Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence, by Keith Ellison (Twelve, 304 pp., $30)
In his 2014 book, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, Keith Ellison, then representing Minnesota’s Fifth District in Congress, presented himself as a Muslim whose religious views comported entirely with those of the Democratic Party’s radical Left. Nine years later, Ellison is Minnesota’s attorney general, and he has published a second book, which, like the first, is as much a political manifesto as a memoir. In Break the Wheel, he casts himself as the mastermind behind the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd. The book’s organizing premise: police have undertaken a murderous rampage against innocent blacks, and the judicial system has failed to bring guilty cops to account.
Ellison provides a cursory, if workmanlike, account of the trial, based on the diary he kept. He portrays himself pursuing Chauvin’s conviction against great odds. In his telling, the case is a sort of David versus Goliath contest in which he wields the slingshot. United States District Judge Patrick Schiltz saw the case in similar terms—but with reversed roles. When Schiltz ordered an investigation of the leak of sealed federal indictments of Chauvin and the other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest following Chauvin’s conviction, he required Ellison’s office to identify everyone with access to the leaked grand jury information. Ellison quotes Judge Schiltz observing (in a sealed court transcript, by the way): “I was really struck by how many different people were involved in the State side [of the prosecution]. This was really a very big Goliath versus a very small David case.”
Ellison can’t believe it. “[Judge Schiltz] considered the attorney general’s office to be a ‘Goliath’ and Chauvin [and the other officers] to be ‘Davids,’” he writes, adding the irrelevant assertion that the judge “never acknowledged that it was George Floyd who was the outnumbered, overmatched victim.”
Ellison tries to make his David image plausible by reference to cases of deadly police encounters with black victims in which cops were spared charges or acquitted by juries. Those cases, Ellison implies, are part of a race-based “cycle of police violence.” He name-checks nationally famous cases, offering a litany in lieu of an argument: “There are names we all know: Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown.” If these cases strike you as examples of prosecutorial laxity unreasonably favoring the police, this is the book for you.
Break the Wheel opens with Ellison waking up on May 26, 2020, to the infamous video of George Floyd dying under the weight of Derek Chauvin and his colleagues the day before. He recalls feeling that he “was watching a murder” and comments: “There was a time when I would have jumped out of bed and run out into the streets with my neighbors to protest the injustice and yell ‘No justice, no peace!’”
Ellison does not expand on this allusion to his past, but some elaboration is warranted. Over the first ten years of his career, from 1990 to 2000, Ellison was a member and local leader of the Nation of Islam who taunted police and supported cop killers. He spoke up for the murderers of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf and far more famous perpetrators in other cities, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Joanne Chesimard, and Kathleen Soliah. The value of this book, if it has any, comes in how it reveals this hostility to police as the throughline of Ellison’s political career—a career that has culminated in his becoming Minnesota’s top law enforcement officer.
Living in the Twin Cities and observing the Chauvin case up close, I saw things differently from Ellison’s version of David versus Goliath. George Floyd’s death led to riots that devastated Minneapolis and St. Paul, with rioters flocking to the Twin Cities from around the state. They burned down the headquarters of Minneapolis’s Third Precinct; by the end of the week of Floyd’s death, at least 530 businesses across the Twin Cities had been vandalized, looted, or otherwise smashed. Businesses in suburbs 15 to 20 miles from Minneapolis boarded up and closed. At last estimate, they had sustained more than $500 million in damages.
The atmosphere was suggestive of lynch-mob violence. Chauvin was fired on May 26, the day after Floyd’s death, and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter three days later. Responding to the demands of protesters, in what the Minneapolis Star Tribune described as an “unusual legal maneuver,” Minnesota governor Tim Walz appointed Ellison to take charge of Chauvin’s prosecution on May 31. (The office of Hennepin County Attorney in Minneapolis would normally have prosecuted the case.) Ellison promptly added a second-degree murder charge—“in part for insurance purposes” against the possible dismissal of the questionable third-degree murder charge, he writes.
