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Michigan hails Chauvin conviction as ‘a victory for Black and brown lives’

A small group of members of Justice for Black Lives Grand Rapids gathered in the city on Tuesday for a peaceful rally in response to the verdict of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin
A small group of members of Justice for Black Lives Grand Rapids gathered in the city on Tuesday for a peaceful rally in response to the verdict of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

One watched the verdict in the fetal position. Another rushed home and couldn’t believe the words coming from the judge’s mouth in Minnesota.

Guilty of all three counts.

Members of Justice for Black Lives Grand Rapids marched through downtown on Tuesday after the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chavin.
Members of Justice for Black Lives Grand Rapids marched through downtown on Tuesday after the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chavin. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

Much of Michigan can finally exhale, at least for the time being, after gathering around television and internet screens Tuesday afternoon, hoping and praying for justice.

Many said some version of it arrived about 5:06 p.m. when a Minnesota jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25 killing of George Floyd.

Related:

Footage of Chauvin kneeling on the Black man’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds during an arrest set off protests worldwide, forcing what many say is an overdue reckoning of racial justice and police excess.

Detroit Will Breathe organizer Tristan Taylor
Detroit Will Breathe organizer Tristan Taylor, center, said he felt it was important for Detroiters to gather to hear the outcome of the trial. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

For many in Michigan, watching the verdict was painful, resurrecting a lifetime of trauma.

They exhaled when the verdict was read. Others cried. 

Here are their stories.

Nakia Wallace, 24, Detroit

“The victory that we saw today in court is a victory of the movement for black and brown lives,” said Nakia Wallace, a co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, a group that formed in response to the death of Floyd.

Nakia Wallace.
A courtesy photo of Nakia Wallace.

The group spent every day last summer marching in the streets to end police brutality, mass incarceration and to defund the Detroit Police Department. 

Wallace was on her way to Detroit’s Public Safety Headquarters downtown when she heard the  verdict. She said it is a big deal, but not the victory some had sought.

“Unfortunately it’s not a big enough victory to stop the attacks we see in our communities every single day, which is why now is the time to build even more. Now is the time to organize even more, and make sure we build a mass movement in defense of Black and brown lives that not only allows for the prosecution of killer cops, but also allows for us to live in a world where we no longer have to defend our lives,” she said. 

Wallace hopes the verdict encourages more people to get out and organize protests. 

“If we had not been out in the streets every day in different parts of the country and across the globe, we wouldn’t have seen what we saw today, and this is the proof that what we’ve been doing works,” she said.

Delisha Upshaw, 46, Livonia

“Surprised.” 

That’s how Delisha Upshaw described her reaction.

Delisha Upshaw
A courtesy photo of Delisha Upshaw.

“I don't have a lot of faith in our justice system’s willingness to hold police accountable or see brown and Black people as human. So today was a sliver of justice,” she said.

She is part of the group Livonia Citizens Caring About Black Lives, which placed a billboard on Interstate 96 warning motorists “Driving While Black? Racial profiling ahead. Welcome to Livonia.”

The group watched the verdict online. As it came down, Upshaw said, many began to cry. For Upshaw, the verdict represents vindication for her and others who have pushed for greater accountability here in Michigan. 

“I was minding my own business until George Floyd was murdered,” Upshaw said.

She helped plan a local protest, then became a critic of Livonia Police Department, calling it out for what she said is a practice of targeting Black and brown drivers for traffic stops. 

Chauvin’s conviction is a watershed moment, but “dismantling these power structures and rebuilding them in an equitable way is what is going to make a difference for my daily life, or for my kids' future,” said Upshaw, who has two daughters, ages 10 and 13. 

There have been signs of progress in Livonia, she said, including the hiring of social workers on the police force and anti-bias training for all city staff. But she’d like to see more. 

“I can’t change people's hearts or their mind,” she said. “What I can do is make sure that there are policies in place that will prevent people from hurting others with their bias. My hope is that people will use this (verdict) as momentum to really work locally, on our cities.”

Erin Keith, 29, Detroit

Erin Keith was curled in the fetal position, hands covering her face, watching through her fingers as a judge read the jury’s verdict. She had been here before.

A courtesy photo of Erin Keith.
A courtesy photo of Erin Keith.

“I was graduating from undergrad the year Trayvon Martin was killed,” said Keith, 29, a staff attorney for the Detroit Justice Center. “I was in my first year of law school when Michael Brown was killed. I was still in law school with Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice.”

Her adult life so far, she said, had been characterized by not-guilty verdicts against officers charged with killing Black men and women. Keith, who is Black, was bracing for more of the same. 

When the Chauvin verdict came, “I audibly shouted.”

She saw the verdict as evidence that “organizing works.” In the wake of Floyd’s killing, people across the country marched in large numbers, for months on end, seeking accountability. 

Keith and other lawyers at the Detroit Justice Center spent “months and months” rendering legal aid to protesters who were charged with crimes. Tuesday’s verdict proved “it was worth it.”

But Keith said the relief she felt was tempered by her belief that one guilty verdict will not provide an overhaul of American policing.

“It was a proclamation that there's a certain threshold that we will not tolerate,” she said, but look no further than Daunte Wright’s April 11 killing for evidence that police violence against people of color continues. 

“The statistics don’t lie,” she said, pointing to figures showing that many fatal police shootings of Black men begin as traffic stops. 

Change needs to go beyond training officers or pushing for cultural change within departments, Keith said. She wants fewer tax dollars spent on policing and more spent on housing and healthcare. 

