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Break the Wheel
Ending the Cycle of Police Violence
Foreword by Philonise Floyd
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With this powerful and intimate trial diary, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison asks the key question: How do we break the wheel of police violence and finally make it stop?
The murder of George Floyd sparked global outrage. At the center of the conflict and the controversy, Keith Ellison grappled with the means of bringing justice for Floyd and his family. Now, in this riveting account of the Derek Chauvin trial, Ellison takes the reader down the path his prosecutors took, offering different breakthroughs and revelations for a defining, generational moment of racial reckoning and social justice understanding.
Each chapter of BREAK THE WHEEL goes spoke to spoke along the wheel of the system as Ellison examines the roles of prosecutors, defendants, heads of police unions, judges, activists, legislators, politicians, and media figures, each in his attempt to end this chain of violence and replace it with empathy and shared insight.
Ellison’s analysis of George Floyd’s life and the rich trial context he provides demonstrates that, while it may seem like an unattainable goal, lasting change and justice can be achieved.
FOREWORD BY PHILONISE FLOYD
As I sat down to write this, I had just watched the video recording of Tyre Nichols getting punched, kicked, pepper sprayed, tased, medically neglected, and ultimately killed by five Memphis police officers. It stirs painful memories for me and my family. It transports us right back to that moment when we learned what had happened to George Perry Floyd, my brother.
Tyre, like my brother (whom we called Perry), also called for his mother. He was also an unarmed Black man. Like Tyre, my brother had a lot to live for and a life filled with friendship, love, and meaning. Like my brother Perry, Tyre was taken away from us all too soon. And like my brother, Tyre was killed because of a nationwide and historic problem involving police brutality.
It’s not just Minneapolis and it’s not just Memphis; it’s all over the country. In my own hometown of Houston, we have serious problems, and you can probably say the same thing for nearly every city in America. And just as the murder of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers stirred painful memories for me and my family, it stirred painful memories for a nation that has now witnessed another tragic killing at the hands of those people who are trained to ensure our safety.
Will it ever end?
After Perry was killed, I became a spokesman for police reform, and it’s not a role I ever sought or wanted. But I turned my pain into purpose. In fact, those of us who have lost loved ones to police violence are all part of a club to which we never wished to belong.
I learned a few things along the way. I learned that this problem of police brutality is not confined to the United States. I learned that the problem of armed government agents using deadly force against unarmed civilians affects victims at local, national, and even international levels. We witness it in every American city, and you can find it in China, Iran, London, and Peru. Perhaps this is why the world rose up when my brother died with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. Perry has become an international symbol of police violence, and a symbol of resistance to that violence.
I pray that Tyre Nichols’s family will see a vigorous prosecution of the five Memphis officers involved in his death, and I hope that everyone who stood around and did nothing will be fired. These two things—quick disciplinary action and an aggressive prosecution—are the only things that are sure to bring police brutality to an end.
I know some will call for more training, and good training is important. But the men who killed George Floyd—Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and Alexander Keung—were all well trained. How come their training did not tell them what was so obvious to the civilians who stood by screaming, videotaping, and begging the officers to just stop? How come the training of the Scorpion Unit in Memphis did not stop those officers from ganging up and beating an unarmed and innocent person to death?
In my brother’s case, a nine-year-old witness, wearing a T-shirt with “Love” written across it, knew that Perry was in serious distress. But the officers’ training in CPR and racial sensitivity did not compel them to prevent what was obvious to a nine-year-old girl. We need something more basic than training. The Memphis Scorpion Unit was supposed to be a well-trained elite unit. So much for that. What we need is decency. What we need is accountability.
I’m glad to write this foreword for Keith Ellison’s Break the Wheel because accountability is exactly what he and his team delivered. Days after my brother was killed, my family and I asked Minnesota Governor Walz to appoint Ellison to lead the prosecution of the officers who killed my brother. We had lost faith in the established system. It wasn’t personal, but we did not believe the system would handle the case properly. I knew it was going to be a tough case, regardless of the video evidence. The “not-guilty” verdicts of the officers who beat Rodney King in 1992 were not far from my mind. But Ellison took the case, assembled a team, and delivered accountability for my family and the nation.
So many of us want to believe that George Floyd’s death was not in vain, and that something good would emerge out of our family’s tragedy. In fact, I am writing a book of my own for the benefit of every family and community that is faced with police violence. I hope that book and this one will offer truths that will make a difference: Break the Wheel is a blueprint for holding police accountable and a must-read.
With the tragic killing of Tyre Nichols, we see that the officers were fired quickly, and indicted, and the videotape of the tragic incident was released immediately. It’s hard to believe this would have happened without Ellison’s example in seeking justice for my brother.
This is progress, but it’s not enough. As I write this foreword, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has not been passed, but many cities, police departments, and states have taken meaningful action. The Biden administration has acted by executive order. These are small steps, but meaningful steps. In the end, we need a societal change. We need to break the wheel of injustice, as Ellison says. My family and I are committed for the long run.
“MAMMA! MAMMA! I’M THROUGH!”
My phone woke me up at 4:45 a.m. It was lighting up, begging my attention. Still half asleep, I swung my feet to the side of the bed and reached for the phone. I hoped I wouldn’t wake my wife.
I thumbed the glowing screen to find out what was going on.
My twenty-five-year-old outreach coordinator, Keaon Dousti, had left an urgent message about a video. I touched the face of my iPhone, and the video began to play.
“Mamma! Mamma! I’m through!” shouted the Black man trapped under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The officer appeared to be riding on top of the man struggling under the weight of three Minneapolis cops. The man cried and yelled “I can’t breathe” many times in the first part of the video. His face twisted in agony and he cried out in pain, “My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts.”
I couldn’t believe how long the video was running, how long this torment continued. And I recognized the location: Cup Foods at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. This is the heart of working-class South Minneapolis. It’s across the street from where Hamza, a Palestinian immigrant, fixes my car.
I know this area well. In 1997, just three blocks south of 38th and Chicago, fifteen-year-old Lawrence Miles Jr. was shot in the back and nearly bled to death in an open field next to the apartment complex where he grew up. The shooter was Minneapolis police officer Charles Storlie. Why was Miles shot? He was playing tag with his friends using BB guns.
Long before I ever ran for office, I was working in a private practice as an attorney, and Miles was my client. His case taught my legal partners and me just how tough it could be to sue the police for the deprivation of civil rights and unreasonable and excessive force. In 2002, the jury found in favor of Officer Storlie.
This was a devastating loss for Lawrence Miles. Now forty years old, he still suffers from the physical injuries he sustained twenty-five years ago. Despite our best efforts, he never received any compensation for his injuries.
Incidentally, Storlie is the same officer who shot and nearly killed undercover Minneapolis officer Duy Ngo in 2003. Ngo was lying on the ground after being shot by another suspect and was completely disarmed and disabled when Storlie shot him. Ngo, a Vietnamese American working with the controversial Minnesota Gang Strike Force, was scheduled to report the very next day to his U.S. Army Reserve unit to deploy to Afghanistan, where he would serve as a combat medic. After years of being ostracized by his department and enduring more than twenty-five surgeries due to the shooting, Ngo committed suicide in 2010.
As I watched the glowing screen of my cell phone, I didn’t know the man who was being killed, but I knew this story. I was viscerally aware of this recurring tale.
Philando Castile was a beloved lunchroom manager at an elementary school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when he was killed at a traffic stop in 2016 by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Castile had committed no crime and had tried to comply with Yanez’s commands, but he was dead nonetheless. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, livestreamed the aftermath of the shooting, and the squad video caught the shooting itself in horrifying detail.
The case of twenty-four-year-old Jamar Clark, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers eight months before Castile, was less clear-cut. He had a felony conviction at nineteen and a Domestic Violence No Contact order in place when he was killed outside a party in North Minneapolis.
