even so, “personally, I’m afraid of an acquittal.”

As Mr. Patel was clearing out his shop, National Guard soldiers carrying assault rifles were taking up positions on nearby street corners. Their armored vehicles reminded Mr. Patel of what his neighborhood looked like last year: “a war zone.”

While that was happening, Mr. Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd was on the witness stand in a downtown courtroom.

In presenting their case over more than two weeks, prosecutors called a parade of witnesses, including bystanders who spoke emotionally about watching the killing of Mr. Floyd. Police officers testified that Mr. Chauvin’s actions violated department policies, and medical experts told the court that Mr. Floyd died from asphyxia as he was pressed to the street under Mr. Chauvin’s knee for more than nine minutes.

The defense case lasted only two days, and just two expert witnesses were called: a use-of-force expert who argued that Mr. Chauvin’s actions had been appropriate, and a doctor who challenged the state’s determination that Mr. Floyd died of asphyxia and said he classified the cause of death as “undetermined.”

The past few weeks have been especially difficult for many of Minnesota’s Black citizens who have had to endure a trial in which Mr. Chauvin’s defense strategy has focused on Mr. Floyd’s drug use, and has leaned on what legal experts and activists have described as the same sort of racial dog whistles that have cleared white officers of the murder of Black men in past police brutality cases.

At times, Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric J. Nelson, emphasized Mr. Floyd’s large size and his struggles with substance abuse, and presented testimony that he may have had “superhuman strength” that justified what seemed to be excessive force by the police.

If Mr. Chauvin is found guilty of murder, the verdict would certainly bring a sense of relief to many in the community. But at the same time, any celebration of a conviction of one officer would be weighed against the reality of persistent racial disparities that Mr. Floyd’s death has forced Minneapolis to reckon with.

“It’s not a one-and-done thing,” Ms. Stamschror-Lott said. “Even if he’s found guilty, that is like literally scraping at the very beginning of all the justice reform that needs to happen, from the schools to the prison system, to the health care system, to everything in between. Yes it would be a victory, but it wouldn’t mean the system is changed.”

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The Minneapolis Police Departments’s Third Precinct station house was set on fire by protesters last year.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

All along Lake Street last week, as new curfews were imposed by city authorities in the aftermath of Mr. Wright’s killing, there was a persistent hum of power drills. Shopkeepers were busy putting up plywood boards at cellphone stores and furniture shops; at Quruxlow, an African restaurant; at Mercado Central, a Latino market; and at Hook Fish & Chicken, a restaurant across the street from the Uptown Pawn Shop.

Most evenings, Mr. Patel, the owner of Elite Cleaners, has been at home watching screens: the news about the Chauvin trial on television, and images from the security cameras at his shop, looking for looters and ready to call the police.

Mr. Patel, 56, said his losses last year during the unrest meant he had to postpone his retirement. He was planning to stop working in three or four years but now may have to work until he is 70.

The plan he was most looking forward to must now be delayed.

“I have one granddaughter, and I wanted to spoil her,” he said. “That was it.”

As businesses across the city are boarding up, Mr. Patel has said he would not do the same, a small gesture of defiance and hope that things will be different than last year.

Looking ahead to the trial’s outcome, Mr. Patel’s wife, Pinkey, said simply: “God knows what’s going to happen to Minneapolis.”

John Eligon contributed reporting.

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