MINNEAPOLIS—At the moment right before the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was read out, there was silence on the lawn in front of the courthouse.
Thousands of people had gathered expectantly, and had been chanting for justice for over an hour.
The weight and tension of a year of conflict and anger and sadness since the death of George Floyd was pent up in this one moment.
The city and the country were braced for more conflict if the verdict came back one way. The crowd was hoping against the weight of their experience that it would go the other way.
“I’m so nervous right now,” said Amber Young, a Black woman who had been at the courthouse protesting all day.
The noise of thousands of voices went quiet, and a crowd on the lawn near where I was standing gathered around three women who had the livestream of the jury verdict on their cellphones.
Suddenly a voice shouted from across the lawn. “Guilty!”
Jubilation. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” someone shouted amid the sound of clapping and a thousand voices cheering. People were jumping up and down. A Black man next to me wiped tears away from his eyes. The three women who had been at the centre of the crowd threw their arms around each other in a hug and buried their heads in each other’s shoulders.
Soon, after news of the jury’s full decision was announced — guilty on all charges: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter — the crowd burst into a chant of “All three counts! All three counts!”
Jalyn Hall, a young Black woman from North Minneapolis burst into tears and immediately hugged her mother when the verdict was read. “I was relieved, I was happy — I didn’t want to be processing, I wanted to be celebrating,” she said. “We’ve been on this journey for justice for a long time, long before I was born, way before my mom. We’re not done, we still have plenty of work to do, but we’re so happy that accountability is being held. We’re talking about people’s lives here.”
This is the first time in Minnesota that a white police officer has ever been found guilty for his actions in the death of a Black person. Many did not believe it was possible. “I didn’t want to believe it was not possible, I just held out hope,” Hall said. “It feels good. It feels like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Just so happy. Happy tears.”
The weight she was talking about felt heavy on the shoulders of the city and the entire country, as Floyd’s death almost a year ago kicked off waves of protests, riots, and clashes with police in the largest mass demonstration movement in this country’s history. Many neighbourhoods in the Minneapolis area saw businesses and police buildings burned or vandalized in the civil unrest, and suffered long nights under clouds of tear gas as police and demonstrators clashed.
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“It’s been very difficult, it’s been like living in a war zone,” resident Amber Young said. She says she was maced at a protest less than a week ago in nearby Brooklyn Center where she was protesting the police shooting death of Daunte Wright.
As the trial went on, and particularly after Wright’s death nine days ago, fears of reaction to the trial’s verdict ramped up. Much of the city was boarded up and fenced off in anticipation of possible conflict if Chauvin had been found not guilty — a scenario that has grown familiar in the United States in high-profile trials in the decades since the police in the Rodney King trial walked free.
But that tension dissipated in a moment on the lawn of the courthouse, when the jury of five men and seven women, which included four Black people and two multiracial people, decided after less than 11 hours of deliberation that their assessment of the evidence accorded with that of millions of Americans who had been appalled at the video recording Floyd’s death on the street.
George Floyd’s brother Philonise, speaking after the verdict, said “I can finally breathe again.” His heartfelt message after sitting in the courtroom throughout the trial summed up the reaction to the verdict of many on the street and across the country.
Among those who had been hoping for that particular verdict was U.S. President Joe Biden, who earlier in the day had said he’d called Floyd’s brother after the jury was sequestered to express sympathy, and said he was hoping for the “right verdict” because in his eyes the evidence was a “slam dunk.” Addressing the nation after the verdict, Biden talked of Floyd’s “murder in broad daylight” and said: “This can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America. And let’s also be clear that this verdict is a step that is all too rare.” Biden promised that in Floyd’s memory he would continue to take steps as president to address racism. He said he told Floyd’s young daughter, “Your Daddy did change the world.”
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris joined Biden to watch the verdict in the private dining room off the Oval Office. “This is a day of justice,” Harris told the Floyd family.
Before the verdict was announced, the crowd in Minneapolis had been anxiously hopeful. A man in a suit carrying a bottle of Remy Martin told me he was hoping he’d be able to celebrate by opening it. Another man with a megaphone told the crowd, “You are about to witness history. But let me tell you this: justice is a world in which George Floyd was never killed. Justice is a world in which Daunte Wright was never murdered.”
In those joyful moments after the verdict was announced, a man with a megaphone told the crowd that he thought without the protests and pressure of the past year, there was no chance this day would have come.
The crowd broke into a familiar and ageless protest chant, “The people, united, will never be defeated.” It sounded a little different in the context of that moment.
Soon, the sounds of horns rang out from the street nearby. Thousands of people filled the road, high-fiving and embracing. Passengers in cars leaned out of windows, waving Black Lives Matter flags or pumping their arms in the air.
After almost a full year in which the world has watched these streets as a site of protest and conflict, they became in a moment the site of celebration, at least for now.
“Justice for Daunte Wright!” someone shouted. “Tonight we celebrate. Tomorrow, back to work.”
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: email@example.com
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