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Transcript: Into an American Uprising: Keith Ellison on Prosecuting George Floyd's Death

The full episode transcript for Into an American Uprising: Keith Ellison on George Floyd’s Death.
Image; Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., speaks outside of the Capitol on Feb. 1, 2017.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., speaks outside of the Capitol on Feb. 1, 2017.Alex Wong / Getty Images file


Into America

Into an American Uprising: Keith Ellison on George Floyd’s Death

Trymaine Lee: Tens of thousands of people took to the street of more than 140 cities over the weekend through Sunday night. Despite city-imposed curfews and some places patrols of the National Guard. The mass public protest against racism and police brutality were set off by the suspected murder of George Floyd.

Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in police custody on the streets of Minneapolis last week. Video of his death, his neck pinned to the ground under the knee of a white police officer upended the nation. "I can't breath," Floyd told officers.

I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. And today, we go to the epicenter of this moment. Minneapolis, Minnesota. On Sunday night, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz tapped State Attorney General Keith Ellison to take the lead in the Floyd case with the help of the Hennepin County District Attorney's Office.

Ellison was elected in 2018 after representing Minnesota's 5th Congressional District for 12 years in Congress. He is the first African American to be elected to statewide office in Minnesota. I had a chance to talk with him earlier today. So Keith, first, thank you so very much for joining us. I really appreciate it. Especially with everything going on. We know you're busy.

Keith Ellison: A lot to be done. And I know you're really busy too.

Lee: Thank you. So the George Floyd case had been in the hands of the Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. But now that the case in your hands, what changes it all?

Ellison: Well, it gives us a statewide perspective. It gives us greater resources to draw upon. Let me tell you, Hennepin County Attorney's Office will be working with us. We will be working with them. They are the only county in our state who has successfully prosecuted a police officer for murder.

Therefore, you know, we're not gonna leave that expertise and experience on the sideline. We're gonna use it. We're gonna work with them. We're gonna partner with them. I will be the lead prosecutor on the case, but we will absolutely see their presence in this matter. And we need to. We should.

Lee: So if they have that expertise and that history, why was the decision made to take it out of their hands and give you the lead? Because we needed to draw on statewide resources. We needed to do that. 'Cause it's a statewide matter, by the way. I mean, it's in Hennepin County, but every county in the state of Minnesota is impacted by what's going on.

And so you know, that's kind of how it is. I can tell you that our office has a tremendous amount of prosecutorial experience as well. You know, we do these kind of cases every day and all of the time. We have a division that does it. So we're well-positioned to do it, but we are going to, you know, use every resource available to us to achieve justice for George Floyd.

Lee: So there's been a lot of pressure mounting from the family and activists not just in Minnesota but across the country to upgrade the charges against Officer Derek Chauvin. Last Friday, he was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. But is that on the table?

Ellison: Well, what I can tell you is that we are going to take a fresh look at the evidence and all of the law. We're going to charge the highest level of accountability that we can that can be sustained by those facts and the law. And so you asked, is it on the table? The answer to that question is, yes, it is on the table.

We're doing that fast. We're doing that literally now. And so I don't want to give you a precise time, because one thing's for sure, the second you set a precise time or a precise plan, something happens and now you've got to adjust. But we're moving as expeditiously as we can.

Lee: As you weight the evidence and think about whether those charges should be upgraded, what role does the idea of actually trying to win this case play in your mind. Some people have made concern about if you overcharge, then you risk actually winning in court. Is that an issue at all?

Ellison: That's a total issue. That's a critical issue. But for me, as the person who has prosecutorial authority, I got to look at this thing in a very cold-blooded, sober way. I got to ask myself, what can we prove? What facts do we have? And what are the charges available to sustain that?

And let me just say, Trymaine, I am committed to winning this case. That's what it's about for me. I would never charge everyone. Nor would I be part of a prosecution unless I believed the person was guilty and they needed to be held accountable.

So that's my responsibility as a prosecutor. But I can also say that it is not wise to overcharge a case, because, first of all, I think it's kind of unethical. But I also think it's not right to undercharge a case either. I mean, we've got to look at what fits and what makes sense.

And I can assure folks that I got this case last night and we have been pursuing justice every moment since then. But we're just not ready to make an announcement as to what an amended complaint is going to look like. We're ready to make an announcement about an additional persons that we may need to bring to justice. But those factors are cooking right this moment.

