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Reporter's Notebook: Impressions Of A City As Derek Chauvin's Trial Nears Its End

A National Guard soldier stands guard on an outside balcony last week at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, where the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd continues.
A National Guard soldier stands guard on an outside balcony last week at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, where the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd continues.

High fences, razor wire, Jersey barriers, armed troops.

The view isn't from a guard post at the entrance of a U.S. military base, or at the post-riot U.S. Capitol. Instead, it's the checkpoint set up more than a month ago on a city street just outside the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis.

The National Guard was ordered up for this task and others even before jury selection began in the Derek Chauvin trial.

Normally, the profile of this county courthouse and administration building resembles a capital "H" standing straight and tall in downtown Minneapolis.

But at eye level: National Guard behind a gate, their guns slung at the ready, standing in control of this critical checkpoint for more than a month. Their presence delivers a disquieting message to all — the security at this makeshift fortress remains a go.

County employees stay clear and remain remote until this trial's completion.

In the past week, roadwork began on several city blocks, creating a perimeter that makes driving downtown a challenge. Backhoes and earthmovers have taken up residence loudly and actively. Jackhammers break concentration and traffic flow and not just for cars. Several streets are ripped up, passing lanes turned into impassable chunks of concrete strewn in the middle of once-clear roadways.

Detour signs are up. A question lingers over downtown like overcast clouds.

As the jury begins to deliberate the charges against Chauvin, are road construction, detours and sidewalks with military vehicles or squad cars merely a coincidence? The newly arranged traffic patterns and roadblocks have taken position before any demonstration or crowd gets the chance to appear supporting or opposing a verdict in the case.

A city waits

Weather conditions Saturday broke in favor of Minnesotans. A short drive from the county courthouse sits the Walker Art Center and spacious grounds in which to walk around, stare at art or into the skies above.

Like so many places in recent weeks, the Walker fulfills a need, a distraction from both the Chauvin trial and the pandemic.

Seen from the road, lines of cars load into the parking area. Small crowds take their turns, wandering around outdoor sculptures and art installations.

It looks and feels like a school field trip.

The artwork, green space and open sky show no hint of the stepped-up presence of police or military personnel elsewhere in the city, no camo vehicles or squad cars around. Nothing so obvious, coordinated or unannounced.

Target Field, the baseball stadium where the Minnesota Twins play, tried to provide a break from many forms of anxiety nearly a week ago. It was to host the Boston Red Sox. But after the shooting death of Daunte Wright by a police officer in nearby Brooklyn Center, that game was postponed and rescheduled.

I roll down the highway for almost 20 minutes with a playlist of Prince. I drive nearly 20 minutes from the Walker. "Partyman," a raucous funk tune from Prince's Batman soundtrack ends, and his latest posthumous single starts up, "Welcome 2 America."

The song guides me into the Mall of America parking garage, Pineapple level. It doesn't have to boast much about its more than 520 stores, restaurants and specialty shops.

The crowd, physically and sonically, resembles a holiday parade of shoppers.

Except, it's just another Saturday in the country's biggest shopping mall, more than 2.8 million square feet of retail space.

There's a giant Lego Store, laser tag, an aquarium. A boutique called Got Kilt? Two dozen amusement park rides are here, including an indoor roller coaster.

Four sprawling floors of humanity shopping, eating, browsing, all with mandatory face masks. Customers, cleaners, cashiers, stockers all behind face masks.

A specialty shop sells masks claiming "Black Lives Matter" "Vaccinated" and "I am Fine!" — just a few of the many behind a huge display window.

This place is 11 miles from the Chauvin trial with a universe of diversions and digressions from his criminal case.

Long lines into so many hamburger restaurants, cookie and bake shops, and Starbucks boggle the mind.

On an often bright, often cold Minnesota Sunday, closer to the courthouse, signs of life compared with the mall are sparingly few.

Sights and sounds are a lot fewer downtown despite being the center of the state's largest city. Electric scooters whiz. Skateboards and their riders are noisier. Swift road bikes bob and weave amid foot traffic. Cars, buses and trucks drive by, zip along, making their way to a different kind of congestion found elsewhere.

Mounted loudspeakers pound out a gonglike warning as light-rail trains approach. The familiar, persistent and digitized chime of boxing-ring bells punctuates the silence to and from outdoor Metro Transit stops.

The season turns

By contrast, real live chirps of birdsong say "spring" like few other things do in Minneapolis.

The birds pierce the hush of mostly empty sidewalks and street corners near Mary Tyler Moore's famed and silent bronze statue. Her character from The Mary Tyler Moore Show was once a lot more well-known. This replica of the late TV star stands in a joyful pose. Moore forever tosses her beret into the air as she did in the sitcom's open, giving herself — and Minneapolis — a chance, to earn greater respect and better wages at a time when the work world barely looked up so high as she did.

Few passersby notice the fences that line the block where Moore's image now lives. Just across the street, a Humvee and National Guard detail stand watch, their rifles pointed down. Buildings that weren't covered with plywood or other materials before face the world to come in a defensive posture that recalls the protests here and elsewhere after George Floyd died.

Judge Peter Cahill's instructions to the jury and closing arguments arrived Monday to Minneapolis. The jurors are swept away and sequestered. Holed up, in an undisclosed space, they are told to avoid news accounts that might prejudice their views on the case. That includes everything from the deadly violence in the nearby suburb of Brooklyn Center to the release of body camera footage of a 13-year-old's death in Chicago.

The jurors will be away from the 18th floor courtroom, from their families and electronic devices. They'll consider the charges against the former police officer accused in Floyd's death last May 25 alone, together.

NPR senior producer Walter Ray Watson covers race, ethnicity and culture. He is on assignment in Minneapolis for the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin.

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