As Chauvin’s trial approached in March 2021, Star Tribune commentary editor D. J. Tice wrote: “From the moment this agonizing incident burst into the public’s consciousness, the presumption of guilt regarding these defendants—the open-and-shut conclusion of guilt—has been loudly declared by virtually every prominent public official who has addressed the matter.” That included Ellison, who, even in his role as prosecutor, should have refrained from making statements likely to heighten public condemnation of the accused. In his June 3 press conference announcing the addition of the second-degree murder charge, Ellison opened his statement by referring to “the murder of Mr. Floyd.”
The lynch-mob atmosphere continued through the trial, which took place in the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis, where the 24-story courthouse building was ringed with bricks and razor wire. Walz mobilized the National Guard. Soldiers and law enforcement authorities protected the building until the jury returned with its guilty verdict. Except for the trial, the courthouse building was essentially closed for security reasons, and the courthouse itself visibly manifested the mob feeling. Jurors convened off-site and were bused secretly to the courthouse.
In his order denying Chauvin’s motion for a change of venue from Hennepin County, Judge Peter Cahill acknowledged the problem but deemed it irremediable. I thought a change of venue to a more distant county—Pennington County, say, or Lac Qui Parle County, both far outside the Twin Cities—would have helped, and Ellison makes me think that I might have been right. In one chapter, he reports the results of a mock trial conducted by the trial team in St. Cloud, Minnesota, 65 miles outside Minneapolis. Ellison’s litigation consultants recruited three mock juries—two from Hennepin County and one from Stearns County (St. Cloud is in Stearns County). He reports the Stearns County mock jury “would convict all the defendants” on the manslaughter charge and “almost all”—Ellison doesn’t say how many—“would convict on the murder charge.” In a criminal case, where one holdout juror can prevent a conviction, there is a big difference between “all” and “almost all.” By contrast, Ellison adds, “Our [two] Hennepin County mock juries came back guilty on all counts.”
At the actual trial in Hennepin County, jurors cannot have remained unaware of the damage a not-guilty verdict would set off in their own community. In this sense, it seemed to me that the Chauvin case might have exceeded the capacity of the judicial system for a fair trial. The system is ill-equipped to deal with cases holding the venue hostage to a jury’s verdict. Add to that the nearly ten-minute video of Chauvin and his colleagues subduing Floyd up to and beyond the moment of his death. Chauvin’s defense was highly unlikely to succeed in Hennepin County.
Ellison nevertheless thought his office was incapable of handling the case by itself. He enlisted a total of 26 attorneys in the prosecution—including former solicitor general, al-Qaida defender, and resistance hero Neal Katyal, of the white-shoe law firm Hogan Lovells—all thanked by name in the book’s acknowledgments. Ellison also enlisted consultants in public relations, jury selection, and litigation strategy for the prosecution, and received the assistance of renowned medical experts who testified against Chauvin at trial. (In a low blow, Ellison goes out of his way to disparage the medical expert who testified on Chauvin’s behalf with respect to the crucial question of the cause of Floyd’s death.)
Chauvin, meantime, was represented by a single attorney, Eric Nelson—assisted by a young associate—assigned to represent him from a limited roster of attorneys on call through the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers insurance program. One or two against 26 sounds like, well, a David versus Goliath kind of contest, which is essentially the point Judge Schiltz was making in the course of his leak investigation. On appeal, Chauvin had no one to represent him until Minneapolis attorney Bill Mohrman stepped forward to do so pro bono.