“It should not take someone dying as a martyr for us to implement smart financial decisions about city budgets,” Keith said.

Josha Talison, 48, Southfield

When Josha Talison saw a news alert that jurors had reached a verdict, he dropped what he was doing at his office and rushed home.

“I’m a superintendent, but I’m an African-American male and the father of a 19-year-old African-American son first,” said Talison, 48, superintendent of Ecorse Public Schools.

He said he had “knots in my stomach” that Chauvin would be found not guilty.

About 80 percent of students in the Ecorse district are Black, and Talison routinely has conversations with them about how to react if they are pulled over by police, the same conversations he’s had with his own son.

 “Don’t move.”

“Yes sir.”

“No sir.”

And how that’s sometimes still not enough to be safe.

From his couch, Talison watched the verdict read on CNN. “I felt relief,” he said. “Maybe this is a first (step) toward equality. As an educator I hope so.”

Talison told a reporter he needed to hang up.

“I need to call my son.”

Enrique Neblett, 45, Ann Arbor

Like many Black Americans, Erique Neblett expected the verdict to be different.

A courtesy photo of Enrique Neblett.
A courtesy photo of Enrique Neblett.

A professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, he is the associate faculty lead for diversity, equity and inclusion at the university. He knows well the emotional labor Black Americans are often tasked with when white people ask them to explain racism.

“Wow, OK. Actually, surprised, was the first reaction,” Neblett said. “With the next two ‘guilty’s’ I stood there for a second being a little bit shell shocked, questioning if I heard it correctly.” 

That disbelief comes from spending years watching the justice system fail in trials where police officers are accused of killing Black and brown people, Neblett said. 

“There have been countless examples, and so many police officers who've been able to walk away without being held accountable. And so I think it's not really surprising that some people had the reaction, similar to the one I did because you learn after a while that people aren't held accountable. So I think it's sad and unfortunate that people have come to learn that that's going to be the case, but we're all relieved and justice has been served in some sense, but it's one case, and there's still work to do, a lot of work”

But a turning point? Neblett said the nation isn’t there yet.

“I mean if you look at the long history of police violence, there have been other officers who have been convicted, but we're still having this pattern, hundreds of years later,” he said.

Ashley Johnson, 36, Ypsilanti

Like so much of her work life during the pandemic, Ashley Johnson was in a Zoom meeting when she heard the news.

Ashley Johnson
A courtesy photo of Ashley Johnson.

Johnson had tried to stay away from news about the trial and avoided the ubiquitous video of Floyd’s death. Working with primarily African-American teens in Detroit as executive director of Detroit College Access Network, an organization that tries to increase college enrollment, she said she’d been traumatized too many times before by the deaths of young Black men.

When an alert appeared on her phone during the Zoom meeting, though, “my whole body reacted,” Johnson said. 

“It was like my whole body was a tear. Not a tear of joy, but of hope.

“I have more hope than I’ve had in a long time,” she said. “There’s a sense of relief that people with black bodies, their lives do matter, at some level.”

She planned to talk about the verdict with her husband at dinner Tuesday night, at their Detroit home with their two toddlers.

“I don’t know how to talk to them about race and when to do it,” Johnson said. “But I do want to be the person who has the conversation with them before they have that conversation with the world.”

Parker Aerts, 20, Muskegon

Happy at the verdict? Not at all.

Relieved? Maybe.

Parker Aerts
Parker Aerts. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

But when you were supposed to be clearing a white neighbor’s leaves as your summer job, but you’re being grilled by a retired police officer with a gun, and you’re 16 and Black and standing there in your summer shorts and T-shirt, equally baffled and terrified, and no one else is around except for two barking dogs — well then — what possibly can change with a single verdict?

“I could have died. I think about it all the time,” said Parker Aerts, now a 20-year-old Central Michigan University student studying entrepreneurship and leadership. 

On Tuesday, Aerts was at another job, training dogs at a west Michigan kennel when he got the news of the verdict.

Again, that summer day returned to him.

Born the son of a Black father and white mother, Aerts’ family, his friends, his neighborhood, his school — they were all predominantly white.  But that day, during the interaction with the man, Aerts said he realized his reality would always be different than his friends.

Things could have spun out of control, but his mother intervened and the situation was diffused. But the fear remains — and a guilty verdict won’t change that, he said.

“I’m extremely surprised” at the verdict, he said, but “the man’s still dead. It's not like it's a win for the black community that Derek was found guilty.”

“It's a stepping stone, but we haven't won,” Aerts said. “The system has to change. We need to make adjustments. It needs to be reconstructed from the bottom up.”

Tristan Taylor, 37, Detroit

Tristan Taylor did what he’s done so many times since Floyd’s death. He took to the streets.

 Tristan Taylor
A courtesy photo of Tristan Taylor.

As the other co-founder of Detroit Will Breath, he and others held a demonstration outside Detroit’s Public Safety Headquarters before the verdict. 

“The verdict was a result of the movement in the street, not the suits in the court,” Taylor said while in the car on his way downtown. Taylor says he wasn’t exactly surprised by the verdict, but was relieved it didn’t turn out “as ugly as it could have.”

“It was because the way the community in Minneapolis and everyone around the world responded to the death of that man,” Taylor said. 

“If people still have mixed emotions about the trial, they should because real justice is only served when this outcome is considered the rule, and not the exception,” Taylor said. 

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