BPN Logo
BPN Logo
S3 Ep20 The Eclectic - Conversation with Attorney General of Minnesota Keith Ellison

Join me for my conversation with AG Keith Ellison. We hear his thoughts on what can be done the break the wheel of use of force by police against our communities... Read More

28 mins
Apr 10


Join me for my conversation with AG Keith Ellison. We hear his thoughts on what can be done the break the wheel of use of force by police against our communities. 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.


Speaker 1 (00:48):

Thank you so much. Let's talk about the book that pulls back the curtain on the George Floyd trial and all the events that led up to it, and probably the aftermath as well. Yes, [00:01:00] sir. So, before we get started with that though, let's briefly speak about your multi-pronged career, which has been fascinating, incredible. Let's talk a little bit about that. You started with as a criminal defense attorney, am I correct?

Speaker 2 (01:13):

Yeah. You know, I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. I'm the child of two Southerners. My mom's from Louisiana, my dad's from Georgia. Um, they raised me and my brothers in Detroit, and we, uh, you know, grew up there. Uh, you know, when my parents had a strong sense of civil rights, [00:01:30] so, and, and, and social justice and, uh, you know, uh, I decided to go law school at University of Minnesota, which is what brought me here to Minnesota. And then, uh, yeah, I, I started out, uh, as a, at a, actually at a big, at a big firm, at a big, uh, white collar, uh, civil firm where we were doing, where we were doing, uh, representing the interests of big companies. Right. That's the job I got outta law school. That's the job I took. And, uh, [00:02:00] you know, they treated me pretty well.


I don't have any complaints, good people, but it really wasn't where my heart was. I wanted to do the kind of work that my grandfather did. You know, a guy named Frank Martinez, organizing black voters in rural Louisiana back when it was you would, you were risking your life to do so. Yes. So, so I, I, um, you know, jumped into that and, uh, you know, went to be the director of the Legal Rights Center for a number of years, and then went into private practice [00:02:30] with some friends of mine where I did a lot of crumble, defense civil rights, did a lot of police brutality cases. Um, and that's, and then I went into politics.

Speaker 1 (02:40):

Mm, yes. Yes. Congress first.

Speaker 2 (02:44):

No, no, I went into state legislature

Speaker 1 (02:45):

First. Okay. State legislature. Okay.

Speaker 2 (02:48):

Yeah. Yeah. First I was a state legislator, uh, for four years. It was like 2000 and, and three, and we were in the middle of the Iraq war, you know, and, uh, I, I agree [00:03:00] with you, with, uh, with Martin Luther King. You know, war generally is the enemy of the poor, you know, and Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, we're spending money on these wars. We're not taking care of people's basic needs here at home. Uh, and so I was a critic of the Iraq War. I was a public open critic of it. And, uh, that was at the same time that the congressman resigned. So I left the state legislature and went and ran for Congress. I didn't think I was gonna win. Uh, but I, but I was not [00:03:30] gonna let the person who I thought was gonna win get away with not talking about Iraq.


Okay. Right. You know, I figured this guy was gonna win. 'cause, you know, he was the, he was the, uh, the anointed of the congressman. He was the state party chair, and he was the chief staff of the congressman. So I figured I'm just a little, you know, brother who's, uh, you know, uh, out here trying to do what I can do, but he's probably gonna win. I'm probably not. But I ran anyway to make sure that the issue [00:04:00] of Iraq did not get off the table. Um, and, uh, I ended up winning. So I was pretty much surprised as anybody

Speaker 1 (04:07):

<laugh>. Well, I think it was destined that you should win and destined that you're taking the course that you are on now.

Speaker 2 (04:16):

Well, you know, it's it, I'm sorry. What's that? No, go ahead.


I was gonna say, yeah, you know, I really just believe that nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. And so we all gotta step up and do our good part. [00:04:30] And, uh, you know, you don't control the outcomes, but you, you must give your best effort. And so that's, that's it, man. You know, and, um, you know, I know in Colorado, you all know that. And, uh, that's why I want to talk to everybody about my book. I think we got some kindred spirits, right? So, I think so we've dealt with George. Yeah. We dealt with George Floyd. You all have, have managed the tragedy involving Elijah McClain and many others. And, uh, so it'd be good for us to get together to comparison some notes.

