Chauvin's guilty verdict is a major milestone in America's reckoning with racial justice

Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
·15-min read

It had been nearly one year since George Floyd breathed his last, lying on the pavement of a Minneapolis street with Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee pressing into his neck.

It had been just over a week ago that Daunte Wright was shot and killed, just a short drive away from where Floyd had died. And it had been five years since Philando Castile was shot by a police officer at point-blank range, also just a few minutes down the road, and four years since the officer who killed him was acquitted.

It had been almost seven years since the first Black Lives Matter protests, in the summer of 2014 following the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

And it had been 30 years since the trial of four Los Angeles cops who beat Rodney King ended in acquittal, causing an eruption of violence in the streets not seen before that since the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The Rodney King trial sparked six days of violence in Los Angeles that left 63 people dead and over 2,300 injured. More than 12,000 people were arrested and vast swaths of the city were destroyed, causing around $1 billion in damage.

Steven Lerman, attorney for Rodney King, displays a photo of his client during a press conference at his office in Beverly Hills, California, Friday, March 8, 1991. King's doctor outlined the extent of man's injuries for reporters during the meeting. (Nick Ut/AP Photo)
Steven Lerman, attorney for Rodney King, displays a photo of his client during a press conference on March 8, 1991. (Nick Ut/AP)

All those ghosts hovered around the Hennepin County Government Center during Chauvin’s trial, and as the 12 jurors deliberated.

Americans waited nervously for the verdict, thinking of the many Black faces caught on video over the past decade shot or suffocated by police or vigilantes. Floyd, Garner and Elijah McClain — who died in 2019 after being put in a chokehold by police — all pleaded for their lives in their final moments with the words “I can’t breathe.”

It has been a year of historic antiracism protests unlike anything seen in this country for decades, but Chauvin’s conviction on all three counts gave many Americans some hope that the past need not repeat itself.

The Chauvin conviction will stand as a major milestone in a movement that began in the summer of 2013, after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. It was then that activists first used the hashtag on social media: Black Lives Matter.

Those hashtags turned into street protests a year later when Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by a plainclothes officer in New York and Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Mo., cop.

People hold placards as they protest outside of the Courthouse during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 19, 2021.(Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters outside the courthouse during the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Later that year, Laquan McDonald was shot dead in the back in Chicago by police on Oct. 20, and 13-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland police on Nov. 22.

With the exception of Brown’s, each of these killings was caught on video, either by police cameras or surveillance footage, or by uninvolved bystanders. This last element was the ripple effect of a paradigm shift in technology, as the number of Americans who owned a smartphone with a camera on it rose dramatically, according to Statista. In 2010, two out of every 10 Americans had a smartphone; by 2014, that number had risen to five out of 10. In 2021, it's seven out of 10.

The rise of firsthand video footage established a pattern, in which the official accounts of police were often contradicted by a reality that was far more damning of how law enforcement handled the situation. That has deepened distrust in the official accounts released by authorities after the death of Black men and women where no video evidence existed. But political conservatives and many police officers have rejected the Black Lives Matter movement and focused on the difficulties that law enforcement officials face in doing their job, saying that “Blue Lives Matter.”

In April 2015, another video emerged. This time, a 50-year-old Black man named Walter Scott was shown being shot in the back as he ran away from a white police officer in North Charleston, S.C. The officer, Michael Slager, then appeared to drop an object next to Scott’s body. A jury trial for Slager ended in a mistrial in state court, but he was convicted in federal court of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Mourners look on as the casket of Walter Scott is removed from a hearse for his funeral at W.O.R.D. Ministries Christian Center, Saturday, April 11, 2015, in Summerville, S.C. Scott was killed by a North Charleston police officer after a traffic Saturday, April 4, 2015. (David Goldman/Getty Images)
Mourners look on as the casket of Walter Scott is removed from a hearse for his funeral in Summerville, S.C., in 2015. (David Goldman/Getty Images)

A week after Scott’s slaying, Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police, setting off protests and riots that left more than 100 police officers injured and over 250 people arrested.

Just two months after Walter Scott’s murder, on June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof entered the historic Emmanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., sat through a prayer meeting with church members and then shot nine of them dead, wounding three others. All the victims were Black. That horrific crime shocked the state into removing the Confederate flag from the state Capitol building, at the direction of the Republican governor at the time, Nikki Haley. Even Donald Trump, then a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, supported the flag’s removal.

In mid-July 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was pulled over in a small town an hour outside Houston by a state trooper who sped up behind her and then stopped her for switching lanes without signaling. After some verbal back-and-forth, the officer pulled Bland from her car and arrested her. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later in an apparent suicide. The officer was fired for failing to follow proper procedure.

Back in Minneapolis, in the fall of 2015, 24-year-old Jamar Clark was shot and killed by police in an incident in which officers said he was not handcuffed and reached for a cop's gun, but bystanders said he was shot while handcuffed. Minneapolis activists protested for more than two weeks. Other Black men killed by police in 2015 included Eric Harris in Tulsa, Okla.; Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati; Christian Taylor in Dallas; and Corey Jones in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

The summer of 2016 brought more police killings, including another one in Minneapolis. On July 6, 32-year-old Philando Castile was pulled over while driving in the Falcon Heights neighborhood, about 8 miles from where George Floyd would die four years later. Castile informed the officer he had a licensed firearm as he reached for what his girlfriend said was his wallet, and was then shot five times, as his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter watched from the back seat. The officer was acquitted of all charges.

A still photo taken from a dashcam video shows the July 2016 police shooting of Philando Castile, a black motorist, during a traffic stop in Ramsey County, Minnesota, U.S., by officer Jeronimo Yanez released June 20, 2017. (Courtesy Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension/Handout via Reuters)
A photo taken from a dashcam video shows the July 2016 police shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Ramsey County, Minn. (Courtesy Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension/Handout via Reuters)

The day before Castile’s killing, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot by police officers in Baton Rouge, La., at point-blank range as they held him down on the ground.

The day after the Castile killing, on July 7, Black Lives Matter protesters were marching in Dallas when an Army reservist who had been deployed to Afghanistan opened fire on police, killing nine and wounding three. Ten days later, there was another attack on police, this time in Baton Rouge, where Sterling had been killed. Another three police officers were killed and three wounded.

Other Black men killed in 2016 by police were Greg Gunn in Montgomery, Ala.; Joseph Mann in Sacramento, Calif.; Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla.; Keith Scott in Charlotte, N.C.; and Alfred Olango in El Cajon, Calif. A Black woman, Deborah Danner, was killed in New York.

During the late summer of 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew attention for his protests of police brutality and police killings during the national anthem before San Francisco 49ers games.

In 2017, there were fewer high-profile incidents involving the death of Black men or women at the hands of police, though 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was shot and killed by police in Balch Springs, Texas, in April, and 50-year-old Patrick Harmon was killed by police in Salt Lake City in August.

But that summer saw racial and political tensions ratcheted up once again when white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August amid controversy over whether to remove statues that venerated leaders of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The march drew counterprotests and devolved into street battles, which included some members of anarchist and anti-fascist groups, which have now become known simply as antifa. And late in the day on Aug. 12, a white supremacist from Kentucky drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The perpetrator was sentenced to life in prison.

Flowers and a photo of car ramming victim Heather Heyer lie at a makeshift memoriall in Charlottesville, Virginia,  August 13, 2017. (Justin Ide/Reuters)
Flowers and a photo of Heather Heyer at a makeshift memorial in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. (Justin Ide/Reuters)

An August 2017 Harvard poll showed 43 percent approval for the Black Lives Matter movement and 57 percent disapproval.

Over the course of 2018 and 2019, the issue simmered on but did not erupt as it had in previous years, even as other Black men and women were killed by police. The most publicized of these was the case of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, who was sitting in his Dallas living room eating ice cream when an off-duty police officer entered and shot him dead, having mistaken his apartment for hers, and him for an intruder.

But early in 2020, the case of Ahmaud Arbery once again pushed the issue of racial injustice to the fore of the national conversation. Arbery was chased in late February by three white men in a small coastal town in Georgia who suspected him of stealing supplies from local houses under construction, and one of the men shot and killed him. It wasn’t until a video surfaced in early May that the killing drew national attention, along with the fact that local authorities had not pursued the issue or sought to bring charges against the men who chased and killed Arbery.

A few weeks later, on May 25, George Floyd lay dead on the pavement of a Minneapolis street, after Derek Chauvin had knelt on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.

Floyd’s death brought increased attention to the shooting death by police of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., that March, and to the chokehold death of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colo., in August 2019.

The video of Floyd’s killing set off more than 10,000 protests over the next three months all over the country, according to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University.

Many more protests and vigils were held around the world.

Protesters march around downtown Minneapolis near the courthouse calling for justice for George Floyd after closing arguments in the Chauvin trial has ended on Monday, April 19, 2021 in Minneapolis, MN. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Protesters in Minneapolis on Monday, after closing arguments in the Derek Chauvin trial. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

There was considerable violence and rioting in some cities as well, most notably during the first few days after Floyd’s killing. The ACLED/Princeton project found 570 protests that involved violence. This amounted to about 5 percent of all protests, but there were several incidents of innocent bystanders or police being killed or injured by protesters, including the horrific murder of David Dorn. Dorn, 77, a Black retired St. Louis police captain, was shot to death while trying to defend a friend’s pawnshop on June 2.

Police arrested at least 11,000 people in 30 cities in the week after Floyd’s killing, according to BuzzFeed News.

And some of the riots did extensive destruction to certain areas. Minneapolis was one of the hardest hit, with over 400 businesses destroyed and more than $500 million in damage.

Some of the worst violence occurred in Kenosha, Wis., in late August, when police shot Jacob Blake in the back during a traffic stop. On the third night of protests and rioting, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protesters and injured a third with an AR-15-style rifle during a scuffle.

Rittenhouse was one of many heavily armed individuals who appeared with increasing frequency on the streets of American cities as protests and violence escalated. These individuals often belonged to right-wing militia groups such as the Oath Keepers or One-Percenters, who identify with antigovernment ideologies and claim to count significant numbers of former military and law enforcement officers among their ranks.

This volatile mix was made worse through the summer of 2020 by the sitting president, Donald Trump, who seemed to revel in the chaos and did nothing to try to bring calm to a nation whose nerves were frayed by the conflict — which all came in the midst of a once-in-a-generation global pandemic that has so far killed more than 568,000 Americans in just over a year.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden on “Safe Policing for Safe Communities”, at the White House June 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump signed an executive order on police reform amid the growing calls after the death of George Floyd. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Then-President Donald Trump at a White House event on “Safe Policing for Safe Communities” on June 16, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Trump often made inflammatory statements, such as his tweet four days after Floyd’s death that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” On June 1, federal law enforcement officers attacked protesters to clear out Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Square so that Trump could march across to St. John’s Episcopal Church from the White House for a photo op in which he stood holding a Bible.

Trump also made the Black Lives Matter movement into a punching bag for his reelection campaign. On July 1, he called the movement a “symbol of hate.” In September, he said BLM wanted to have “mob rule.”

"The stated goal of BLM organization, people, is to achieve the destruction of the nuclear family, abolish the police, abolish prisons, abolish border security, abolish capitalism and abolish school choice — that's what their stated goals are,” Trump said.

Republicans also used the demands of some Black Lives Matter activists to portray Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as wanting to abolish the police, despite the fact that Biden supported increasing funding for law enforcement. He responded in late August with a speech in Pittsburgh, where he again condemned violence and defended the right to protest, and mocked the idea that he would weaken law enforcement. “Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” Biden said.

At the same time in elite media and education circles, some liberals who supported the fight for racial justice also protested what they perceived to be a growing intolerance for debate and argument on issues regarding race. Harper’s Magazine published a letter signed by numerous prominent writers and intellectuals who said free thought and free speech were being encroached upon.

U.S. President Joe Biden wears a protective mask while speaking during a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on April 20, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Biden meets with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the White House on Tuesday. (Doug Mills/New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Public opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement rose to a high point in the days after Floyd’s death. A Pew survey found 67 percent support for the racial justice movement in June, while a Harvard survey at that time reported 55 percent, and a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found 57 percent support, up from just 27 percent in 2016.

The tumultuous summer and a divisive presidential campaign brought those numbers down, however, and by the fall Pew found support down from 67 percent to 55 percent. Harvard, meanwhile, tracked a decline from 55 percent down to 41 percent in February 2021, with disapproval rising from 33 percent in June 2020 to 45 percent in February.

Meanwhile, Democratic political analysts found that calls from activists to “defund the police” made many voters uneasy, and helped Republicans win elections for Congress and in state races despite Trump’s loss in the presidential election.

And then on April 11 — in the middle of the Floyd trial — another Black man in the Minneapolis area was killed by police, just miles from where Floyd, Castile and Clark had all been killed by police over the past five years. Daunte Wright, 20, was shot and killed by an officer who said she mistook her gun for a Taser during a traffic stop. That ratcheted tensions up once again, and brought protesters into the streets.

There was considerable anxiety as the jury deliberated over whether American cities might experience similar violence if Chauvin were not convicted. Authorities in numerous cities beefed up their police presence, and more than 3,000 National Guard troops were deployed in Minneapolis, with schools shifting to remote learning to keep kids off the streets.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is handcuffed to be led away after a jury found him guilty of all charges in his trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. April 20, 2021 in a still image from video.  (Pool via Reuters)
Chauvin is handcuffed to be led away after a jury found him guilty of all charges in the death of George Floyd. (Pool via Reuters)

Moments after the jury left the courtroom to begin deliberations, the judge in the Chauvin trial, Peter Cahill, lamented comments about the trial made at a Saturday protest in the city by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., in which she told reporters that protesters needed to get “more confrontational” if Chauvin were not found guilty. The judge called Waters’s comments “abhorrent,” and members of Congress moved to censure her.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, asked about Waters’s comments, said Biden believes that “exercising First Amendment rights and protesting injustice is the most American thing that anyone can do. But as he also always says, protests must be peaceful.”

The jury’s verdict likely spared Minneapolis, and much of the rest of the country, from having to navigate such a scenario.

Cover thumbnail photo: Court TV via Reuters Video

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