As the jury in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin prepared to deliberate after closing arguments Tuesday, Chauvin's attorneys petitioned the judge to declare a mistrial on extraordinary grounds: the comments of a Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Maxine Waters of California.
These inflammatory comments were no small matter.
The request was swiftly denied, but Judge Peter Cahill did not so casually dismiss its compelling logic. "I'll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned," Cahill said.
Waters had told a crowd of demonstrators gathered in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota: "We're looking for a guilty verdict. And we're looking to see if all of this [inaudible] that took place and has been taking place after they saw what happened to George Floyd.
"And we've got to get more active," Waters unadvisedly continued. "[We've] got to get more confrontational. ... We've got to make sure that they know we mean business."
As we now know, it took the jury less than 12 hours to find Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd. But these inflammatory comments were no small matter. Their source was not just a member of Congress but the House Financial Services Committee chair, a 30-year veteran of the chamber. They occurred before the jury had been sequestered, meaning jurors might have been aware of and influenced by these remarks. They were delivered before an agitated crowd gathering in defiance of an active curfew.
The comments were made at the scene of the civil unrest that followed the death of Daunte Wright, 20, who was fatally shot by an officer during a traffic stop when the arresting officer, she says, mistook her firearm for a Taser. Of the 136 people arrested over the weekend, 52 were booked on charges related to rioting. So the potential for violence was not purely theoretical.
Before Cahill's remarks, Waters' comments had not been subject to a tremendous amount of scrutiny in the media — at least, not on their merits. When they were critically evaluated, it was primarily within the context of the reaction among her political opponents — most notably, that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.
Before Cahill's remarks, Waters' comments had not been subject to a tremendous amount of scrutiny in the media.
Waters, Greene charged, traveled "across state lines to incite riots," which "directly led to more violence" in the form of a drive-by shooting that targeted National Guards troops deployed to a Minneapolis suburb. Greene, therefore, pledged to introduce a resolution to expel Waters from the House.
With little chance that such a resolution would pass in the Democratic-controlled House, what Greene promised was a stunt. But the backbencher congresswoman and routine embarrassment to her fellow Republicans had provided media outlets with a prism through which they could ostensibly cover Waters' remarks while avoiding their implications. The media leaped at the chance.
Insider led with Greene's reaction to Waters comments, rather than the comments themselves. Forbes aggregated a variety of "reactions" to her words, all from Republican lawmakers or conservative commentators. CNN's John Avlon applied air quotes to comments by Republicans who condemned Waters' remarks as "dangerous" while indicting their hypocrisy, as so few of the Republicans engaged in "performative outrage" today were similarly moved by President Donald Trump's agitation ahead of the riots of Jan. 6.
Overtly left-leaning outlets were even more evasive. "Republicans are out here credulously parsing the meaning and use of the word confrontational as if the past four years didn't exist," Slate contributor Elliot Hannon scoffed. "The attacks are part of a long tradition of Republicans distorting Waters' remarks and draw on the racist trope of the angry Black woman," Mother Jones editor Inae Oh alleged.
According to Salon's Amanda Marcotte, Greene's condemnation of Waters was just another example of her conspicuous penchant for white nationalist "dog whistles," and the GOP's attacks on Waters were more evidence that the party is "committed to a politics of white whining."
Cahill's warning makes it clear, though, that Waters' comments should have occasioned some critical analysis from her ostensible political allies. Instead, Democrats appeared to avoid contending with the legal and political implications, saying nothing about the impropriety of it all, framing the story as yet another bizarre preoccupation of the GOP's most addled members.
This is just the kind of avoidance that Democrats accused Republicans of during the Trump presidency.
This is just the kind of avoidance that Democrats accused Republicans of during the Trump presidency. Throughout the many distinct outrages of the Trump years, Republicans could be counted on to address them — if they deigned to acknowledge them at all — only amid a flurry of denunciations of Democrats, despite their relative political irrelevance.
First, it was Nancy Pelosi, with whom Republicans maintained a "desperate obsession" despite her lack of any appreciable political power during the 115th Congress, in which Pelosi served as her caucus' minority leader. Then it was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. She, too, "isn't that powerful," so all that could explain the GOP's "obsession" with her was either a deep-seated fear of young women in government or a strategic effort to establish a foil to contrast with Trump — or both.
And after that, it was socialism. From the Conservative Political Action Conference to the Republican National Convention, the threat posed by collectivist authoritarianism loomed large, even if their respective presenters did their best to "ignore authoritarians."
If you are feeling charitable, all this could be chalked up to the unremarkable pursuit of political advantage. But it could be (and was) just as accurately condemned as a form of psychological "avoidance."
That is a valid critique, though it has its limits. The pie-eyed policy preferences and paradigmatic shifts that find an audience within the party out of power are irrelevant only until that party is in power again. Nevertheless, Democrats had a point when they alleged that Republicans gave undue attention to marginal figures in a relatively powerless opposition only to avoid dealing with the conundrums the sitting president so frequently presented.
The same criticism now applies to the Democratic Party. If one congresswoman's reckless commentary has sown the seeds that could grow into a miscarriage of justice, imagine how an appeals court might look upon remarks rendered by the sitting president.
"I'm praying that the verdict is the right verdict, which is — I think it's overwhelming," President Joe Biden said Tuesday in advance of the verdict in Chauvin's trial. "I wouldn't say that unless the jury was sequestered."
With this qualification, Biden tacitly admitted that his comments were an inappropriate infringement on the remit of the judiciary by the executive branch. This is just the sort of behavior from "elected officials" that Cahill called "disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch and our function." A future court tasked with hearing Chauvin's inevitable appeal will have to decide whether the jury's partial sequestration was airtight enough to avoid being prejudiced by any of these remarks.
But if that court reaches the conclusion Cahill warned of, it will come as a shock to consumers of news and center-left media. They were told by the people they trust that these comments did not matter and that anyone who cared was an obsessive racist crank. That was not just a lie — it was a profound disservice.