Speaker 1 (04:58):

I am looking forward to it [00:05:00] now. We'll, speaking with Keith Ellison, the Attorney General of Minnesota, he's gonna be in, um, Colorado, uh, this coming weekend at the Tatter book cover. Uh, speaking about his book. The book is title Break the Wheel, finding the, uh, uh, break the Wheel Ending The Cycle of Police Violence, and the title coverage located at 25 26 each Colfax. It would be 4:00 PM on Sunday, the 25th of February. [00:05:30] Let's talk about the title of your book, break the Wheel. Tell me about

Speaker 2 (05:34):

That. Break the Wheel. Yeah. Well, here's the thing, man. You know, if you look at like, um, tragic incidents involving police and community, particularly black community, what generally happens is that some tragic incident happens. Elijah McClean gets killed, Tyree Nichols gets killed, George Floyd gets killed, Sandra blank gets killed, or Breonna Taylor gets killed. Something like that happens. [00:06:00] Then people take to the streets and they protest, and they raise their voices. Usually, uh, some government agency will do a task force to study the roots of it. You know, maybe there'll be civil unrest. Some people call it rioting, some people don't. Uh, but maybe there'll be civil unrest. But nonetheless, the government will respond by saying, well, let's figure out what get, let's get to the bottom of this, and then there'll be some recommendations that come out. Then the government will tend, will go forward to not follow them <laugh>, right?


[00:06:30] Yes. And then another, and then another tragic event will happen, right? So like the first event where I saw that really happen was in 1919, there's in connection with something called the Chicago Riots. He's, uh, an African American child swimming in the white section of, uh, lake Michigan. Uh, was, um, you know, uh, attacked, fell off the raft ground. Some black adults said, what are you officers gonna do about it? They said, you know, who you talking to me like that boy? [00:07:00] You know what I mean? And next thing you know, uh, there was a, there was a conflagration, there was a, you know, there was a civil unrest. And then the next thing you know, there was a, the a, we studied it, and then the next thing you know, we didn't do anything about it. And then it happened again and again and again.


And as today, you know, a lot of people don't know about the Chicago riot in 1919, but a lot of people do know about John Burch, who was systematically conducting torture on black, uh, people who were detained using cattle prods on the genitals. Uh, [00:07:30] and, you know, he ended up getting prosecuted for that by how many people did he torture before they ever got to him? Right? Right. Um, so, but, but this is, this cycle repeats over and over it, you know, there was a, um, civil unrest ba, there was a spark of police, you know, uh, con there was a co commun citizen police conflict in, in, in Harlem in 1935 that led to, uh, you know, civil unrest, which led to study, which led to nothing. Then there was the 1943. [00:08:00] Same thing happened in Detroit and Harlem. Then, of course, we all are familiar with in our era of the Watts riots.


You know, I really wasn't around then. But, you know, it's, it's in this period of time. And during that 1960s period, there must have been at least 2000 cases of civil unrest all sparked by police violence, uh, you know, famous, uh, Miami case. You know, when, you know, when, when, when Donald Trump said, when the looting, uh, starts, the shooting starts, he didn't come up with that. That was the police chief in Miami [00:08:30] who said that in the 1960s. Uh, but then, you know, so, so all over the country, you know, there's really no part of the country that's immune. It's not just the south, it's not just the big urban cities. It's all over. And then of course, you know, um, we had the Kerner Commission, which was a report about the spark of these sixties civil unrest incidents, or, you know, the people call 'em riots.