Lee: That was actually gonna be my next question, in terms of accountability. Four officers involved in the death of George Floyd have been fired. Chauvin is already facing murder charges. There are three other officers out there. How munch consideration is going into actually possibly bringing charges against them. And what's the bar for their involvement to be able to charge them?

Ellison: So you know, like I said, everything is on the table. We're taking a fresh look at this. Trymaine, I really cannot ethically start just discussing the evidence like that. But I will say theoretically. Theoretically, not this case necessarily, there are statutes in Minnesota that say that if you aid and abet and assist in the commission of crime, then you're on the hook for that crime just like the person who was the principal actor.

There's also statues that say that if you're in the deputy of authority and you have to render aid. And if you don't, you know, you could be held accountable for that. There are various ways to hold people accountable who may not be as culpable as the main actor, but facilitated that crime to happen.

So those things are out there. And we're looking at all of those things. But I think it's also important for people to just think about the history here. What happened in the Freddie Gray case? I looked on that case and said those guys are clearly guilty.

Nobody was ever held accountable. You may remember the Rodney King case or you read about it, you know about it. The first trial in Simi Valley, California, they walked. They beat that man for 57 blows and 17 people stood around doing nothing. They walked.

I mean, if you look at the Walter Scott case. How in the world did that guy not get convicted? That was a hung jury. You look at the Eric Garner case. That was a no bill of indictment. This case can be won. And I'm telling you with every cell in my body, we're gonna everything we can to make sure that this case is won.

But I also want to make sure everybody understands this is no walk in the park. And yes, the video shows what it shows. It's disturbing. It's alarming. It's outrageous. But you've got defense attorneys who are very good and well-compensated, and well-resourced who are trying to break the chain of prosecution at every single link.

They're working hard. So I think it's important to understand that the people who are at the march, the jury will not be made up of those people. I mean, what good defense attorney is not gonna strike them. Right? It will be made of people by and large who trust the police as an institution.

And who it's not easy for them to just assume that a police officer would deliberately commit a murder or even not deliberately. Again, I'm speaking not about this evidence, but I'm speaking hypothetically. And so that is what we're up against.

It's not a simple matter. And I just think that the outrage people are feeling makes people say, "Charge him. Charge him now. Charge them all. But what's the waiting on? What's the problem?" And I'm like, you know, do you want immediate satisfaction or do you want long-term justice? That is what we're really sort of dealing with right here.

Lee: There's one piece of evidence in this case again that stands out. That this 44-year-old white officer, Derek Chauvin, 19 years on the force, had his knee in George Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Is that restraint allowable under any circumstances by police department protocol?

Ellison: You know, that's a great question, but basically what really asking me to do is comment on the evidence, which could run me into trouble with my role in the case. So what I will say is I have my own persona opinion about it. And my reaction is what you would expect it to be. And I'm gonna leave it right there.

Lee: Without speaking specifically about this case, are police officers allowed to use their knees in the necks of individuals they're restraining to hold them down?

Ellison: Another good question. I will say that there is ample evidence that it is an inherently dangerous practice.

Lee: So as America kind of convulses under the rage that many, many people are feeling. There have been protests in 140 cities. There have been clashes. You and I are sitting here, two black men who understand clearly the history of this country. The violent that's part of the fabric of it. How does change the texture of the way you approach these cases?

Ellison: We walk into it fully knowing that we've got to put more than our best food forward. Right? We've got to work extra hard. We've got to grind. If you just act like, oh, there was no racism. I can just wing it. No. That is not gonna do it, man. We all know that you got to work twice as hard to go half as far.

And that's just the lot we have been given, but we are not satisfied with that lot. I mean, look, if it was 1830, what good reason would any person who was in bondage have to believe that it was gonna end 30 years later? Why in the world would Martin Luther King or Malcolm X believe American segregation was gonna end?

History told them that it wasn't. It was just gonna be here. But somehow they said, you know, we're march anyway. We're not gonna put up with this, even though the odds don't appear to be in our favor. So when you're talking to an African American person about the odds of success, that ain't nothing but word, man. We have to strive for freedom, justice, and equality, and fairness no matter what. Even if the odds are long. Right? 'Cause that's just what's up, man. And so how can we do less, Trymaine?

