Emily VanGorder – Staff Writer
The Derek Chauvin trial began on Monday, March 29, and is the first fully televised court case trial in Minnesota’s history. The case has been actively followed by global audiences and media, and has been explored in depth at Gustavus.
Last year, the Student Life Division at Gustavus began the Great Challenges Initiative, which focuses on a current great challenge and develops programming around that topic. The division is broken up into five groups, each of which focuses on one of the five pillars of Gustavus and its relationship to the topic of the year.
“Last year’s topic was mental health, and this year we chose systemic racism… I ended up leading the group focusing on systemic racism and justice. There was a natural tie to the murder of George Floyd and the Derek Chauvin trial,” Assisstant Vice President for Student Life in the Dean of Students Office Megan Ruble said.
After first planning on holding a single Zoom session to discuss the trial, the group decided to create a three-part series that focused on different aspects of the trial.
The first discussion focused on the courtroom and legal aspect of criminal trials. The second was held on March 25 and focused on the media involved in the trial. Professor Martin Lang and County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer spoke about the role social media plays in the trial, how mass media makes jury selection more difficult, and the prevalence of both credible and unreliable information brought by social media.
“I think we all recognize the significance of the trial, but it’s fascinating to dive into the nuts and bolts of the trial and the role that the media plays in the case. I think we need to take care in remembering that the aftermath of the murder, and the international response to it, would have played out much differently without the influence of social media getting the raw footage to the public before Minneapolis PD could have cushioned the narrative and further demonized Floyd,” Junior Ace Schwartz said.
The third discussion was held on April 14 and discussed activism, sentencing, and appeals. Michelle Zehnder Fischer discussed sentencing guidelines relevant to the trial, and Detective Matt Grochow of the St. Peter Police Department spoke about police reform and the St. Peter Police Department.
The panel also included activist Anisa Omar, the first black Muslim woman to be Student Body President at Minnesota State University. Omar is a resident of Mankato who first rose to prominence after she pushed to have Student Resource Officers removed from public schools after the murder of George Floyd. A PBS documentary “I Rise” focused on her activism and her creation of the Ignite the Youth Group.
“Systemic racism isn’t going away any time soon. It’s not just a challenge for this year that we get through and move on from. There is a need for ongoing programs around issues of systemic racism, issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout campus, all the time. As the circle of knowledge grows, so does the circle of ignorance- the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. We were able to capitalize on this issue at the right time in order to get people to learn more about it,” Ruble said.
Gustavus has created mandatory DEI training programs for students, faculty, and staff to complete before May 15.
“I think DEI training at Gustavus is crucial for creating a more accepting, equitable, and empathetic learning environment for all students. Additionally, DEI training specifically within the STEM setting has helped me become aware of my own personal biases and privileges, as well as how to manage them in a diverse work environment,” Contributing Weekly Writer Junior Eamonn MuCullough said.
“I think this series of sessions has been really good to help people understand the complexities of the situation… The trial, and the outcome of the trial, is not about race. There are no charges that are race- related… even though, of course, it is about race at a much larger level. These kinds of issues rarely get solved in the courtroom or at trial, so work has to be done elsewhere. It’s exciting to see younger generations taking an activist role in forming the world you want to see,” Ruble said.