(08:53):And then it was the 1990s, you know, we get Rodney King. We had that, that we all know about that one. That's [00:09:00] within our memory. Right? I remember being a young person at that time, and then you had something called the Christopher Commission that came out of that. And then you had Ferguson, and then, and what happens predictably, president Obama puts, puts together something called 21st century policing. But it's all this cycle of tragic incident, uh, you know, uprising, study recommendations, [00:09:30] repeat <laugh>, you know? And that's what we, and what I wanted to do was break the will, you know, break, break the cycle of inaction and do something about it, and make sure that we actually, you know, uh, stand up for justice. You know what I mean? So, you know, in this particular case, the, the role that I got to play was leading the prosecution. And so I made sure that we, within with, you know, with ethically, morally, legally, we did everything we had to do to win [00:10:00] the case. And we did. And all four have been convicted. I have, uh, handled many, many other police cases since then. Uh, I wanna be clear, I do admire police. I think when people do policing, right, it's, it's a good thing. It's a valuable service to community. But when they do it wrong, it's an abusive power, and we can't have that in a free society.

Speaker 1 (10:22):

Absolutely. I agree. Thank you so much for going through that. It's like the we Keith grinding and the grinding against the communities. Yeah. You know, it's [00:10:30] not a wheel that's going to lead us forward. It seems to be like, standing in place. That's why I said like

Speaker 2 (10:35):

<crosstalk>, right? It's just spinning, you know? Yeah, yeah. That's right.

Speaker 1 (10:38):

So, you know what I'm talking about stuck in mud. I'm from the south too. So we get in that mud and sand and red clay, and it just spins. Yep.

Speaker 2 (10:46):

So that's what the, yeah. So we gotta change it, man. You know, we can't just go through the same old, same old. Right. You know, we can't repeat the same cycle and expect different results. You know, we've gotta do something different. And one of the things we can do different is we can prosecute [00:11:00] criminal conduct, whether the person has a badge or not. I'm very proud that in, in, in Colorado, y'all prosecuted the officers who, who shot up, uh, Elijah McClain with ketamine and abused his rights. That's important. Yes. Uh, juries are willing to convict if we put the cases in front of them. And the, and you know, and the good officers who go to work every day to do the right thing, you know, they, they shouldn't have to deal with the shame and embarrassment of a Derek Chauvin. Right? Yes. We should make a clear distinction [00:11:30] between these people who abuse their authority and those who do the job. Right.

Speaker 1 (11:35):

Now, you speaking about bringing those people to justice, whoever it might be, and your book, right. Also bring up a scenario of what you call a lose lose situation. When you, when you, when you were asked to bring this to the public and bring it to trial to a jury, what you mean by a lose lose situation

Speaker 2 (11:53):Situation? Well, what I, what I meant is that some people, not me, ultimately I decided to pursue the case aggressively. [00:12:00] But I can tell you that when the first, when the question of me taking the case first arose, um, some people who are political allies of mine, friends of mine care about me. They say, Keith, we, we dream that you're gonna do this or that. One day they said, do not take this case. They said, do not take the case. I said, well, why? And they're like, well, 'cause if you win the case, the police are gonna be mad at you. And if you lose the case, the community's gonna be mad at you. So you can't win. You should [00:12:30] just step out of it and let um, other people deal with it. You know, you don't wanna be the, you wanna come out of this.


I said, look, you know, my mom didn't raise me to worry about what was politically expeditious for me. I'm, I'm, I'm not worried about that. That's not what I, that's not on my list. You know, that doesn't rate, I gotta be, I got one agenda. And that is to make sure that the truth comes out about what happened to George Floyd. Mm-Hmm. And so, quite honestly, if you wanna break the will, there's no way to break the will and let [00:13:00] everybody be happy. Yes. Right. Right. Because, because there are some people who, if you criticize anything they do, they're gonna accuse you of wanting to defund the police. Right. Right. Right. I mean, they won't abide even the slightest criticism at all. Right. And this is because they wanna maintain a system of, of power. Right. Uh, and I mean, it is important to understand that this whole thing has a powerful racial dynamic, [00:13:30] but it's not just policing.


They're being changed the racial hierarchy. It's also housing, it's jobs, it's all these things. But policing ends up being the, you know, the cutting edge. You know, if you will, it'll be, it's like the last line, but you can't, but, but the, but people who, who do bias policing, I know worse than people who do bias mortgage lending or biased educational, um, services. Right. We have to dismantle and break [00:14:00] the wheel for a system of injustice. Right. That's been going on far too long. And that means that we need everybody to run some risks and stand up to authority and confront the status quo.