Lee: Keith, we're gonna take a quick break. We'll be right back. (MUSIC) You know, at least there are some of us who have been around long enough to see some incremental change. It's never quite frankly enough being black in America. But when you have an 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-old young man or young woman in 2020 seeing what's happening.

Seeing the disparity, seeing the ongoing violence, and they express themselves. As we've heard that Martin Luther King quote that, "The riot is the language of the unheard." What we're seeing now, that rage, are we seeing a riot or a rebellion? Is there a difference? And does it matter?

Ellison: Mostly what I'm seeing is a militant, peaceful demonstration. That's mostly what I'm seeing. I mean, 90-plus percent of the people aren't burning anybody's stuff. They're not breaking anything. They're carrying their signs. They're passing out their flyer.

They're wearing their t-shirts. They're doing their chants. They're raising their voices. Overwhelmingly, what I see is people doing legitimate, First-Amendment-protected protests. And there are some people who are doing some other stuff.

And, Trymaine, this is kind of where I may part company with some of my friends. Burning down black-owned businesses, burning down Latino businesses. I mean, there is people who took their whole lifesavings to start this little restaurant

And you burn that down and then you tell me, oh well, that's just you got to break some eggs to make an omelet. I'm like, wait a minute, man. These people at this little restaurant you just burnt down would be the first ones calling for justice for George Floyd.

I can't condone it, man. And I know that some people might say, oh, you don't get it. You don't get it. Well, okay. Well, I guess I just don't get it, because I cannot say that that's okay. I can say that I understand it. I understand why. But you know what? How is it that you, who have lived under oppression, racism get to hurt another person as you can condemn what the police are doing hurting George Floyd?

What I say is, come into your conscious mind and ask yourself what it is that you're doing. And then of course there's another element, Trymaine. I don't know where they're from and I don't know what their ideology is, but there are some straight out agent provocateurs.

And I've seen these people. Seem 'em. And by the way, you know who's confronting them? The protesters. Putting them on take. "What you doing, man? My you breaking the windows in the AutoZone, man?" But they are running around, setting fires on businesses that don't deserve it and are actually in favor of justice for George Floyd. So that's my two cents on that.

Lee: There have been growing calls from the families of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd for Congress to step in and do something. A hearing, a taskforce. Can we legislate our way out of this? Will a congressional hearing and a mandate from up on high stop what we see playing out in our cities every single day when it comes to race relations and racial inequality?

Ellison: I don't know if it's gonna work, but I know we got to try.

Lee: You support it?

Ellison: Absolutely, 100%. 10,000%, I support it. There needs to be hearings at the state level, the city level, the federal level. Look, President Trump, who has made some very unhelpful tweets, you know, what he could do, if he was inclined to, is do a pattern-and-practice lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis for, you know, systemic discrimination.

But he has not done a single one since he became president. In fact, he's said a lot of things that were encouraging police brutality. Do you remember when he said, "Oh, when you guys put your hand on the head of the defendants, you don't need to do that so much anymore."

Remember he said that? That's encouraging police brutality. He's said a lot of things like that. He's not been helpful. And I know a lot of folks have, you know, reason to critique Obama on this and that. But he did do the 21st Century Policing study, which was very important.

He dug into the Ferguson Police Department. Also very important. And this is the kind of help we need from the federal government. This is not a Minneapolis problem. It's not a Houston problem. It's not a D.C. problem. It's not an Atlanta problem. It is a national problem.

It's not a this-generation problem, it's a last-generation problem, and a generation-before-that problem. And it calls for a systemic solution. And yes, it's about policing, but it's also about housing, healthcare, and everything else. And so this is what we need from Congress and the president at this moment.

It's not to condemn somebody who did something bad or irresponsible. It's not even enough to convict the officers responsible for the murder of Mr. Floyd. And I say murder, because he's charged with murder right now. And that may even be upgraded. I don't know, Trymaine, you got any kids?

Lee: Yeah, I have an eight-year-old.

Ellison: Trymaine, when you don't have to say, "Son, when the police stop you, don't say nothing smart. 'Yes, sir.' 'No, sir.' And then you call me as soon as you can. Because the police, Son, will kill you." When you don't have to have that conversation as my father had with me, then we got some justice coming. Right?

We're not going to let public opinion drive us in this case. We're gonna make sure nobody can say we rushed to judgment or we were pushed into doing this or that by public pressure. We're doing this on the facts and the law in front of us. And people have entrusted me to do that and that is what I'm gonna do.

