A few decades ago, when Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was a civil rights lawyer and community activist, his response to the murder of George Floyd might have looked different — or so Ellison writes in his recent book, “Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence.” Back then, he would have hopped out of bed, taken to the streets and shouted “no justice, no peace” alongside throngs of protesters. But instead of protesting, Ellison was in charge of prosecuting the men responsible for Floyd’s 2020 murder, which had prompted a racial reckoning in America. He was assigned as special prosecutor in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of second-degree murder for his killing of Floyd.
As the state attorney general, Ellison was forced to relinquish the privilege of “moral certainty” when he took his oath of office, he describes in his book. “Not only did that oath oblige me to take a calm, objective approach to the evidence, but the years had changed me as well,” Ellison wrote in a passage that Louisiana State Sen. Royce Duplessis read to a crowd at Baldwin & Co. bookstore on Friday (Aug. 4). Published in May this year, the book begins with a foreword by George Floyd’s brother, Philonise.
At the event, Duplessis and Ellison discussed the notebooks full of trial notes Ellison took throughout the Chauvin case — notes that became the foundation of the part-memoir, part-guide, part-trial outline of a book.
“Minnesota is not exactly Louisiana, right?” Duplessis said. “They’re more of a progressive state, so in Minneapolis, if you still have these kinds of instances happening in Minneapolis, Minnesota, what does that say about us as a nation and how far we have to go to address this issue?”
In the company of his Louisiana relatives and friends — Ellison’s grandfather was a NAACP leader in Natchitoches Parish in the 1950s — Ellison also reflected on how the values he learned from his family continue to influence his work as a public servant.
“My mother would have been deeply disappointed in me if I would’ve said, ‘I’m not taking this case because if I win, then the cops are gonna hate me, and if I lose, then the people are gonna hate me,’” he said.
Ellison spoke with Verite about the George Floyd case, his new book and policing in America. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Verite: You took voracious notes during the Derek Chauvin trial. At that time, did you know that you were going to turn those notes into your book?
Ellison: No, I didn’t. I was just taking trial notes because as a trial lawyer, that’s what you do. But what really made me think I would write the book, from the notes and other memories, is the fact that I kept on talking to people who were calling me about incidents of police brutality. For example, in Memphis, Tennessee, or in certain parts of even Louisiana or Texas, or even Chicago, and I just ended up being in a number of conversations about how it is that you hold police officers accountable.
One thing any trial lawyer can tell you, any prosecutor can tell you —when you prosecute the police, all the basic assumptions shift. When you’re a defense lawyer, you’re walking in the door, and the jury probably presumes your client’s guilty. When you’re prosecuting police, people presume they’re innocent, which is actually a good thing. That’s the way the system’s supposed to work. You have to think about how you’re going to charge them, how you’re going to conduct jury selection, how you’re going to deal with certain witnesses, how you’re going to structure the trial, expert testimony, all these things play in a very critical way, because pretty much anything the officer says is probably going to be believed by the jury.
Verite: “Break the Wheel” is part memoir and diary, but it’s also a guide for other officials to use. I’m curious why you decided to write the book in this particular style and format?
Ellison: It’s a guide, not only for officials, but for ordinary citizens. If an official tells them, “Oh, we couldn’t do anything, we couldn’t charge anybody. We couldn’t indict anybody. We couldn’t do a good job,” average folks can say, “Well, I read Ellison’s book — yes, you can.”
The book that I wrote is supposed to be able to help people say, “We know you can do better. We know that you can hold people accountable for breaking the law in this situation, right? And if you don’t, why didn’t you?” As opposed to, “Oh, it’s legal stuff. You wouldn’t get it.”
Verite: Can you break down the name of the title?
Ellison: We live in a 100-plus-year cycle, where there’s some horrific, tragic incident between a member of the public, often Black, and the police department. People then go protest, then there’s often civil unrest. Then there is maybe an investigative committee that researches it all, issues a report. In the 1919 Chicago Riot, it was sparked by a tragic incident of police violence. They read an investigative report and then issued recommendations. Nothing happens. 1935 Harlem, 1943 Harlem 1943 Detroit, Michigan, then you get the Kerner Commission in . They study 2,000 riots across the country, all sparked by police violence, and then you write a report, then nobody does anything about it.
It doesn’t stop there: Rodney King in the Christopher Commission after the LA riots. Then what about even when Mike Brown gets killed? After Ferguson, even President Obama [forms a task force on] 21st Century Policing, which is another investigative committee coming up with recommendations — and then not much happens. We have to break that cycle. We have to start something new. How do we break that cycle? It starts with accountability.
Verite: What is your perspective on the utility of police consent decrees? And then once they’re lifted, what do you think departments should do so as to not regress in their practices?
Ellison: In my view, these consent decrees are very helpful. They are important, and they don’t come about lightly. It is difficult to get to the point where you first of all have to file a complaint and then have the city either consent or prove to a fact finder that this is proper and in order. It’s not a lightweight thing that gets done.
New Orleans has had a lot of problems with the police. I don’t have to tell you that. But things have gotten a lot better in the city of New Orleans. And so I think they’re helpful. I think [consent decrees are] long and hard and everybody gets sick of them, and I think we’ve got to find a better way to get out of them. I think once you set up a cycle of a virtuous culture, you can keep that. And that’s the real goal. You got to convince officers that upholding high standards is the best way to do policing.
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