Clark’s shooting and death happened just blocks from where I sat in my home watching this video in the early morning hours of May 26, 2020. Still, in Clark’s case, the woman who got the order against him told a journalist he was “a kind, nurturing man,” and he seemed to be turning his life around. He was “no angel,” as they say, but he was certainly no demon, either. Eyewitnesses to his death gave wildly conflicting accounts.
Clark’s girlfriend had gotten into a fight at the party, so they left. But she was hurt, and someone called an ambulance. While she was sitting in the ambulance, Clark went to check on her. He somehow got into an altercation with the officers on the scene—Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze. They said they shot Clark after he grabbed for an officer’s gun. But witnesses said Clark was handcuffed on the ground when the police shot him.
In the end, Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman declined the charges against Ringgenberg and Schwarze. DNA testing revealed traces of Clark’s genetic material on an officer’s gun. This could have been the result of inadvertent touching during the struggle, or it could corroborate the officer’s story. Who knows? For the purposes of making a case, though, it was a bagful of reasonable doubt. In the absence of other information, it made charging the officers impossible. It was not, however, an exoneration.
Mike Freeman said, “His DNA is all over that gun and he had no business having his hand on that gun, which is why they shot him [and] which is why I didn’t prosecute them.”
I have worked with Freeman. He’s a friend and a committed civil servant. Like all of us in public life, he has gotten more than his share of criticism, both deserved and undeserved. But to the ears of many who heard his statement, it was another in the relentless series of examples of the system not caring about the lives of Black people—that Clark’s life didn’t rate. Under Minnesota law, Freeman would be in charge of the Floyd murder case, too.
In the dark of my bedroom, the video dragged on, and the man’s suffering was palpable. His struggle to survive was obvious as he cried out for a breath, for his mother.
“Mamma!” he cried. The officers were immune to the man’s suffering. Their demeanor was casual and routine. They appeared unconcerned and even nonchalant. The cop with his knee on the Black man’s neck stared out at the people filming him, defiant and impassive. The officer continued scraping and rubbing the man’s face into the hard asphalt surface of Chicago Avenue.
I didn’t know this officer, but I recognized something in him.
Maybe it was what could be seen in Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot and killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice at a playground. The African American boy had a pellet gun, and the 911 caller had said the gun was likely not a real firearm.
Loehmann’s personnel records were released after the shooting. He had been hired by the Cleveland Police Department even after his supervisors at the Independence Police Department described him as emotionally unstable. They said he had an “inability to perform basic functions as instructed” during a weapons training exercise. Cleveland PD admitted to not looking into Loehmann’s personnel file during the background check.
I sat at the edge of the bed, unable to stand under the weight of what I was watching. It wasn’t just the brutality and human suffering captured on the video, but the cycle it represented. There are names we all know: Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown. There are those known locally, the ones killed by Minneapolis police: Terrance Franklin, Fong Lee, Alfred “Abuka” Sanders. Unfortunately, there are more we will never know—all part of a repeating cycle of in-custody deaths, protest and unrest, lawsuits, and study commissions and recommendations. This is the wheel of policing in America that we’re stuck in. It has been going on for more than 100 years. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin once said, “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so the wheels don’t turn.”
The wheel Rustin had in mind was the system of Jim Crow segregation, but it is connected to the wheel that spins between officer-involved deaths and inaction. They both spin along, a cycle of injustice going ’round and ’round. Sixty years after Rustin, haven’t we seen that it’s not enough to just stop the wheel? Isn’t it time to actually break it? Isn’t it time to get a new set of wheels that roll toward liberty and justice for all? But we don’t have that in the United States at this time.
And on May 26, 2020, I was watching the wheel grind a man’s face into the street.
Floyd was wearing a tank top that exposed his shoulder while it was scraped and rubbed raw against the pavement as the police pressed him into it. One officer on Floyd’s neck, a second officer pushing down on his back while the third held Floyd’s legs, preventing him from turning his body to get a breath. A fourth officer, a stout Hmong man, stood guard, taunting the people assembled. “If he’s talking, he’s breathing,” he declared to the people insisting that the Black man, under the weight of this man’s colleagues, could not breathe.