But at the same time, it's just one data point in many, many, many. If we're gonna make the life of George Floyd, who a lot of people really loved a lot, really, really have impact in this moment, it will be that we get justice for him and we carry forth the fight beyond.

Lee: What is this moment like? To see your city going through what it's going through? How does it feel knowing that this is home and to see what's happening?

Ellison: Man, here's the thing. I love Minneapolis. It's a great place, man. And it's a beautiful place. And to see it as it is hurts a lot. But I will tell you this. Minnesota has always been a tale of two cities. It's this natural beauty. It's this great artistic tradition.

It's this wonderful stuff, but we also have got some of the worst disparities in America. And what I say to my white colleagues and friends is that, like, if you can make this place like a white Wakanda, you know? Then all you got to do is open up this thing, so that everybody can share in the great benefits of this community that is here.

And we can make this place a good place for everyone, if we would but do so. And that is the challenge before us. I believe there's a lot of people of all backgrounds who want to do that. And there are some people who don't. But we've simply got to overcome them. Through activism, through elections, and through all of the means at our disposal to make this society just and fair. And to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all.

Lee: Don't this moment has the opportunity to be a pivot point for America? Do you believe truly that we'll come out of this or we could come out of this better than we were before? Or do we fall back into the status quo and allow America to settle the way it's always settled?

Ellison: I believe we're at an inflection point, because I believe in those young people out there peacefully protesting. I was driving by the University of Minnesota the other day, which is in the city of Minneapolis. All of these white kids out there blocking traffic.

I know some of them is gonna be hedge fund managers in two or three years. But they're on their campus protesting because a black man on a whole other side of town was unjustly killed by the police officer. What we really need is to make sure that everybody understands that this condition that African American people, and Native America people, and Latino people, and even some poor whites are in is not good for any of us.

And we need to get people to dig in. There's a young leader here name Leslie Redmond. She's 28 years old. She's the President of the NAACP. There's my son. Thirty years old, a city council member, Jeremiah Ellison. There is a generation of young black leader. Man, they are 100% committed to justice.

And so when you put all of this together, I think what it adds up to is we have a change to make permanent, lasting change. But only a chance. (LAUGH) If we believe that progress is guaranteed because of what we're going through, we are so sadly mistaken. After everybody goes back to their school, home, and work, after COVID-19 is over, after the buildings are rebuilt, who is gonna be fighting for change then?

Lee: And the question is, does America want that change that you speak of? There are young people and old people who believe in the ideals of America and what it could be, but we've seen the marching, and the protesting, and the elections before. And we always end up at the same place. Does America want it?

Ellison: Well, what I'd say is that in 1954, America was a segregated society. Because of marching, by 1966, there was racism and disparities, but we had gotten rid of the Jim Crow system. Before that, you had Thurgood Marshall and them out there fighting the legal battle.

Then you had the popular struggle led by King and Malcolm X and others. We have made progress and to not acknowledge that means we're not honoring our ancestors. But at the same time, every generation has a challenge. This generation's challenge is to end racism, which in some ways is even harder. Right? But it can be done. If you believe that a person is a person is a person, then you got to believe that we can overcome racism and racial disparities. But it's not gonna be easy. And this is a marathon and not a sprint. (MUSIC)

Lee: Keith Ellison, thank you so much. We got you on day one of your handling of this case and we really appreciate you taking some time out for us, but more importantly our listeners. So thank you very much.

Ellison: Keep at it, Trymaine Lee.

Lee: Keith Ellison is Attorney General of Minnesota. I heard a say once that a child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth. Right now, America is burning. The spark may have been the suspected murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota.

And the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky before him. But the kindling of racial inequality, injustice, and violence have been simmering long before we ever knew their names. And now as the embers of black pain and resistance spark protest across the country and the spirit of violent uprising has consumed the young and the angry, we are left to sift through the ashes to make sense of the senseless.

So this week on Into America, we'll be covering the unrest unfolding in cities across America by examining its roots of institutional racism, structural inequality, and what it will take to crate systemic change in this country. Because of the significance of this moment, we are breaking from our usual schedule to bring you coverage every day this week.

Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our Executive Producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Licktieg is the Executive Producer of Audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.