The protesters who gather every day to demand justice for George Floyd

Amudalat Ajasa in Minneapolis
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters

Behind the Hennepin county courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, which is heavily fortified for the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, a small but determined core of seven protesters gathers every day.

Sometimes there are many more protesters, sometimes not so many. But always this group, there hoping to witness justice for George Floyd, who died under the knee of Chauvin in south Minneapolis last May.

Outside, the core group hold signs, amplify chants with a bullhorn and circle the courthouse with the aim of encouraging peaceful protest.

Related: Chauvin used deliberate and excessive pain technique on George Floyd, police expert says

“I get up at 5am and I’m usually out here a little after 7am every day,” John Stewart Jr, 57, said, as his Black Lives Matter flag fluttered in the wind.

Stewart, an ordained pastor in the city, and the “core of seven” generally stay put in their chosen spot behind the courthouse for the entire length of an average work day: 9-5, or longer.

He brings food and drink, but sometimes doesn’t eat until he gets home, he told the Guardian.

As the trial enters its ninth day of witness testimony, Chauvin, 45, who is white, denies second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, in the killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man.

If convicted on the most serious charge, Chauvin faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

Seeing elders like Stewart protesting daily encouraged Elul Adoga to join those outside the courthouse.

“I’m 22. I can get out of bed at 8am and come and support people,” she said.

The video of Floyd dying under Chauvin’s knee sparked protests across the US and the globe, in a massive reckoning against police brutality and racial inequality.

Protests of one kind or another have been going on in Minneapolis ever since Floyd’s death, on the evening of last year’s Memorial Day holiday.

“Seeing that video last year changed my life. I wanted to be a part of the solution instead of the problem,” said Chaz Neal, who has been protesting at the courthouse since the first official day of the trial, which began with jury selection on 8 March, weeks before opening arguments and the first witness testimony, which was heard on 29 March.

For the first time in Minnesota’s history, the judge has allowed select TV cameras to film and stream the full criminal trial, because access to the courtroom itself is so restricted during the pandemic.

People around the world and the protesters outside the courthouse are able to watch the trial play out in real time, whether on TV, phones, tablets or laptops.

“[The trial] is on YouTube, and I try to watch it at least a little bit every day. But it gets to my mental health a lot,” Adoga said.

“I’d rather be out here than inside [home] by myself watching it.”

I’m 22. I can get out of bed at 8am and come and support people

Elul Adoga

The bystander videos and police body-worn camera footage shown over and over again in the courtroom, along with lingering still images of Chauvin pinning Floyd down, has been traumatic for many viewers.

For Adoga, it also motivates her to protest.

“My dad is the typical ‘Black man’. He’s tall, Black and a little buff, and I think: it could be him any day,” she added.

The core group of seven hasn’t had the easiest time while peacefully protesting, despite the city saying before the trial began that such rights would be protected.

They claim that the city has removed locks with the names of those killed by police officers from the gates, and turned off the power to nearby public electricity outlets.

“Anywhere there’s any plugins, the city and the courts disconnected it all until after the trial,” said Stewart, who uses a powered wheelchair, to the back of which is affixed a prominent Black Lives Matter sign.

He’s been left stranded a few times. “I’ve had to have people bring my charger downtown,” he said.

Meanwhile, Neal said he was arrested last Thursday for trespassing.

“They said I was sleeping, defiant, not listening to directives and threatening staff,” Neal said.

That has not stopped the 43-year-old from traveling over an hour every morning from his home to join the group behind the building, or protesting across the street.

The core has held die-ins, sign-making events, and have future plans for a talent show to build community and activist participation.

Floyd was pinned by the neck to the ground for more than nine minutes, at first pleading for his life and then slipping into unconsciousness after being handcuffed by the police and held down by Chauvin and two other former officers, while a fourth held bystanders at bay.

All four officers were fired the next day by the Minneapolis police chief, Medaria Arradondo, who testified against Chauvin on Monday. The other three will stand trial in August. They deny aiding and abetting murder.

Adoga said of the protest group: “We lay on the ground for nine minutes and 29 seconds, like George did, so people can see what it’s like.”

Floyd has unwittingly become the face of the movement against police killings in America.

But more than 200 people have suffered police-involved deaths in Minnesota alone in the last 20 years, a database compiled by the Minneapolis Star Tribune calculated. Activists believe the real figure is much higher.

While only 7% of Minnesotans are Black, they accounted for 26% of those deaths.

If Chauvin is convicted of murder, it will be the first time for a white officer in the death of a Black person in Minnesota’s history.

Neal looked grimly at the courthouse and said: “This is justice for George, but there’s so many other names died by the hands of police that have not gotten justice. That haven’t even got any kind of publicity.”