Speaker 1 (14:14):

'cause everybody's afraid it's so fearful. Let me ask you this, um, do you feel that, 'cause you're talking about eventually we're gonna start talking about the future of policing. Do you feel that you can have more impact on policing as Attorney General or as a member of Congress or some other kind of position?

Speaker 2 (14:30):

[00:14:30] Well, you know, really, we need both. Right. You know, I wish I could give you a real super straight answer. I, I enjoy giving the yes or no answers. <laugh>. But, but, but in this situation, you know, it's really, we need both. We need better laws and we need people who will prosecute, people who commit crimes. Yes. Right? See, the real problem is we have crimes and we're all willing to prosecute those people as long as those people are politically weak, [00:15:00] politically disempowered, socially disempowered. Everybody's up for prosecuting the low income poor person of color. Right. If they commit a crime. But are you willing to prosecute the powerful, uh, uh, the powerful, the connected, the socially advantaged the people who is going to impact your reelection if you confront them for breaking the law? Yes. You know, now, now we're talking, right? Because you wanna say, well, why don't more police who commit [00:15:30] crimes get prosecuted?

(15:31):Because the police union will come after you if you do, if you do that. And everyone knows it. Everyone knows it. And, and, and so, but it just ends up not happening. So the one per person we all agreed that we can prosecute is the 19-year-old black kid who stole a, a, a, a key chain. Right? Yeah. Let's throw him in prison forever. You know? But, but you know what the system says, you cannot hold the politically advantaged, the socially advantaged account. [00:16:00] And that's not justice. Justice requires equal justice under the law. So that's what we're trying to do. That's the, that's the goal. To get everybody to stand up for that simple principle. And if we do it, we'll be better off as a society. We can't have a two-tiered system of justice. 'cause then nobody believes in the system at all. You know,

Speaker 1 (16:20):

My name is Donio Betson. You listen to Metro. Our guest is Attorney General of Minnesota. Keith Ellison, who's speaking about his book Break, the Break [00:16:30] the Wheel, he will be, uh, in Denver, Colorado this coming Sunday, uh, February 25th at 4:00 PM at the Tater cover bookstore, uh, tater cover on Colfax 25 26 each. Colfax, you have a very strong relationship with the Floyd family. Would you talk about a

Speaker 2 (16:49):

Bit? Yeah. Well, lemme tell you, one thing that I wish every prosecutor in America would do is to get to know the victims better. I know it's not easy because sometimes [00:17:00] you got a lot of cases and you gotta move through quick. But these people have suffered traumatic loss. You know, these people have suffered grievous injury. It's not like George Floyd just, you know, had a heart attack and died one day. You know, he was killed on, in, on, on, on TV and on video. And the whole world saw it. And then when the trial was going on, they saw it over and over again. So this loss of them is very, very painful. And I think if there's one thing that I would recommend to any and every [00:17:30] prosecutor out there is to make sure that you have compassion for the victims. Now, that does not mean you, you are not, you're not, you're not there to work out the victim's revenge.


You know, some people don't want justice, they want revenge. And you can't be somebody's, you know, revenge. You know, but what you can be is a fair, you can listen to them. You can be a shoulder, you can make sure that you provide them victim services. You know, a lot of states have, have, uh, have victims' [00:18:00] rights, which means they get to be heard in court. You know, when, when they are the victim of a crime, they get restitution, they get certain counseling services. So I I, I really grew to admire the Floyd family. I mean, they reminded me of my own family in many ways. These are folks from, uh, they're from Houston, you know? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And I got a lot of family in Houston myself. And, um, and, uh, the, these folks are, uh, you know, they, they just, the way they talk, the way they eat their kitchen table, just their [00:18:30] whole flow.


