Long before a suburban police officer raised her gun and fired at 20-year-old Daunte Wright, Minneapolis was braced for a turbulent spring.
But the killing of Wright on Sunday – shot by a veteran officer who, the police chief said, had apparently intended to use her Taser – instantly added anger and combustibility in a region already on edge from the highest-stakes trial to date amid a mass movement against racially biased policing.
That trial hurtled toward its conclusion on Monday, with final arguments in the case against former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin expected next week, even as authorities were racing to stave off a second night of unrest after Wright’s death. Officials announced curfews, schools suspended in-person classes, professional sports teams canceled games and businesses boarded up after a first night that included peaceful protests – but also clashes between police and demonstrators, as well as looting of local businesses.
“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” said Mike Elliott, mayor of Brooklyn Center, the suburb 10 miles north of downtown Minneapolis where Sunday’s shooting took place. “We are collectively devastated.”
Apprehension over the potential fallout from the Chauvin verdict, which is likely to come this month, had already reached considerable heights. Minneapolis is still grappling with the chaos that erupted following the killing of George Floyd last year, and the city’s center is locked down due to the trial of Chauvin, who is accused of Floyd’s death. Local officials have said they are spending $1 million on security, bringing in waves of law enforcement and erecting fences topped with barbed wire.
But community leaders said Monday that, especially given the fresh wounds of Sunday’s shooting, they doubt any amount of security will be enough to maintain the peace should Chauvin be acquitted – or even convicted on lesser charges.
“We already see from last night what is going to happen,” said Jamar Nelson, outreach specialist for A Mother’s Love, a Minneapolis-based anti-violence group. “Rome will be burning.”
Nelson said his job is to be “a calming voice in the midst of all this turmoil,” but that task is made immeasurably more difficult by the continued killing of Black citizens by police officers.
“People haven’t healed from last year’s events, or the ones before that,” he said in an interview, naming the litany of Black residents in the Minneapolis area who have been killed or injured by police. “We’ve been going through this for a long, long time. Each event is triggering.”
Wright is at least the 262nd person shot and killed by police so far this year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings. He also appears to be the latest person fatally shot by a police officer who said they intended to pull their Tasers but accidentally drew their firearms instead, following similar cases in Oklahoma, Kansas and Pennsylvania in recent years.
Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon on Monday described the shooting following a traffic stop as “an accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death of Mr. Wright.” A body camera recorded the officer shouting “I’ll tase you!” as she pointed her gun at Wright, then blurting out an anguished expletive when she realized she had fired the wrong weapon.
Wright, who was getting back in his car after police tried and failed to place him in handcuffs, crashed several blocks away and was pronounced dead at the scene.
The apparent accidental nature of the shooting did little to dim the outrage of residents and activists, who demanded that the officer, who has been suspended pending an investigation, be immediately fired. They also called for the police chief to resign following what they described as a heavy-handed response to demonstrations Sunday night.
Gannon said at an emotional news conference Monday afternoon that while many protesters had been peaceful, some had begun throwing chunks of concrete and frozen cans at officers. Police used tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.
“Once we got pelted, we responded in kind,” he said.
Following the protests, at least 20 businesses at a nearby mall were broken into, John Harrington, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said at a news conference early Monday.
But activists charged that police had not distinguished between peaceful protesters and violent rioters, using “excessive force” against the former – which included many young people around Wright’s age.
Both the killing and the police response to the ensuing protests are especially damaging given the court proceedings in Minneapolis, said civil rights attorney and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong.
“It exacerbates the trauma that we were already experiencing during the Chauvin trial, seeing the defense counsel trying to hold George Floyd responsible for his own killing,” she said.
For two weeks, Minneapolis has been gripped by the grueling testimony in Chauvin’s trial.
Chauvin was filmed last year pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck, a recording that fueled a global outcry against racial injustice and policing tactics. Chauvin and the three other officers at the scene were fired. He was charged with murder and manslaughter; the other officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder and are set to stand trial later this year.
Chauvin’s attorneys have sought to cast doubt on the prosecution’s argument that the then-officer’s decision to kneel on Floyd’s neck killed him, suggesting drugs and preexisting health conditions are more likely culprits. Chauvin’s team has also said he was following his police training and using necessary force.
But prosecutors say Chauvin’s actions marked a betrayal of law enforcement, urging jurors to “believe your eyes that it’s a homicide.”
They have called bystanders to testify in anguished detail about the guilt they felt over not being able to do more to help Floyd, and medical experts to give clinical, blunt assessments saying he died due to the police use of force.
Perhaps most striking has been the unprecedented parade of Minneapolis police leaders and veterans, including Chief Medaria Arradondo, who took the stand for the prosecution, denouncing Chauvin’s actions in the widely seen video.
But, experts caution, the trial is not over, and Chauvin’s defense will call the last witnesses before closing arguments are made and the jurors begin deliberations.
As anger grew in Brooklyn Center on Monday, Wright’s death and the unrest that followed briefly crept into the Chauvin trial proceedings.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, argued for sequestering the jury, making a case that the unrest could serve as a reminder for jurors about what could happen depending on how they vote.
The judge turned him down, but Nelson’s remarks echoed concerns expressed by other attorneys who have represented police charged in high-profile cases. These attorneys described being fearful about how jurors from communities shaken by prominent police use-of-force cases might vote. In particular, the attorneys described feeling concerned that jurors, aware of the potential for public anger if an officer walked free, might feel pressured to vote to convict.
During jury selection in Chauvin’s case, several eventual jurors mentioned their concerns about safety and noted the potential for community anger over the verdict.
Nelson has made multiple requests to change the trial’s location. The most recent one came last month, after the city reached a $27 million settlement with Floyd’s family that was announced during jury selection.
In a court filing last month, Nelson wrote that “Mr. Chauvin cannot and will not receive a fair and impartial trial in the Twin Cities.”
The judge rejected the request. If Chauvin is convicted, his attorneys could try to argue in their appeals that the case should have been relocated.
But first, prosecutors are just hoping they can score a conviction. That outcome, said activist Jamar Nelson, is critical in putting back together a broken community.
“If justice is served,” he said, “that would go a long way in trying to heal the hurt.”
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The Washington Post’s Holly Bailey in Minneapolis contributed to this report.