The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Chauvin verdict had cities nationwide braced for unrest. Instead, they got a celebration.

People gather at George Floyd Plaza in Minneapolis after the convictions were announced Tuesday.
People gather at George Floyd Plaza in Minneapolis after the convictions were announced Tuesday. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

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.

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)

“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.”

Photos: The reaction after the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was announced

That was how former president Barack Obama and former first lady 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 the country’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.”

To those out on the streets, few seemed to be under that impression. Although people celebrated, the response was somewhat less than joyful. Floyd’s killing was a trauma for the country, and the trial, with its many-angled view of the 46-year-old’s final moments, was often wrenching. The ultimate outcome was painful, even if many deemed it necessary.

“We don’t celebrate a man going to jail,” said civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, at a post-verdict news conference with Floyd’s family. “We would have rather George be alive.”

In recent weeks, other names have joined the ever-growing list of men, women and children killed by police under questionable circumstances. Daunte Wright was shot dead 10 miles from downtown Minneapolis last week by an officer who apparently mistook her gun for her Taser.

And Adam Toledo was 13 when he was shot dead by an officer in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood last month, following a foot chase.

Crystal Ortiz lives one block from the spot where Toledo was killed; she has brought candles to a memorial in his honor, and marched in his memory.

On Tuesday, she said she felt a wave of relief, shock and gratitude when she learned of the Chauvin verdict, especially because she had prepared herself for disappointment.

“One of the people responsible is being held accountable for his actions,” she said. “And it does give me hope.”

That sort of 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 (D) 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.

Floyd’s death sparked prolonged concern for race and racism, but it’s still unclear what that means

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) 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 (D) 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.”

‘I’m still learning’: The journey of George Floyd’s brother Philonise

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 for the trial’s outcome.

“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 insisted that isn’t always the case — and that Tuesday’s verdict should not give license to those resisting further change to the criminal justice system.

“We cannot rest with this,” said Georgia state Rep. Erica Thomas (D), who spoke to a crowd that gathered to mark the verdict Tuesday evening in Atlanta. “Yes, we saw this happen in one city in one state. But we have the United States of America where it’s not happening yet.”

In Kenosha, the sun set over the sprawling lawn and war memorials at Civic Center Park. In August, it was the scene of large, sometimes violent protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. On Tuesday, it was quiet.

“I’m glad they found the police guilty, that’s good,” said Michael White, a 50-year-old Black man who works at a steel mill and was about to leave to pick up his kids. “I just wish they’d find more police guilty for some of the stuff they’re doing around here.”

He mentioned questionable traffic stops, as well as police roughing up Black men like him as a show of power. And he noted that, unlike in the Floyd case, the officer who shot Blake multiple times wasn’t charged or disciplined.

“He got his job back,” White said, his voice rising with anger.

‘Today, we are able to breathe again’: Floyd’s family members celebrate verdict, vow to fight on for racial justice

At Kenosha’s University of Wisconsin at Parkside, graduate student Kia McCray, 24, watched the verdict on her phone.

“I’d be protesting right now if it had gone the other way,” said McCray, who was a next-door neighbor to Blake and witnessed his shooting. “From my mouth to God’s ears, that city would have burned like nothing before.”

Instead, McCray spent Tuesday night test driving, then buying, a used Volkswagen Jetta at Car Source, a Kenosha car lot that was turned to ash during August’s unrest. It recently reopened, with shiny cars filling the lot that previously housed burned-up husks.

In Minneapolis, too, Amber Young was allowing herself to think beyond the horrors of the past year. Since Floyd’s killing last Memorial Day weekend, she has been attending protests in between her two jobs. When the verdict came down Tuesday, she burst into tears as others jumped for joy and pumped their fists.

“All the trauma, all of the emotion, just came out,” she said. As cars blared horns behind her, a man jumped in a vehicle and waved a Black Lives Matter flag. A painting of George Floyd was raised high.

“It’s been a burden, seeing our city torn apart,” she said.

She was looking forward to going home. She might even take the rest of the day off, for once. But tomorrow, she said, “we’ll be back out fighting.”

Koh, Bellware and Foster-Frau reported from Minneapolis. Erin Chan Ding in Chicago, Maura Ewing in Philadelphia, Haisten Willis in Atlanta, Dan Simmons in Kenosha, and Mark Berman and Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.