Across America, communities had prepared for the worst. They had put up barriers and called in reinforcements. They had boarded up windows and declared emergencies. They were bracing for Derek Chauvin to be acquitted of George Floyd’s murder, for the inevitable protests that would follow, for the strife and conflict and destruction of last year to be replayed this spring.
That’s certainly what B.J. Wilder was ready for. The Minneapolis resident had been disappointed too many times, seen justice deferred or denied all too often, particularly for Black Americans. His city, he said, felt like “a powder keg.”
But when the decision came, he and the others who had gathered outside the Cup Foods store, where Floyd was killed, got something unexpected. As the guilty verdicts on all three counts of murder and manslaughter were announced to the crowd, there were tears of joy, hugs and cheers. Instead of anger and betrayal, Wilder experienced relief, and even some hope.
“It feels like a new day in America,” said Wilder.
Nationwide, expected protests over the latest injustice gave way to celebrations that the jury in Minneapolis “did the right thing.”
That was how Barack and Michelle Obama put it and, for once in a hyper-polarized nation, there was relatively little disagreement. At least in public.
Civil rights activists praised the decision, and so did police chiefs. Politicians on either side of the aisle found rare common ground. Mayors dared to exhale.
The Chauvin verdict wasn’t enough to heal America’s deepest wounds, all seemed to agree. But at least it wasn’t going to inflame them further.
“Oh my lord,” said Shawn Mayes, a fourth-generation Black Minnesotan in a trembling voice as she celebrated in Minneapolis. “I feel like I can breathe.”
In predominantly Black West Philadelphia, a woman driving by lowered her window, raised a fist and shouted “Guilty!” moments after the verdict was read. On a sunny spring day, residents sitting on their porches—eyes trained to smartphones or listening intently to radio news—cheered. Cars honked, people whooped, neighbors hugged.
“I’m glad that Derek Chauvin is going to jail,” said Shanee Garner, a lifelong West Philadelphia resident who is a legislative director for a city council member. “But I hope that this moment is not taken as an indicator that our system is just and police brutality is solved.”
The reaction was a far cry from what community leaders nationwide had feared.
From the streets leading to the courthouse where Chauvin stood trial to cities across the country, buildings had been fortified with plywood and police had been put on high alert as state and local leaders prepared for possible protests.
In the Twin Cities, thousands of National Guard troops were deployed. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat, had warned that rioting or looting “will not be tolerated.”
In Oakland, Calif., Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong toured the city’s shuttered downtown before the verdict and pleaded that protesters demonstrate peacefully, whether Chauvin was found guilty or not.
“Whatever the outcome might be, destroying our city is not going to change anything,” he said.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said leaders are in “constant, literally daily conversations” about how to respond to possible protests.
Atlanta sent home all nonessential city employees.
Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, had declared an emergency, while putting the National Guard on call.
The responses reflected the scale of unrest last year—not only after Floyd’s death but also after a number of other prominent cases in which Black men and women died or were gravely injured at the hands of police in cities such as Louisville; Kenosha, Wis.; Philadelphia; and Rochester, N.Y.
Rather than a descent into strife, the guilty verdict delivered something far different: a renewed faith that justice might be possible, a hope that out of the chaos of last year, a more equitable and just society might emerge.
But the optimism was also tempered by realism, along with reminders that a single verdict isn’t enough.
“Holding one murderer accountable does not deliver justice for George Floyd and other victims of state-sponsored violence,” Phillip Atiba Goff, CEO and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, said in a statement. “Only holding ourselves accountable for creating and maintaining the system that enabled Chauvin can bring us any closer.”
Goff, who testified before Congress last June alongside Floyd’s brother Philonise, said a “long slog toward justice” remained in order to overcome “generations of discrimination and disinvestment.”
The National Civil Rights Museum—housed in the onetime Memphis motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead—issued a statement reminding people that the Chauvin verdict, while welcome, was an anomaly.
“Justice was served in this case,” the statement offered. “But the justice we need is bigger than the verdict of this one case. Hopefully, this case will set a precedent for the verdicts to come for the many other victims of unjust police killings.”
The King Center in Atlanta, meanwhile, emphasized that America has been exceptional in its injustice—and that that didn’t change with Tuesday’s decision.
“Only in America can a Black person be callously murdered on video for the world to see, then be vilified, dehumanized, and faulted for his own murder,” the center wrote. “Although Chauvin was found guilty, this nation still faces an arduous journey toward implementing the demands of justice.”
That journey is likely to involve far more discord than was on display Tuesday. Though police officers charged with crimes while in the line of duty typically get support from the law enforcement community, that wasn’t true of Chauvin. His own chief of police testified against him, and officials around the country praised the verdict.
“Chauvin’s conviction is a reminder to all who wear a badge that we are not above the laws which we swore to protect,” said Sheriff Gregory Tony of Florida’s Broward County. “Chauvin’s lack of empathy and compassion and his brutality set off a firestorm across the world but moved the consciousness of America like never before.”
Even the Fraternal Order of Police—the nation’s largest police union—added its support.
“Our system of justice has worked as it should,” said the group’s president, Patrick Yoes. “The trial was fair and due process was served.”
Many of those responding to the verdict noted that that isn’t always the case—and that Black Americans often bear the brunt of the repercussions.
“True justice requires that we come to terms with the fact that Black Americans are treated differently, every day,” the Obamas wrote in their response to the decision. “It requires us to recognize that millions of our friends, family, and fellow citizens live in fear that their next encounter with law enforcement could be their last.”