A mass cheer rose up from the south lawn of the Hennepin County courthouse the moments the verdicts were read inside: guilty, guilty, guilty.
At a downtown hotel not far away, Spike Moss watched alongside George Floyd's family as Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder. The 74-year-old Minneapolis civil rights activist sat down and teared up.
"We finally won one," he said, thanking God that he had lived long enough to see a victory for which he had fought his whole life.
It was far from a unanimous moment of elation in this divided country, but many advocates for racial equality took a moment to soak in what they saw as a rare instance of justice for Black Americans.
Minnesota civil rights icon Josie Johnson, 90, said she was stunned when she heard that Chauvin had been convicted of all three counts, including second-degree murder.
"It is such a surprise, and a sense of relief, that I have lived long enough to see this happen," she said. "That this may help us see justice as a society — that's my prayer. I've lived long enough to see this happen, and I've lived long enough to see a Black man elected president. I've seen a country that reacted in such a way of hurt in seeing what happened to George Floyd. That gave me a sense of hope."
But she emphasized that the hope Chauvin's conviction symbolized can become a historical touchstone only if the lessons learned from the trial help change not just policing but a society where Black Americans are treated unequally.
"I'm just fearful that unless we can talk about this and express our real fears and concerns, I don't know it will last long enough," she said. "I'm praying that it will. If we are successful, I think people will look back and see that this was the beginning of a new era."
The aftermath of Tuesday's verdict was filled with attempts to place the moment in history.
George Floyd's brother Philonise Floyd said Emmett Till was "the first George Floyd," and pointed to the importance of the video taken by a bystander: "It was a motion picture," he said.
Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton said that while he does not celebrate Chauvin going to jail, the moment would change the world. He talked about President Joe Biden visiting Floyd's family last year.
"He sat there, and I will never forget, he said to George's daughter, 'I heard you say your father is going to change the world,' " Sharpton said. "Well, we can now tell George's daughter she was right."
Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said that while this moment was one trial for one police officer, the greater movement spurred by Floyd's murder symbolizes something bigger.
"This is a new moment in American history," he said. "True justice can't be delivered by 12 jurors. It can be delivered by millions of people winning systemic change, by ending the two sets of rules we have in this country, the two sets of policing. That's the work ahead, and that's the fight ahead."
Andrea Jenkins, the vice president of the Minneapolis City Council, put the moment in the context of centuries: "White supremacy is at the very core of this country's founding," she said. "But today, today justice was served. Police accountability was handed out. It gives us a little more hope."
Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, who was killed by a suburban Twin Cities police officer in 2016, watched the trial with her daughter on the couch in her living room. When the verdict came in, she cried and praised God: "Thank you, Lord! Thank you, heavenly father!"
The police officer who shot her son was acquitted, but Castile saw Chauvin's conviction as a sign of progress.
"Minnesota is moving in a positive direction," she said. "Everyone didn't get justice, but I think holding police officers accountable is the right thing to do."
Ball State University history Prof. Max Felker-Kantor pointed out plenty of optimism in the conviction. He noted that it was significant that Chauvin was found guilty on all three charges, especially because in so many police killings of Blacks there has been a failure to even go to trial.
He pointed out that the Chauvin jury was more racially diverse than the jury that found the officers not guilty in Rodney King's beating in Los Angeles a generation ago, and that Floyd's death started more substantive nationwide conversations about the problems in policing than in that 1991 case. And Chauvin's fellow officers, including the Minneapolis police chief, testifying against him was a marked change in culture, he said.
But he and others offered a note of caution to those celebrating the conviction: It was one man who was on trial, not the system of which he was a part.
"Derek Chauvin being found guilty does not mean that the problems of policing have been solved in American society," he said. "There's a danger to portraying it as an overwhelming victory. … There's bigger questions about policing that I think we need to continue to reckon with."
Steven Belton, president of Urban League Twin Cities, said he was heartened by the verdict. "I am not, however, convinced that this is an inflection culturally or from the perspective of broader society. I am not counseling my own Black sons that they can throw caution to the wind and that they can expect to be treated fairly by police everywhere. … We're still waiting to see if this is a moment or a movement."
He suggested that the conviction came about because "they got caught with a smoking gun" in the form of a video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd. He questioned whether police would have testified against Chauvin or believed the witnesses' claims about his treatment of Floyd if 17-year-old bystander Darnella Frazier had not filmed it with her phone.
"That's what made the difference," said Belton. "So the reason I'm skeptical, or at least waiting patiently to see whether this is an inflection, is because every case is not going to have that."
Bishop Harding Smith, who got to know Floyd in their work with the homeless, urged people not to view Chauvin's actions as an isolated case.
"Derek Chauvin just didn't happen overnight," said Smith, of the Spiritual Church of God in Robbinsdale. "Derek Chauvin was nurtured. He was protected and he was groomed by the Police Department." Chauvin acted the way he did on May 25 "because he felt that this department would have his back."
Smith asked: "How many other Derek Chauvins are there in the Minneapolis Police Department? I can tell you this: He's not the only one."
He said he's happy about the verdict, but "we have been down this road before and until we as Americans — until we as a people — can look deep within ourselves and change our racist attitudes, we're going to be back here again six months from now."
On Tuesday morning in Boston, Phillipe Copeland stood in his kitchen and burst into tears. As an assistant director at Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research, Copeland has spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of this moment, and its heaviness. The uncertainty of justice, the constant tensions of being a Black man in America — weighed on him. When he watched the verdict being read, it brought a strange feeling: numbness. The verdict didn't bring back Floyd. The verdict didn't suddenly cure the generations of dehumanization that burdened him.
But it was something.
"We go through these rituals as a society where we offer up sacrifices on the altar of retribution and call it justice," he said. "This case really dramatizes how insufficient that ritual is. There are things that punishment, that convicting an individual, cannot do. So we have to do something else. We have to do something more."
In the downtown Minneapolis hotel where he watched the verdict alongside Floyd's family, Moss, the longtime civil rights activist, thought back on a lifetime of fighting uphill battles against police brutality. He's been doing this work since 1966, but he always felt thwarted by "Minnesota racism." This time, he said, the evidence was undeniable.
"I had to sit down and take a breath and just tear up because that was my lifelong battle," he said. "I was vilified every way for standing up. … I just never stopped fighting, so I'm proud of [protesters and Floyd's family] because they kept fighting."
Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210