The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In D.C., the guilty verdict in Chauvin trial is met with cheers, tears and relief

People in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis became overcome with emotion after former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the death of George Floyd (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
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A deep sense of relief rippled across the nation’s capital shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday as the guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin were announced in a Minnesota courtroom. George Floyd died 1,100 miles from Washington, but his gruesome execution beneath the former Minneapolis officer’s knee had loomed over this city for nearly a year.

Derek Chauvin convicted of murder and manslaughter in death of George Floyd

Thousands of protesters, furious over police mistreatment of another Black man, demonstrated throughout the summer, sometimes peacefully and other times amid burning buildings and shattered glass. The District, like much of the country, braced for another explosion of anger if the jury let Chauvin walk. But it didn’t.

In Columbia Heights and on H Street NE, people cheered. At Black Lives Matter Plaza — which didn’t exist before Floyd took his final breath — they cried.

Just before the news came, all went quiet on that strip of yellow-painted roadway near the White House that had been the site of so much shouting, chanting and demanding over the past 11 months.

London Williams and Stephanie Toledo, both 31, hunched together over the small screen of a cellphone playing CNN’s live stream from the courtroom.

As the judge began to speak, Williams’s body tensed, hands pressing into his forehead. Toledo curled her fingers around his arm.

“We the jury ... find the defendant guilty,” came the judge’s voice over the tinny speaker.

Williams, a Black man, choked down a small laugh.

The judge continued: “Count two ... guilty.”

“Yes,” Williams said, tears streaking his cheeks. “Yes, yes.”

Then, the final proclamation. Toledo tightened her grip on his arm.

“Count three ... guilty.”

“Oh, my God,” Williams said. “Thank you, Jesus.”

The couple embraced, weeping quietly into each other’s necks as crowds of photographers jockeyed to capture the moment.

Williams thought back to a moment last year when, he said, police stopped him in Pennsylvania. How afraid he felt. How his body tensed then, too. How he left with his eyes burning, he said, from a blast of pepper spray the police had deployed before letting him go.

Now, that seemed like a long ago memory.

“I feel like all Black men can feel safe today,” Williams said, then he thought of the police. “Eyes are on them. They’re on them now.”

The couple, on their first visit to the District, had come to Black Lives Matter Plaza to see the place where history had been made in Floyd’s name last year, but they hadn’t imagined being here for the conviction of the police officer who killed him.

Nearby, Cheryl Haywood, 59, could only shake her head and weep. Then her whole body started to shake, her face wet with relief and anger and gratitude.

“I feel very mixed about it,” she said, her daughter stroking her arm. “I feel grateful to the jury that they did their job. They did the right thing, and it could have been the wrong thing. But it won’t bring back George Floyd.”

Still lingering in her mind, and so many others, was the reality that Chauvin’s conviction would not end the abuses Black men suffer at the hands of police. Less than 48 hours later, on Thursday, Minneapolis would host the funeral of Daunte Wright, shot dead April 11 by an officer who allegedly mistook her gun for her Taser.

Over at the Lincoln Memorial, Terry Baker, still breathing heavily from his jog up the steps, paused for a few seconds to gaze in silence at the 16th president before pulling out his iPhone.

Then Baker, a longtime D.C. resident who is Cherokee, Irish and Nigerian, turned on his camera and went live on Facebook.

“Today is a great day in America,” he told his virtual audience.

Baker, 52, swiveled the phone so that everyone watching could also peer into Lincoln’s marble face.

“Lincoln freed the slaves,” he said, “but I am glad that Derek Chauvin lost his freedom today.”

The trial had felt personal for Baker, he said, not only as a Black man in America, but because his brother knew Floyd well. So did his brother’s wife, who grew up in the same part of Houston that Floyd did.

He’d teared up when he heard the verdict, too, but only for a moment. He didn’t feel sad. He felt released: “Like I can finally let go of my anger.”

He also felt like going on a run, so that’s what Baker did, and when he stepped outside, he discovered a perfect day. It was sunny and just above 70, the entire sky clear.

That sense of blessing was shared by religious leaders, many of whom had served for months as peacekeepers amid the tumult in Washington and communities nationwide.

“Grateful for justice rendered in Minneapolis. Let’s remember today the family of George Floyd,” tweeted Russell Moore, leader of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the huge conservative denomination. “And let’s work together for a new era of racial justice and American hope.”

Before the verdict, D.C. had bolstered its police presence and asked the National Guard for support in case demonstrations again turned violent, but none of those precautions seemed necessary by early evening.

In Richmond, another city upended by months of demonstrations, a crowd of about 20 people gathered near the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue to celebrate and wave a multicolored Black Lives Matter flag. Passing cars honked their horns and someone set off an air horn as people converged on the circle around the statue.

Soon after the verdict was read, some of the police cars drove away.

Across the street from Black Lives Matter Plaza, Bob Marley music played from a speaker near Lafayette Square, and a small crowd whooped and cheered.

A group of friends gathered outside St. John’s Church, buoyed by the news.

“One hundred percent this will make a difference, 100 percent,” said Mike Jones, 36, of Houston. “If I was a police officer today, I would theoretically be less willing to do something that might not only get me fired but convicted of murder.”

His friends nodded, then joined in the chant of a small passing group.

“Guilty!” they cried. “Guilty!”

Natalie Omodt, 23, had protested the death of Floyd last year in her hometown of Minneapolis, among the throng of demonstrators who marched through the streets night after night. She raised her fist and chanted “Black Lives Matter!” She watched as her community came together, she said, to rage and to mourn and to call for change.

Omodt, who recently moved to the District, wished she could be there Tuesday. Instead, she also made her way to the plaza in D.C.

“It’s amazing how different it feels today compared to last May,” she said, wiping her cheeks dry. She wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with Floyd’s face and the words “Rest in Power.”

All around her, families posed for photos. Little girls bopped to Motown tunes. Strangers exchanged fist-bumps and high-fives. Some hugged.

“This feels, like,” Omodt said, pausing before she arrived at the right word, “joyous.”

Samantha Schmidt, Gregory S. Schneider, Rebecca Tan, Hannah Natanson, Michelle Boorstein and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.