When Keith Ellison was elected Minnesota attorney-general in 2018, the role was a move away from the national stage for the progressive congressman after an unsuccessful tilt at the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.
But now that job has placed him at the centre of a global conversation about race and police violence as he leads the prosecution of the police officers accused of murdering George Floyd.
The case, which is set for trial next year, is a weighty test for the 57-year-old lawyer and liberal firebrand. Floyd’s death sparked the largest civil unrest in the US for a generation and forced a reckoning about racism, law enforcement and racial inequality.
Its outcome will reverberate far beyond Minnesota and its largest city, Minneapolis*, where Floyd was killed, demonstrating the potential for police accountability in a US criminal justice system that frequently acquits officers accused of wrongdoing.
“Holding these four individuals accountable is a necessary part of establishing equality before the law for all people,” Mr Ellison said in a recent interview with the Financial Times.
“We need a lot more than a conviction in this case, but we do need to hold these individuals accountable,” he added. “It’s a necessary but insufficient condition to try to establish justice.”
He emphasised that the case’s importance had nothing to do with his own story — although a successful conviction would undoubtedly boost his political fortunes. “This would give him another weapon in his quiver of progressive arrows,” said Chuck Rocha, a former adviser to Democratic senator Bernie Sanders.
Mr Ellison, who was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, has spent much of his life agitating for change. His career has spanned grassroots activism during his law school years, providing legal representation to indigent defendants and building the progressive wing of the Democratic party during more than a decade in Congress.
When he was elected to the US House of Representatives in 2006, he was also a symbol of change. Representing a district of largely white Christians, he was both the first African-American representative from Minnesota and first Muslim to ever serve in the House. A convert to Islam, he was sworn in on a copy of the Koran.
“Keith Ellison has been a trailblazer not only for Minnesotans, but for the nation,” said Ilhan Omar, the leftist Democrat who became one of the first Muslim congresswomen when she was elected to Mr Ellison’s vacated seat in 2018. “Him leading the George Floyd case is monumental,” she said in an emailed statement.
But he was also a figure of controversy. During his 2006 election battle, he apologised for and disavowed his past association as a student with the Nation of Islam and support for its leader, Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-Semitic comments.
In Congress, he was seen as a rising star of the Democratic party’s progressive wing. Republicans portrayed him as a bogeyman — a reputation that has persisted. At a congressional hearing last week, one Republican representative warned that “someone like Keith Ellison” might become US attorney-general if Democrats win the White House in November.
“He says what he thinks, and he stands up for what he believes in,” said Howard Dean, the former Democratic governor of Vermont who chaired the DNC when Mr Ellison was first elected. “He’s not a ‘go along, get along’ guy.”
Mr Ellison’s national ambitions hit a hurdle after he lost a divisive battle for the leadership of the DNC — the governing body of the Democratic party — to Tom Perez, favoured by the party’s centrist establishment, after the 2016 election.
Mr Ellison briefly held the position of deputy chairman before leaving Congress. In 2018 he was elected Minnesota’s attorney-general, after a bitter race in which a former girlfriend accused him of once trying to drag her from a bed in an argument. He strenuously denied the claim.
In prosecuting the police officers who killed Floyd, Mr Ellison faces a formidable challenge. He had no prior experience as a prosecutor before his current role, and the attorney-general’s office seldom handles criminal cases, let alone ones against police officers.
The case was transferred to Mr Ellison after some Minnesota legislators raised questions about the county prosecutor who originally had control of the investigation.
“It’s very difficult to prosecute one of these cases,” said Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University and expert on police crime. He noted that juries can be unwilling to second-guess police officers. Despite widely shared video footage of Floyd’s death that shocked the world, the case is far from a “slam dunk”, he added.
Though the protests sparked by Floyd’s death have broadened far beyond the circumstances of his killing, the prosecution of the four officers will be closely watched around the world — nowhere more so than in Minnesota, where Mr Ellison has deep roots. One of his four children with his ex-wife, Jeremiah Ellison, sits on the Minneapolis city council.
“The country is watching . . . to see what is the result, what will change,” said Rosa DeLauro, a fellow progressive and Democratic representative from Connecticut who worked alongside Mr Ellison in Congress.
Mr Ellison has few illusions about the difficulty of the task. Though he declined to comment on the possibility some might blame him if the officers are acquitted, he acknowledged the difficulties in prosecuting police officers.
“You have the cultural problem of people growing up believing that the police are there to help. And so people may experience some cognitive dissonance when they see cases where that did not happen,” he said.
*This article has been amended since original publication to note that Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota.