Shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted in his trial in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013, the anguish emanated from Ryan Wilson’s phone through text messages from friends.
He remembers the anger. The messages declaring “Nobody is coming to save us,” or wondering “Are they ever going to change or is it more important to focus our efforts inward?”
A student at Georgetown Law at the time, he thought about creating a “talking club,” in which Black people could discuss social issues and racial justice, conduct business or simply socialize. This pivotal moment set the stage for what eventually became The Gathering Spot, a private social club of 3,500 members in Atlanta, created with co-founder T.K. Petersen.
And it was there Tuesday, along with his staff gathered around a television, where Wilson watched the verdict in the trial of a person charged in the death of another Black man.
This time, former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on three counts, including second-degree murder, of George Floyd.
But Wilson, 30, was less emotional about the jury’s decision on Chauvin than he was about Zimmerman’s acquittal. He went back to work.
“It was a powerful, sort of full circle moment for me to see a different outcome where I saw it,” he said. The verdict “was a moment of accountability. But still, another Black man is dead. I’m still saddened we have a broken police system. So, it’s hard to be elated about an outcome that should have been expected. Of course, I am glad the right verdict came down. But we’re supposed to react with gratitude, relief and joy? That’s not what we should be doing.”
Wilson’s sentiments were indicative of the various ways Black Americans reacted to the long-awaited verdict that many predicted would touch off a national uprising if Chauvin — who was recorded with his knee embedded in Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes — was not found guilty.
There was a mix of emotions when Hennepin County Judge Peter A. Cahill read the jury’s decision, which took about 10 hours of deliberations. But for many, there was an overwhelming feeling that justice and accountability finally had come in this case that sparked worldwide protests last summer led by the Black Lives Matter organization. Still the result, they say, did not call for celebration.
After he received word of the outcome via a text message on his cellphone, “I went on with my day,” said Trevor Nigel Lawrence, owner of Kamnisha Wellness, a cannabis business in Oakland, California. “I’m not being indifferent to the verdict. I am, of course, pleased that Chauvin was held accountable for taking a man’s life. But I didn’t see a reason to cheer; a verdict in a case like that should be the status quo. But that hasn’t been America. So, we have to hope and pray for justice. Humanity for Black people has been missing. Getting something we should rightfully have shouldn’t be a cause for celebration.
“Black folks are so used to injustice that we overreact when we get a rare case of justice.”
Lawrence said so many past injustices condition him to anticipate more, even in the wake of a just verdict.
“I understand the family’s emotions and relief,” he said. “But as a country, this was an isolated verdict. We had to hold our breath that justice would be served. And that’s saying a lot about what we have faced and will have to face again.”
Hours after Chauvin was convicted, an officer responding to a 911 call shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, in Columbus, Ohio. The next day, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a sheriff deputy shot and killed Andrew Brown, Jr., 40, while serving a warrant.
“So justice was served one minute — which was an anomaly — and I’m thinking, ‘America, what’s going to happen after this?’ Well, now we will find out,” Lawrence said.
When football star O.J. Simpson was acquitted in the killings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman in 1995, some Black people wildly cheered the verdict, an outburst that encapsulated not necessarily support for Simpson. Rather, for many it was exaltation for the breaking of the extended history of jurisprudence working against Black people.
“This was sort of an inversion of the O.J. acquittal,” said Darryl K. Washington, CEO of DKW Communications, a cybersecurity company in Washington, D.C. “This was a different feeling. There was relief — relief that the killer of the unarmed Black man was held accountable. We don’t get that often. There was also relief because a not-guilty verdict would have reinforced to the world how broken America’s justice system is, on a case that was cut and dried.
“This verdict doesn’t mean it’s fixed — it’s not,” Washington said. “It means it got this one right. But does it make up for all the hundreds or thousands that it got wrong in the past? No. And that’s why you see some people not celebrating as much as just being glad there was justice for this one tragic case.”
Joi D. Lewis, the author of “Healing: The Radical Act of Self-Care,” said many people do not correlate the depths of their hurt with their response to the verdict.
“You can turn pain off, but you’re going to miss out on the joy, too,” she said. “We may not necessarily call it justice. It’s more about accountability. Hopefully, this will set a precedent, but then there is the sentencing part. Joy and pain do, in fact, flow from the same faucet. So now we have to hold our breaths for the pain that may come if he is given light prison time.”
Lewis, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, said she was in downtown Minneapolis when the verdict was read. “There was so much tension,” she said. “But then there was relief. However, after the tears and people hugging, you look up and see you’re surrounded by this strong military presence.”
Wilson of The Gathering Spot said a national publication asked to post a photographer at his establishment Tuesday to capture people’s reaction to the verdict. “I told them absolutely not,” he said. “It’s like this is the Super Bowl. And there should not be the expectation of gratitude over a verdict that should have been clear. The justice system did what it was supposed to do. Nothing more, nothing less.”
For Kena Clark Williams, a wife and mother of a Black husband and two sons in Birmingham, Alabama, hearing the words “guilty” three times against Chauvin sent “relief” through her body, she said.
“We have had so many losses in cases like this within the justice system,” she said. “We’ve had so many of us die at the hands of police that it truly was sad that we ‘celebrate’ that they are not above the law and that finally justice was served.”
Lewis participated in a panel discussion Wednesday titled “Radical Self-Care: A Gentle Revolution to Reclaim Our Humanity.” She said the emotions of the verdict are compounded by the history of unjust verdicts and the seemingly sorted perception of Black people.
“We are believed or viewed as the villains while they are the victims,” she said. “And because of that, we are seldom in a state of perpetual peace. So we have to take implicit care of ourselves, connect with community, watch what we put into our bodies, avoid isolation.”
The case and the verdict affected Lawrence because, as a Black man in America, “it’s all about humanity,” he said. “Or lack of it. This verdict was just, but in the larger realm, will Black people’s humanity continue to be dismissed? We can hope for that, but we can’t count on it. So it’s hard to sit here and feel like this one verdict makes it all OK.”