A city with its own blemished history of race relations and police brutality against minorities tearfully celebrated Tuesday as a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter for the killing of George Floyd.
Chicago had been bracing for the potential of massive protests with the resolution of a racially-wrenching case that represented a defining milestone for America, its Black residents and its police departments.
But the justice delivered Tuesday in a Minnesota courtroom instead brought a collective exhale of relief here, showing bigotry and violence directed at minorities by those bearing a badge carry profound consequences.
“In May of 2020, I saw the harrowing footage of George Floyd’s life being extinguished beneath Derek Chauvin’s knee, and I cried,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted, roughly a half hour after the guilty-on-all-charges verdict was read live on the airwaves.
“I said then and I say now, being Black in America cannot be a death sentence,” the mayor said. “Today marks a moment where future generations can look back and see that we as a nation came together and rightfully demanded justice and accountability. And justice was served.”
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker called Tuesday’s developments an important moment “on the journey to justice.”
“No courtroom can ever replace a life, but it can and should deliver justice,” the governor said. “Today, the jury in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial honored that truth.
“My heart goes out to the family of George Floyd, who deserve to have him alive today,” Pritzker continued. “I’m also thinking of all our Black communities and other communities of color who see their children or their parents or themselves in George Floyd, and Daunte Wright, and Adam Toledo, and Breonna Taylor, and Laquan McDonald.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, said Tuesday’s verdict righted a wrong in America.
“The image of Derek Chauvin staring straight into the camera as George Floyd died under his knee haunts me to this day. The injustice of his killing is undeniable. And so is the fact that systemic racism continues to plague America,” Durbin said. “The verdict of this jury gives me hope that we can strive for a system of justice in our nation that is applied equally to all.”
Police-reform activists rejoiced at Chauvin’s conviction, as well.
“Know that this is a result of the millions who have taken the streets in all 50 states and many countries throughout the world,” Black Lives Matter Chicago tweeted. “The state will concede, when the threat of rebellion and unrest, and revolution outweigh the consequences of upholding the status quo.”
And the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who was in Minneapolis for the verdict, tweeted about the true gravity of what unfolded in the Hennepin County District courtroom Tuesday.
“This is the first time in history in MN that a white police officer has been convicted of killing a black man,” Jackson said. “This is the beginning of the end of legal lynching. Legal lynching must end.”
As the nation reacted to the historic verdict, the downtown streets of Chicago rocked by protests last summer were sparse, a routine but nonetheless potent image serving to symbolize a city’s seeming contentment with Tuesday’s judgment. Daley Plaza sat nearly empty as the verdict came down.
Students were just leaving Kenwood High School at dismissal when the verdict was read. Some expressed relief, but also reservation, saying the jury’s decision doesn’t change their relationship with police. Most students at Kenwood are Black.
Sophomore Miles Bryant was wearing a hoodie with the names of other people who had been killed by or in the custody police, including Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland.
He said he wanted to go to protests against police brutality last summer, but that his mother was too worried to let him go. He said he would never want his mother or his family to have to face a similar situation as Floyd’s mother.
Of the verdict, he said, “It gives us some type of release and some type of benefits…but also it still doesn’t take away the fact that we walk through this world with a stereotype on our back.”
Freshman Soleil Dupart called the Chauvin guilty verdict “amazing.” “It means that people like him won’t be around people like me,” she said.
She said when she watched the video showing Floyd killed last year, she was disturbed and sickened. Dupart said it made her feel like she and her brother, young Black teens, were targets.
“I didn’t feel safe going outside to get the mail,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe hanging out with my friends.”
A city on edge
During the 11 hours Chauvin’s jury deliberated, Chicago had been on edge, with Illinois National Guard troops deployed in the city, Chicago police on 12-hour shifts and with some retailers leaving boards up on their shops put in place days ago.
And with good reason.
When the video showing Floyd’s death became public last May, Chicago withered under nearly two weeks of protest, when some peaceful demonstrations turned violent, leading to more than 1,500 arrests and $20 million in damage throughout Cook County.
A scathing report in February by Chicago’s Inspector General Joseph Ferguson criticized the response by Chicago police to last year’s unrest as “under-prepared and ill-equipped.” Generally, he said Chicago police’s senior brass “failed the public they are charged with serving and protecting.”
But as Chauvin’s trial reached its historic conclusion, Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed there would not be a repeat of last year’s failures.
Chicago officials have been preparing for potential protests once the verdict was announced. Activists earlier this month told WBEZ they were closely following the trial and were expecting mass demonstrations whenever the case is decided, regardless of the outcome.
Lightfoot earlier Tuesday encouraged people to express their First Amendment rights, but also gave a warning to people who might have plans to loot businesses or damage other property.
“Don’t test us,” Lightfoot said. “We are prepared, and we are ready to arrest and bring to prosecution, anyone who would dare try to take the dreams of our small businesses by looting.”
Chicago’s history of police brutality
Few other cities have had to confront the consequences of police behavior toward minorities as Chicago has.
Last week, as the Chauvin trial was unfolding, Chicago police released body-cam footage of the March 29 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a city cop in a Little Village alley after a foot chase.
The graphic footage showed a police officer fatally shoot the boy in the chest as his hands were held in the air after appearing, moments earlier, to have a gun. A weapon was recovered nearby after the shooting. That killing led to concerns about widespread protests and prompted some retailers in the city’s downtown to start boarding up windows, protection that remains in place Tuesday.
On Sunday evening, hundreds of Little Village residents — including Toledo’s family — gathered for a vigil near the alley where he was killed. In Logan Square, thousands of people gathered over the weekend and marched through Lightfoot’s neighborhood, calling for her resignation, abolition of the police and for criminal charges to be filed against the officer.
Toledo’s death, as gruesome as it was to watch, wasn’t the first alarming instance of a Chicago police officer killing a minority teenager.
The city quaked and ultimately was reshaped over the release of video footage showing the fatal 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The young man was walking away, with a knife, as former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke pumped 16 bullets into McDonald’s body.
That McDonald case led to massive protests, the firing of police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and a Justice Department probe of the Chicago Police Department that ended with the federal consent decree under which city police now operate.
The case that brought police brutality to the national consciousness also ended the political career of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who chose not to seek re-election amid the fallout over the McDonald killing.
In 2018, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, representing a charge for each bullet he fired at McDonald. Van Dyke, the first Chicago cop convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in a half century, was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison for the crimes.
Tears for justice
Tuesday’s verdict involving another cop-turned-criminal who killed a Black man hit home for Chicagoan LaSean Braddock, who said he had his own chilling run-in with Chauvin.
Braddock spent about 14 years living in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area where he crossed paths with Chauvin and said he was one of several people who filed complaints against the officer. But the complaint went nowhere.
Braddock, who moved back to Chicago a couple of years ago, said Chauvin and his partner threw him to the ground and jumped on his back and neck during a traffic stop — and now, Chauvin is finally paying a price for his bad policing.
“He gets his just desserts, because the world is 360, it comes back around. What you put out there in the universe comes back around to you. So how many people has he wrongfully arrested and mistreated?” Braddock said. “I still feel like they treated him with dignity and respect, and he was tried for murder … he was a murderer and still was treated with more respect than [he treated] the average person.”
Braddock said he “definitely” believes Floyd’s death could have been prevented if complaints like his had been taken seriously. Braddock said if Chauvin had faced consequences for his previous misconduct he might have thought twice before kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he died.
“He probably thought he would get off, you know, or there wouldn’t be any consequences. But fortunately for Minneapolis there were consequences and they found him guilty,” Braddock said.
And for other Black Chicagoans without firsthand contact with Chauvin, the verdict in his case carried profound meaning after experiencing their own horror of losing a family member to a police officer’s trigger finger.
Ashunda Harris, an aunt of Aaron Harrison, 18, who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer on the West Side in 2007, said she could not bear to watch the Chauvin verdict announced on TV. But, she said, she received calls immediately from friends and supporters.
“This is justice for Aaron, Sandra Bland, George Floyd,” said Harris, weeping when WBEZ reached her. “Today is a day that their spirits are rejoicing.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Criminal justice reporters Chip Mitchell and Patrick Smith, education reporter Sarah Karp and general assignment reporter Michael Puente contributed to this report. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney, @ChipMitchell1, @pksmid, @sskedreporter and @MikePuenteNews.