The people on the video witnessing the horror taking place weren’t buying it. A young Black man, whom I thought I recognized, yelled back, “You’re sayin’ that’s okay? You’re sayin’ it’s all right what he’s doing?” Then he yelled, “Check his pulse.” He joined a chorus of furious onlookers, including a young white woman who told the officers she was a firefighter.
I couldn’t look away from the horror that was unfolding, and I was shaken by the sheer length of time the abuse continued.
Then the officer standing guard said in a singsongy voice, “That’s why you don’t do drugs, kids!”
I hadn’t moved. I wasn’t dressed yet. I couldn’t bring myself to peel my eyes away even for a second. These cops were so brazen. I thought, They don’t give a damn who is even watching. As the clip continued to play before me, gripping me as if I were standing there with the other onlookers, a warm droplet fell from my cheek onto the phone. It never ends.
The young Black man yelled again, “Check his pulse, check his pulse, Thao.”
He seemed to know the officer standing guard, or maybe he just read the officer’s name plate on his shirt.
Then I realized how I knew this fellow. I had known him for years, though I hadn’t seen him recently. His name was Donald Williams. When he was a child, he was one of the neighborhood kids on the wrestling team with my sons Jeremiah and Elijah.
About two and a half minutes into the video, the body of the man on the ground went limp. His voice gradually became thicker and slower, making fewer and fewer comments. Eventually, he stopped saying anything. His eyes closed, and he was just motionless. Still, the officer, who had disregarded the pleas of the suffering man, kept his full body weight on his knee, wedged into the space between the man’s head and shoulder.
Donald Williams and the others kept yelling for the officer to get off the man, and to check his pulse.
The yelling, I knew, would get louder.
There were protests after the Jamar Clark killing in 2015. Protesters set up a camp around the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct Station. Hundreds occupied it around the clock for more than two weeks. My son Jeremiah, a local artist and activist, got involved. One night, he was on the protest line, hands in the air, chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Suddenly, an officer shouldered a gun and aimed it at Jeremiah’s head.
A friend of mine, a young east African immigrant, snapped a photo of the moment and tweeted it, noting in the caption that cops were even aiming guns at a congressman’s son. The position I held then, my job, was irrelevant, though. The problem was that my son, clearly unarmed and peacefully protesting, had a gun aimed directly at him. The photo made my blood run cold, and then boil.
It was a quieter kind of change, but the Clark tragedy affected us all. Jeremiah was inspired to make a difference. Today, Jeremiah is a Minneapolis City Council member representing the North Side, which has been the scene of more injustices than just Clark’s killing.
Watching the video that morning, I was reminded of the tweet that exposed the threat to my son’s life. It was a sudden, crisp understanding of what is meant when people talk about the “digital revolution.” It occurred to me: If I was waking up to this video, then so were millions of other people. And if it made me this upset and confused, then we would see protests at least as big as those following the Clark killing.
I was transported back to memories of the town where I was born—the site of the 1967 Detroit uprising. I was three and a half years old then. According to my dad, the Detroit police raided an unlicensed, after-hours bar on the west side near West Grand Boulevard and 12th Street, known as a “blind pig.” These informal bars started during Prohibition, but blind pigs continued to thrive well after that period. They offered an alternative to white-owned bars in the racially segregated Detroit of the 1960s, which didn’t have “Whites Only” signs, but they didn’t really need them, either. Everybody knew where they were and were not welcome—segregation northern style.
There had been years of tragic clashes between the police and the Black community in Detroit. On July 23, 1967, the conflict exploded into one of the deadliest. It was one of the most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days, and surpassing the scale of Detroit’s 1943 race riot, twenty-four years earlier.
