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‘I Can’t Breathe’: Minneapolis Erupts in Protest After Black Man Dies in Police Custody

Thousands of demonstrators marched to police headquarters after footage emerged of a white officer kneeling on a black man’s neck as he lost consciousness and later died.

Kelly Weill, Solomon GustavoMay. 26, 2020 1:32 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS—Thousands of protesters squared off against police in Minneapolis late Tuesday, just hours after disturbing footage emerged showing a white police officer kneeling on an unarmed black man’s neck for several minutes before he died. 

Chanting “I can’t breathe,” protesters marched from the site where George Floyd, 46, died in police custody on Monday to the police department’s third precinct, where some demonstrators reportedly left graffiti on police vehicles and smashed in windows. Videos taken from the scene by a local KSTP reporter showed tear gas canisters being fired into the crowd by police as demonstrators coughed and gagged. Other videos purportedly taken from the scene showed protesters hurling objects at police vehicles. 

There was no immediate word on whether any arrests were made.

Although the Minneapolis Police Department was quick to fire four police officers after the gruesome video emerged and the FBI is investigating the officers for possible civil-rights violations, demonstrators expressed outrage not only that such an incident could have occurred but that it seems to have become the norm. 

“For us, as black people, we’re getting tired. Every time we turn around, this is constantly happening. There are numerous names. The list goes on,” Kiara Nelson told The Daily Beast after laying flowers at a makeshift vigil to Floyd. Wearing a black hoodie with the names of the Central Park Five, Nelson said, “The fact that this keeps happening over and over, it’s just crazy. They’ve [the police] been racist, it’s just the fact that we’re recording it now that is making them mad. Justice needs to be taken care of at this point.”

Another demonstrator, Patricia Rogers, said police had started firing tear gas and smoke bombs after “young kids” broke windows at an Arby’s located near the police precinct and spray painted “fuck the police” inside. 

“The tear gas is all over me, my face and eyes. It’s all in my hair,” she said. “I feel like I witnessed a kind of history. I just can’t believe it.”

Activists have pointed to what they describe as the brazen cruelty on display in the video of Floyd’s arrest to call for more than just the officers’ firing. 

Bystanders could be heard in the video pleading with police officers to help Floyd as an officer identified by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as Derek Chauvin kneels on his neck. Floyd, too, begs Chauvin and other officers at the scene, repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” 

The officer remains on Floyd’s neck even as bystanders shout that Floyd appears to have gone unconscious. The video shows Floyd being carried away completely limp, and he died in a nearby hospital shortly after in what police described as a “medical incident.”

Officials have said it could take three weeks or more to determine the cause of Floyd’s death. 

Chauvin and three other officers associated with the incident were fired Tuesday afternoon. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey described the firings as the “right call” and said Floyd “should not have died.”

Minneapolis police claimed the incident began when the department received a report about a “forgery in progress” on Monday night. Officers said they identified Floyd as the suspect and asked him to step out of his car. He complied but resisted officers, police allege. 

Trahren Crews, a St. Paul man who organizes with Black Lives Matter Minnesota, said the firings were a good first start but that activists need to continue to push for accountability.

“Chief Arradondo just fired the four officers. That’s what community pressure does. And having video," he told The Daily Beast.

“It’s great, hats off to the chief, hats off to the mayor.” But because of a county attorney, whom local activists have described as a recurring opponent in the police accountability movement, “we know we need to keep the pressure up. We know the [Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis] is going to step in and try to get this guy’s job back. It’s not good enough to fire people.”

According to a police statement, “officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later."

Footage filmed by a bystander gives a more detailed picture of what happened between the handcuffing and the hospitalization. “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe, please, man,” Floyd tells Chauvin, who is kneeling on his neck in the footage. 

Later in the clip, Floyd tells Chauvin, “I’m about to die.” Chauvin tells him to relax. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd says. “Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe, sir.”

That video does not show the beginning of the arrest. “When I walked up, he was already on the ground,” Darnella Frazier, a bystander who filmed the incident, said in a Facebook video. “The cops, their knees—they was pinning him down by his neck and he was crying and shit, saying he couldn’t breathe. They wasn’t trying to take him serious.”

A separate 45-second video released by Fox 9 on Tuesday appeared to capture the moments when officers first approached Floyd. Two officers can be seen trying to pry Floyd out of a vehicle and handcuff him.

Floyd’s death has drawn comparisons to that of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who was killed by a New York City police officer who suffocated him in a banned chokehold in 2014. Garner repeatedly told his arresting officers that he could not breathe.

Minnesota officials have condemned Floyd’s death, calling for an investigation of the officers involved. 

“Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” Frey said in a Tuesday press conference. “For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a black man’s neck. Five minutes. When you hear someone calling for help, you’re supposed to help. This officer failed in the most basic, human sense. What happened on Chicago and 38th last night is awful. It was traumatic. It serves as a reminder of how far we have to go.”

Though police claim Floyd died at the hospital, Frazier said he died on the ground. “The police killed him, bro, right in front of everybody,” she said, adding that “five, six minutes” after announcing he couldn’t breathe, Floyd was “sitting there dead.”

Chauvin, who joined the force in 2001, has already been involved in at least three other violent incidents.

In 2006, according to a database by Minneapolis’ Communities United Against Police Brutality, Chauvin was involved in the fatal shooting of a man who stabbed two people before reportedly turning a gun on police. 

In 2008, Chauvin shot a man who allegedly reached for an officer’s gun during a domestic violence call. (The man survived the shot.) In 2011, he was one of five officers placed on a standard three-day leave after the non-fatal shooting of a Native American man. The officers returned to work after the force determined that they had acted “appropriately.” (Another officer, not Chauvin, fired the shot.)

Communities United Against Police Brutality also faulted Chauvin indirectly for the deaths of three people who were struck by a car that Chauvin and another officer were chasing in 2005.

Minneapolis’ Office of Police Conduct complaint database shows seven complaints against him, although all are listed as “closed,” “non-public,” and resulting in “no discipline.” The city’s Civilian Review Authority, which lists complaints prior to September 2012, reveals five more complaints, which are also closed and resulted in no discipline. A prisoner at a Minnesota correctional facility sued Chauvin and seven other officers for “alleged violations of his federal constitutional rights” in 2006, although the case was dismissed. The contents of the complaint were not immediately available.