Yes. That I was very familiar with <laugh>, you know what I mean? Um, it was, I could have been at home myself, you know, talking to them. And, uh, and you know, one of 'em, you know, uh, probably the leader of the family, uh, for longest, uh, you know, drove truck. And so what does that mean? That means he's a working class guy who gets up every day and pushes that multi ton rig to feed his family. You know, it's not easy work. It's hard [00:19:00] work, but he does it 'cause it's what it means to be a man, you know, to look after your people. Right. Right. And he, and so I admired that, you know, that, that's George Floyd's family. You know, you heard some people really wanna come down on George Floyd 'cause he had a drug problem. A lot of people have drug problem.(19:16):

But my point is that George Floyd's family is south to the Earth. People. These are church people. These are hardworking people. These are people trying to do small business, trying to get a little education. These are some people trying to, you know, make a dollar [00:19:30] outta 98 cents, man. And they, they're just, they, they're the best of us. Right. And I really grew to admire the dignity because they never really said we want, we, you know, what they wanted was the, was the truth to be known about what happened to their brother. Yes. But they, they maintained the level of dignity and class that I think is worth emulating. Thank you.

Speaker 1 (19:55):

Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate that. And you're so right. People just [00:20:00] want to know what the truth is, you know, and right to come out. Not what,

Speaker 2 (20:05):

Yeah. Like what happened, what really happened. Well, one of his brothers, Rodney, at the sentencing, he said, why didn't you just get up? Because the folks who will remember watching the case that George, that Derek Chauvin was on top of George Floyd's neck for, you know, nine minutes and 29 seconds. And he just said, why didn't you just get up? Why didn't you just get up? Well, you know, uh, the answer, you know, we all kind of know he didn't get up because he was trying to [00:20:30] prove that he had the power and nobody else did. You know? And, and that was, that was what he was trying to do. It was arrogance. It was pride before policing. So that was why that happened that way. But, you know, I just thought it was a decent thing for the brother to ask, why didn't you just get up? And maybe, and maybe Derek Chauvin would've been a better man if he'd have said, I, I didn't get up. 'cause I was on a ego trip. And I'm sorry. But he never did that. So [00:21:00] that's how it is.

Speaker 1 (21:01):

Did he ever apologize at all?

Speaker 2 (21:04):

Um, not really. Not, no. You know what? I, you know, I'll say this, it does matter. Right? It does matter. He never gave a full throated. I'm sorry. He did say, I hope to be able to say I'm sorry. And then he kind of moved on. But, you know, one thing I noticed about Chauvin, I think the world wants to make Chauvin into something that he's not, he's not really some, uh, rip snarling, racist dude who hates [00:21:30] all black people. He's, that's not him. He's a go along to get along. Everybody else is doing it kind of person, right? That's who Derek Chauvin is. Derek Chauvin is not, he's not a, he's not thoughtful at all. He's just like, well, this is what we do. Right? He's married to an Asian woman. Now that does not mean he's not racist, but it does mean that, it does mean that he's not like, immediately offended by anybody who's not white.


You know what I mean? [00:22:00] He, but, but, but my point is, let's not oversimplify it. There's a, there's a, there's a woman who named Hannah Arn, and she wrote about going through the Nazi experience in the 1930s in Germany. And she talked about the banality of evil. Now, what does banal mean? Banal means every day, ordinary, routine, regular, the ality of evil. You, we want the devil to have, uh, a tail and pitchfork and horns, but they don't [00:22:30] <laugh>. You know, and what is, they're just so, so what is the lesson? The lesson is ordinary people can do the wrong thing if they don't step up to the moral imperative. Right. Ordinary people can be, can be wrong. The ordinary people can let the holocaust can happen. Ordinary people can let, can can stand by and say, well, it's none of my business. I'm just gonna let this wrong go on. 'cause I don't want to be mixed up in it. But what is required of us [00:23:00] as active citizens and as moral people, is that we do the right thing, even if it's gonna cost us. And that's the test that Derek Chauvin failed.

Speaker 1 (23:09):

So a lot of people don't have that moral compass

Speaker 2 (23:14):

To That's

Speaker 1 (23:14):

Right. Step up. And, and I think that's probably unfortunately why laws have to be in place. That if under your former mayor in, uh, Minneapolis had done that, saying, if a police officer does not respond as to when they see something being done wrong, then they can help be held accountable [00:23:30] too.

Speaker 2 (23:31):

Um, that's right. Let me, we gotta go ahead. Yeah. I would, I would say you, I would say you're right. I mean, it's all of us, right? Everybody wants the the next guy to do the right thing. 'cause if you do the, because here's the thing. Here's what we know about doing the right thing thing. You know, it can get you in a lot of trouble, <laugh>. Right, right. I, I mean, doing the right thing. So John, the story of John the Baptist, does everybody remember John the Baptist got beheaded, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, uh, you know, Jesus got crucified. [00:24:00] Martin Luther King got assassinated. Doing the right thing can get you in trouble. And so some people don't wanna do the right thing, but we still have to do the right thing if we want a good society, if we want a just society, you know?


And I'm gonna tell you, chief Arradondo, he did pass the moral test. This guy's a police officer, and he stood up, he took the witness stand and he said what he did is wrong. We condemn it. And I'm testifying against you. Now, why was that a big deal? [00:24:30] Because every, he, I can imagine every, um, mo you know, most of the officers on his, uh, force be being very angry with him and, and, and feeling like he turned on them. Yes. I'm like, no. Derek Chauvin turned on our badge. He turned on what we stand for. I didn't turn on, uh, Chauvin. Chauvin turned on all of us when he abused his authority and broke the, and broke the, uh, broke the code that we're supposed to live by. And so that is, that is the thing. You know, you [00:25:00] can, people in high places can do the right thing. People in ordinary citizens can do the right thing. But it does take, like you said, I like what you said, you said the moral compass. 'cause the compass points you to north. And so it is important to do the right thing, even if it's not gonna benefit you.

Speaker 1 (25:19):

Right. Right. Let me, what do you think, what would be two or three things you would want people to walk away from once they read your book? Break this up.Well, [00:25:30] well, one thing's for sure. That if we do break the wheel, a better society is right in front of us. We're not gonna be worse off. If we enforce the law, we're gonna be better off. Because, you know, you, there's a lot of young people out there who would like to join the police department, but they see somebody like Derek Chauvin, and they don't wanna be associated with him. So if you have a moral police department, you will attract moral officers. Right. And the people who are, [00:26:00] who wanna just beat the crap out of people and go on trips and use violence, they won't wanna do policing. And I'm like, good. Go. You know? And, and so, and so that's one thing. A safer community is right around the corner. And what I'll say is in, in, in the better relationship. So, so a moral police department has a, is gonna treat people, right?


'cause it's right to do. So they're gonna have a better relationship with the citizens. The citizens are then gonna trust them and rely on them to help maintain safety. [00:26:30] Then you're gonna have greater safety. Then you, once you have safety, it's easier for economic development to, to blossom. Because, you know, I'll start my business in a place where that, you know, where, where it's safe. If I think there's gonna be gunshots on the corner, I, I'm start, I'm not starting no business there. Right? Right. So, but, but so a safe community means a pro often leads to a prosperous community, right? So the thing is, is that my, the messages, because if we have the, if we have the [00:27:00] guts to break this cycle of, of injustice, to break the cycle of inaction, what we will do is have, we'll attract people to policing who wanna really protect and serve. We will have a safer community. We will have a more prosperous community. That's what's right around the corner from us if we are willing to grab that. And so that's what I'm, that's the me, that's my message. That's what I wanna talk about. How by doing simple reforms, standing up to the status quo, we can have a better community, a safer [00:27:30] community.

Speaker 1 (27:32):

So you are hopeful.

Speaker 2 (27:34):

Oh, absolutely.Speaker 2 (28:00):

Wait. And can I, can I, can I just tell you one thing? Oh, absolutely. So recently, the, the state of Minnesota has something called the Minnesota Book Awards. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And we were named as finalists. We'll find out whether we win in May, but it was, but we are, but this book is a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards. So anybody, but, so it's a good read. Just I guess what I'm trying to say.

© Broadway Podcast Network, All Rights Reserved