In 1967, I was too young to understand the smoke billowing from burning buildings or windows being smashed, but I remember seeing military vehicles rolling past our house. At three, I stood on my tiptoes, looking out a window in my house on Ilene Street near Outer Drive, watching soldiers in military vehicles. An older brother, Brian, has reminded me that we lived close to the Eight Mile Armory. Maybe we saw the National Guard heading to the affected areas. My brothers and I didn’t see any protesting or looting, but we were aware of it.
Forty-three people died in the Detroit riot in 1967, but the civil disturbances of that era created a negative effect on the economy of Detroit that continues to this day. The riots accelerated white flight and suburbanization; and while the unrest probably did not have much effect on the decisions by Ford, GM, and Chrysler to abandon Detroit, it did not help. Mostly, it scarred the collective psyche of the people who endured it, like me.
As I watched the cell phone video that morning, I wondered what the children of Minneapolis would remember from the coming days.
When I was that young, I could sense how stressed and worried my parents were. Our dad was a physician, and Brian and I both remember him pulling long hours because of the troubles. I could feel my mom’s fear and anxiety. I remember, too, my mother ordering us to hide under the bed when something outside scared her.
Thinking back on those Detroit days, I couldn’t ask my mom what had prompted her fear. She passed away due to COVID-19 on March 26, 2020. It was exactly two months to the moment I was watching this cell phone video.
My mom witnessed the hardships of African Americans. Her dad was an NAACP leader in Natchitoches, Louisiana. She would recount how crosses were burned in front of their home; how her dad was prohibited from buying gasoline by the local store owners sympathetic with the Ku Klux Klan; and how he had received racist and terroristic telephone calls through the night. Callers said things to my grandmother Doris like, “We got that n— —r tied up to a tree. He ain’t gonna make it home—ever.” Even though my grandfather made it home, the threats affected my mom, and they affected me vicariously.
My mom would have been outraged at what happened to George Floyd.
My mother was among the 100,000 recorded deaths caused by COVID-19 by late May 2020. I was still grieving, and my four brothers were, too. We couldn’t bury her properly because of the pandemic restrictions. We couldn’t have a church service; we were only able to have the funeral home and the grave site.
As her casket was lowered into the ground, my oldest brother, Leonard, and I had to stand back while my brothers, Tony and Eric, stood at the graveside with Brian, who is a Baptist minister.
By the end of May 2020, I’m sure that perhaps 100,000 families shared the same sorrow, and everyone living through this moment was frustrated and sick of the quarantine. The health and safety restrictions connected to COVID-19 had people anxious and ready to get out.
And now another Black death under the wheel. A dam broke under the weight of people’s worry, anxiety, grief, and isolation and let them spill onto the streets. And COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing—we were ramping up for a historically divisive presidential election.
That early morning of May 26, 2020, I suspected there would be an enormous group of people protesting, and I was afraid we were on the cusp of chaos—but not only from the protesters.
One night during the Jamar Clark protests, at about 10:45 p.m., a group of four men, three wearing masks, were hovering around the camp outside the Fourth Precinct. But they were not joining the protest. Rumors had been circulating of possible attacks by white supremacists, so several guys working security around the protest asked the men to identify themselves.
They asked the men why they were wearing masks. The three masked men refused to answer, so the protesters demanded they leave. At that moment, one of the men turned and opened fire. Five men doing protest security were shot. Fortunately, all of them survived.
The most significant charges to come out of the incident were leveled at Allen Lawrence Scarsella, twenty-three, who was charged with riot and five counts of second-degree assault. Daniel Thomas Macey, twenty-six, Nathan Wayne Gustavsson, twenty-one, and Joseph Martin Backman, twenty-seven, were charged with second-degree riot. One of the injured protesters later reported that he heard one of the masked men use the word “n——r.” During the trial, more evidence surfaced indicating the shooter and his friends were white supremacists. They were convicted.
