It shouldn’t have been an open question whether a police officer could kneel on a man’s neck for more than nine minutes, snuffing out his life, with complete or even partial impunity. We shouldn’t have had to hold our collective breath from the moment it was announced there was a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial to the moment that verdict was read. This shouldn’t feel so much like a victory.

But it does. The jurors in Chauvin’s trial trusted their eyes and ears. They saw the video of George Floyd pinned to the hard pavement, they heard him plead again and again that he couldn’t breathe, and they held Chauvin fully accountable.

They saw George Perry Floyd Jr. — fully — as a human being.

So many times, that simple acknowledgment of humanity has apparently been too much to ask. The police officers who killed Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many other Black men either were acquitted of wrongdoing or never even charged. Chauvin’s conviction is a tremendous relief — and, one hopes, a beginning.

The jurors did not temporize or attempt to split hairs. They found Chauvin guilty of all three charges, including second-degree unintentional murder, for which the former officer could spend up to 40 years in prison. After reading the verdicts and polling the jury, Judge Peter A. Cahill ordered Chauvin taken immediately into custody. To see him led away in handcuffs was a tableau of righteous symmetry.

Perhaps the most important societal milestone marked in this trial is that the jury apparently gave no credence to the attempt by Chauvin’s defense to justify how he treated Floyd because of Floyd’s race. Defense attorney Eric Nelson didn’t mention race explicitly, of course. He used coded language that he hoped the jurors would understand. Floyd’s arrest took place in a “high crime” area, he said. The horrified onlookers who watched as Floyd died were a raucous “crowd” that needed to be controlled. The fact that the muscular Floyd was intoxicated gave him “superhuman” strength.

That is how Black men have been stigmatized for 400 years, as powerful and angry and criminal — and needing to be brought to heel, to be dominated if necessary.

After Floyd’s killing, millions of Americans of all races and ethnicities marched in demonstrations across the country to insist that Black lives do matter. Watching the magnitude of the protests, I had a sense that something fundamental might be changing — that a generalized reckoning with systemic racism might actually begin.

This trial might only be the first step in that process. As Floyd’s brother, Philonise, put it at a news conference after the verdict was read, as long as Black Americans such as Daunte Wright are still being killed by the police, “We have to march. We will have to do this for life.”

But there also needed to be a specific reckoning with what Chauvin did last May 25 at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. The prosecutors in Chauvin’s trial — Jerry Blackwell, Steve Schleicher and Matthew Frank — put on a powerful case that seemed, to me, simply overwhelming. But it was impossible to know what the jurors were thinking.

Speaking for myself, I thought it was a slam-dunk win for the state of Minnesota. But it says a lot about this nation’s troubled history that I couldn’t believe my own analysis of the trial, couldn’t believe my own eyes and ears, couldn’t have had the same faith Philonise Floyd said he had that Chauvin would be convicted, until the instant the verdicts were read.

Almost as important as the guilty verdicts is the fact that so many Minneapolis police officers — including Police Chief Medaria Arradondo — testified for the prosecution against Chauvin. “Thin blue line” solidarity probably isn’t gone forever. But at least we know it has limits. That’s a start, and hopefully, a precedent.

“Days like this don’t happen,” said a joyous Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Floyd family. He pointed out the obvious: It shouldn’t be so hard to win justice for a citizen brutally killed by a police officer. We should be under no illusions that justice will be easily won in the next case involving unjustified police violence against an African American. And Black Americans deserve more from law enforcement than not to be killed by police: As Stewart put it, “All too often, African Americans only get the spear or the sword. We need more of the shield.”

Right now, though, it is possible to feel both elation and relief. George Floyd won justice today. So did we all.

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