There are sounds that humans make with intention. Then there are the wordless sounds we make when our emotions take over—the sounds that, in their texture and tone, speak even more clearly.
Guilty, Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill said, as he read the jury’s April 20 verdict on the first of three charges leveled against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Perry Floyd Jr. That’s when I heard those involuntary sounds come up and out.
Painting by Ange Hillz for TIME
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It was the collective sound of shock, filtered through deep pain, followed by relief. It filled a third-floor Hilton Hotel ballroom, where Floyd’s family watched the local NBC station on a movie theater-sized screen. Many had come from distant places for this moment—Houston, Charlotte, N.C., New York City. They’d carefully slipped away from the direct stares of the overwhelmingly white press that had begun to tail and track them. (Photojournalist Ruddy Roye and I, as well as a documentary team, were the only members of the media present in the room.) They had gathered in that ballroom, with its collapsible walls and busily patterned carpet, because COVID-19 and security restrictions kept them from the courtroom. And because they had reason to want the moment kept semi-private. Because they loved George Floyd, they had faith Chauvin would be held accountable—but they all knew that, statistically speaking, the trial was not likely to end the way it did.
Roxie Washington, left, with her and George Floyd's daughter, Gianna Floyd, awaiting the verdict in Minneapolis on April 20.
Ruddy Roye for TIME
As two additional guilty verdicts followed, the volume rose. The screams became more confident, more affirmational and appreciative of what a jury of 12 Americans had done. They had, for the first time in Minnesota history, convicted a white police officer of murdering a Black man while on duty. Chauvin, who during a May 25, 2020, arrest had held Floyd down with his knee for more than nine minutes even as Floyd declared that he could not breathe, would now face up to 40 years in prison.
Brandon Williams, George Floyd’s nephew whom Floyd considered a son, leapt into the air. Then, someone, a man on the far side of the ballroom, cried out—this time with intention, with words that had become familiar in the more than 10 months since Floyd’s murder: “Say his name!”
“Say his name!”
“Who made America better?”
After anxiously waiting for the news, Tedra McGee hugs her mother, Shareeduh McGee, Floyd's cousin, just after the verdicts were read.
Ruddy Roye for TIME
People do not react with uncontrollable cries nor with the sounds of street protest when they have confidence that the constitution’s guarantee of universal equality will be as reliably extended to them as it is to those who are police officers. This is the way people react when history—distant and recent—obliges them to warn their children about the dangers of law enforcement and common criminals alike. Ours has always been a country of both law and—where Black Americans are concerned—lies.
From the very beginning of this country, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, with such moral authority and clarity that most Americans today can still recite its claims about the inalienable rights of man, he did so aided by the wealth and privilege he derived from exploiting and enslaving human beings.