I knew that dramatic acts of brutality often spark chaos, and I worried that the horrific incident playing on my cell phone might spark unstable people. For example, I thought of Micah Xavier Johnson, an African American man who felt compelled to respond to the murders of Philando Castile in Minneapolis and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
On July 7, 2016, in what can only be described as a bias-motivated crime, Johnson ambushed a group of police officers in Dallas, killing five and injuring nine others. Two civilians were also wounded. It was the deadliest attack against U.S. law enforcement since September 11, 2001. It was terrifying to consider what violence this video might inspire.
Nearly eight minutes into the video, with the man lying still on the ground, the officer finally lifted his knee, but only due to the paramedics telling the officer to get off. The video continued, though.
Staring at the screen of my phone, watching paramedics roll the limp body onto a stretcher, I said without looking at my wife, “Oh my God! Moni, you need to see this…”
I could feel her turn over and knew she was looking at me, “Huh?” (My Mónica is a light sleeper.)
“Hun, you need to see this!” I said.
“What is it?” Her Colombian accent lilted from the other side of the bed.
“This man… they’re murdering him right on video.” I was probably louder than I realized.
Without pause, her tone quickly changed. “No, I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see another person killed. Uh-uh. No thank you.” She turned her body away as she pulled the blanket over her head.
I didn’t push. She had seen enough. Colombia, my wife’s birthplace, is the country with the second largest internally displaced population in the world, behind Syria. Having grown up in Medellín, she was no stranger to state violence, narco violence, and rebel violence. She—like too many people in Minneapolis, the U.S., and the world—didn’t need to see the horror to know it was happening. They have seen enough violence and brutality. She has seen way too much.
But I was transfixed by the screen of my phone as I turned back to the video. I restarted it and rewatched the police officer, whose name I didn’t yet know, defiantly stare back at the bystanders who pleaded with him to stop hurting the man under his knee; to get up and check his pulse. Still, the officer kept kneeling on the man’s neck, rocking back and forth.
I was watching a murder. I knew it in my heart. As a lawyer, however, I know very well it isn’t murder until a jury says so.
- “An intimate account of a truly consequential courtroom confrontation, in BREAK THE WHEEL, Keith Ellison has written a searing, compelling tale of the struggle for justice. Ellison reminds us well how the death of George Floyd will not—must not—be forgotten and how that tragic death has truly made a difference in our legal system. BREAK THE WHEEL is an unforgettable reading experience.”—Eric Holder, former U.S. attorney general
- “Despite what we all know about the torture and murder of George Floyd, the story of the Herculean legal effort to bring the officers who killed Floyd to justice has never been told—until now. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison takes us through the compelling story of the painstaking, extraordinary effort he led to prosecute the officers who committed the most infamous racial murder by police in the history of our country.”—Sherrilyn Ifill, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund
- "BREAK THE WHEEL is a compelling tale of standing up for George Floyd. Keith Ellison has produced an engaging, anecdote-laden account that leaves the reader with an increased respect for his pursuit of justice and life in the law."—Ben Crump, civil rights attorney
- “Keith Ellison has written a complete and courageous account of the trial of Derek Chauvin. Without Ellison’s diligence, Chauvin might have walked free. BREAK THE WHEEL engages all stakeholders in a bold and honest conversation.”—Van Jones, CNN host
- “Keith Ellison writes with rare depth, political insight, and true understanding of courtroom drama that comes from being, himself, and outstanding trial lawyer. BREAK THE WHEEL is a riveting and exceptionally frank account of the challenges he faced— and the hard work it took—to bring justice for George Floyd while the whole world was watching.”—Barry Scheck, director, The Innocence Project
- “Keith Ellison’s book is the definitive work on the George Floyd murder trial. As one of his special prosecutors in the case, I saw everything firsthand and cannot imagine a more gripping and incisive account of this historic trial. It’s truly must-read.”—Neal Katyal, former U.S. deputy solicitor general
- "A vital contribution not just to the literature of the Floyd trial, but to that of police reform generally."—Kirkus Review
- “This is an engrossing portrayal about the search for justice in a system that often favors the word and actions of the police, and suggests how we can move forward.”—Booklist Review
- On Sale
- May 23, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages