Relief, calm, and a sense that ‘justice was served’ as Philadelphia watches Chauvin’s guilty verdict
For many in the region, the conviction underscored a sense of momentum and urgency to reform policing and dismantle systemic racism.
As the verdict convicting Derek Chauvin was read in a Minneapolis courtroom, it was broadcast through a loudspeaker someone had set up outside Philadelphia’s City Hall. It flashed across phone screens and prompted honks from cars and shouts of “Black Lives Matter!” near Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia.
It came through Katina Croston’s phone as she stood Tuesday evening on 52nd Street, where most stores were closed and barricaded ahead of the jury’s decision.
“Thank you, Jesus!” Croston shouted when she heard it, falling to her knees and raising her hands and face to the sky.
The conviction of Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, of murder and manslaughter for killing George Floyd last May by kneeling on his neck brought relief to many Philadelphians. It also underscored a sense of momentum and urgency to reform policing and dismantle the racist system that helped set the conditions for the murder of Floyd and other Black men at the hands of police.
Nearly a year ago, the city’s streets had been overtaken by grief- and anger-filled demonstrations. On Tuesday, members of the National Guard were on standby, a heavy law enforcement presence surrounded City Hall, and groups of police officers fanned out downtown and in West Philadelphia. Some businesses boarded up ahead of the verdict, too.
But the conviction did not bring the same demonstrations as last spring, or even draw large crowds into the streets. The spring evening remained calm, as many exhaled a collectively held breath.
“This time, our system of justice has prevailed,” Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said. He and many other Philadelphia and South Jersey elected officials, Black leaders, and activists said that justice still remained incomplete, that the decision could not give Floyd his life back, and only highlighted the need for police reform.
“The jury’s verdict does not end the discussion about policing, and the need for real reform in how police officers treat suspects in their custody or control, particularly persons of color,” Clarke said in a statement. “This case should be a spark for other changes as well, as we confront the multiple inequities we have endured for far too long in our society.”
Mayor Jim Kenney said it was time “to implement real and sustainable change to end racism, intolerance and police brutality against Black and Brown Americans” and seize upon the verdict as “our moment to change our future.”
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, who noted reforms her department has implemented — including a ban on police use of holds that could restrict a person’s breathing — said the city should “reflect on our justice system” and “the work still left to do,” while District Attorney Larry Krasner said there was “no time to rest” in making transformational changes to policing.
But Krystal Strong, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Philly and a University of Pennsylvania professor, said justice was not obtained in the verdict. “Justice means that George Floyd would be here,” she said.
Strong also said a guilty verdict like the one reached Tuesday “can be used to deradicalize us, placate us, convince us the system is capable of reforming itself.” Strong, who advocates for abolition and divesting police funding to other community resources, said that the small number of officers charged or convicted in police killings shows that “the system cannot reform itself.”
Some of Philadelphia’s progressive elected officials echoed her sentiments, saying in a statement that the verdict was merely “a reflection of ‘justice’ in accordance with our current systems” and that real justice will entail addressing “white supremacy and racial capitalism.”
“These verdicts alone do not bring healing to a grieving family and to Black and Brown communities across our country. They do not right the fundamental injustice that George Floyd should be alive today,” said those officials, City Councilmembers Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, and Jamie Gauthier; State Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler, Rick Krajewski, and Chris Rabb; and State Sen. Nikil Saval. “And they do not change the reality that throughout our city and country today, people feel unsafe in their own communities.”
As the sun began to set, nine protesters stood outside City Hall in silence, holding signs bearing the last words of some Black people killed by police. In West Philadelphia, a spring calm fell over Malcolm X Park, where kids rode bikes and played.
“I’m satisfied. I feel like justice was served,” said LaToya Bernard, 35, who watched her 9-year-old daughter glide down a slide.
Fahren Thornton, 27, said she too was relieved to see the “guilty” notification come across her phone screen. She had been nervous all week.
“It’s a big step forward,” said Thornton, who had come to the park with her boyfriend and their three kids from their Clifton Heights home. “I think we’re moving into better times and people are noticing the injustice.”
“The verdict that happened today is the right one, and I hope it means that we’re on the right track where we don’t have two separate forms of accountability, one where a Black man can be killed in the street over something minor and another where police can kill with impunity,” Gauthier said in an interview. “There’s still work to be done in the institution of policing, which still is undergirded by a lot of racism … and we see that across the country, but also here in Philadelphia.”
Anthony Erace, executive director of Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission, said the verdict gave him hope for the trials of two former Philadelphia officers charged with murder for separate on-duty slayings. (Ryan Pownall is charged in the June 2017 slaying of David Jones, and Eric Ruch Jr. in the December 2017 slaying of Dennis Plowden.)
“It shows that justice is possible in these cases,” Erace said. “I think that this verdict locally can at least give Philadelphia hope that when the facts come out and the cases are prosecuted, that the right verdicts will occur.”
Shortly before the verdict, FOP Lodge 5 tweeted “be safe, be smart, and go home. We are behind you,” with a “Black the Blue” image to their members. FOP Lodge 5 president John McNesby released a statement, saying “A verdict was reached today in Minnesota. The criminal justice system worked in this case and the jury’s verdict was fair and just. We call for calm and hope our officers across the city and nation will be safe tonight.”
“A verdict was reached today in Minnesota,” he said. “The criminal justice system worked in this case and the jury’s verdict was fair and just. We call for calm and hope our officers across the city and nation will be safe tonight.”
Across the river, South Jersey officials and civil rights activists echoed praise for the verdict. Darrell Edmonds, 41, of Mays Landing, founder of Friday Is Tie Day, a mentoring group for young Black men, said he was “definitely relieved” by the verdict.
But, he added: “It doesn’t change the feeling I get when I am pulled over by the police, the anxiety that comes with that whole experience. I want that to improve for all of us as Black men.”
Said Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County chapter of the NAACP, “This one moment in time has given hope to the world that justice can be served.”
Samantha Rise, a Philadelphia activist who advocates for defunding the police, said Black people across the world were “staring at the screen, holding their breath,” and awaiting the verdict.
Now that it’s been rendered, Rise hopes it is not taken as justice, but rather a call to action to Philadelphia’s leaders to reimagine the city’s system of public safety.
”I can take a breath in this moment of precedent and the acknowledgment that George Floyd’s life was not disposable. His life mattered,” Rise said. “Now the question is: How do we keep breathing?”
Staff writers Mensah M. Dean, Jason Laughlin, Mike Newall, Allison Steele, and Laura McCrystal and staff photographer Tim Tai contributed to this article.