Ellison fits his prosecution of Chauvin into his larger theme of “the cycle of police violence” stated in the book’s subtitle. Yet if the word “cycle” applies to anything here, it is to Ellison’s long career as an opponent of law enforcement. Recalling his days chanting “no justice, no peace,” Ellison vaguely alludes to his days as an anti-police agitator on behalf of the Nation of Islam. What he doesn’t say is that he actually intoned the “No justice, no peace” mantra in support of the most notorious cop killers in Minnesota history. Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf was murdered execution-style in September 1992, shot in the back as he took a coffee break at a restaurant in south Minneapolis. Police later determined that Haaf’s murder was a hit performed by four members of the city’s Vice Lords gang. The leader of the Vice Lords was Sharif Willis, a convicted murderer who had been released from prison and who sought respectability from gullible municipal authorities while operating a gang front called United for Peace.
In October 1992, Ellison helped organize a demonstration against Minneapolis police that included Willis. Willis was the last speaker at the demonstration. According to a contemporaneous report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the gang leader told the crowd that Minneapolis cops were experiencing the same fear from young black men that blacks had felt from police for many years. “If the police have some fear, I understand that fear,” Willis said. “We seem to have an overabundance of bad police. . . . [W]e’re going to get rid of them,” he said. “They’ve got to go.” The Pioneer Press concludes with Ellison’s contribution to the demonstration: “Ellison told the crowd that the police union is systematically frightening whites in order to get more police officers hired. That way, Ellison said, the union can increase its power base.”
Ellison went on publicly to support the Haaf murder defendants. He spoke at a demonstration in February 1993 for one during his trial, leading the crowd assembled at the courthouse in a chant that seemed ominous in the context of Haaf’s cold-blooded murder: “We don’t get no justice, you don’t get no peace.” Ellison’s working relationship with Willis finally ended in February 1995, when Willis was convicted in federal court on several counts of drug and gun-related crimes and sent back to prison for 20 years.
Ellison’s behavior in the Haaf case wasn’t an aberration. In 2000, he spoke at a fundraiser sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the old National Lawyers Guild, on whose steering committee he had served, as the chapter raised funds for former Symbionese Liberation Army member Kathleen Soliah. Soliah had been a fugitive from justice for 25 years and was wanted on charges related to the attempted pipe bombing of Los Angeles police officers in 1975. There, Ellison praised cop killers Mumia Abu-Jamal and “Assata Shakur” (Joanne Chesimard), who was convicted of the 1973 murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster. Chesimard escaped from prison in 1979 and has been on the lam in Cuba since 1984.
“I am praying that Castro does not get to the point where he has to really barter with these guys over here,” Ellison told the crowd, referring generally to federal law enforcement authorities, “because they’re going to get Assata Shakur, they’re going to get a whole lot of other people. I hope the Cuba[n] people can stick to it, because the freedom of some good decent people depends on it.” Ellison’s prayer has been answered so far: Chesimard remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List.
Ellison’s support for Soliah is equally notable. In his speech, he denounced law enforcement authorities’ effort to prosecute her for the attempted murder of police officers. Referring to the days Soliah spent in the SLA under the leadership of Donald DeFreeze (“Field Marshal Cinque”), Ellison hailed her as a “black gang member” and portrayed her as a victim of government persecution. He described Soliah as one of those who had been “fighting for freedom in the ‘60s and’70s” and called for her release.
Break the Wheel is devoid of data or analysis bearing on the alleged race-based problem of deadly police encounters. It is equally bereft of any proposals. Ellison mentions the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, as well as the “twenty-eight recommendations and thirty-three action steps aimed at reducing deadly force encounters with police in Minnesota” promulgated under his name in February 2020 by a working group he led with Minnesota Commissioner of Public Safety John Harrington, but a mere mention is all they get. He advocates no specific reform that would “end the cycle of police violence.”
Ellison leaves details to others. “There is still so much work to do,” he intones in the book’s concluding chapter. While prosecutors put in a strong case against Derek Chauvin, they produced no evidence of racism on his part or that of the other officers. Ellison wants readers to fill in the blanks of his argument with fact-free defamation of law enforcement authorities. When he expresses his gratitude, in the book’s acknowledgements, to “the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement”—now disgraced for shameless self-dealing—even inattentive readers should be able to draw conclusions about Minnesota’s attorney general.
Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)