On April 20, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd in May 2020, when he knelt on the unarmed man’s neck for more than nine minutes. In the hours that followed the verdict, numerous articles and social media posts reacting to the news used the same word: “relief.”
“In D.C. the guilty verdict in Chauvin trial is met with cheers, tears, and relief,” tweeted The Washington Post.
“Today we feel a sigh of relief,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at a press conference.
Destiny Singh, a criminal defense lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a Black woman, felt it too. “I watched the verdict sitting beside my son — he’ll be 5 next week — and I just remember feeling actual relief,” Singh tells Refinery29. “I hadn’t yet processed everything, but I felt my body relax and tears came to my eyes.”
This was in part because Singh didn’t expect a guilty verdict. "I knew better than to expect anything," she says. Between 2005 and April 14, 2021, 140 nonfederal law enforcement officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting — but only seven have been convicted of murder, according to Philip Stinson, PhD, of the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Chauvin is thought to be only the second police officer in Minnesota history to be convicted after an on-duty death case, NPR reports.
“There wasn’t deep faith that accountability would happen,” adds Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, the co-owner of BFF Therapy and an anti-racism business consultant. “There was a feeling like there was a one-in-five-million chance that this was going to come out like that.” Because of that doubt, the verdict being read — confirming that Chauvin is guilty of third-degree murder, second-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter — may have set off “something similar to relief” for some, DeGeare says.
Looking back, Singh believes her initial reaction was “an effect of trauma,” she says. “It felt like I had been holding my breath and waiting for the worst. I expected for George Floyd’s family and the witnesses not to be believed — even though there’s video evidence of this horrific crime — and that police officers would be able to continue inflicting harm with impunity as they have historically. So relief was my initial feeling.”
Others say "relief" isn’t quite the right word. Instead, they reported experiencing grief, sadness, anger, rage, or exhaustion following the verdict, or a mix of all of the above. Many of these post-verdict emotions have to do with the body’s reaction to a prolonged state of acute stress, DeGeare says. “It’s like if you're in fight-or-flight mode. There’s so much cortisol in your body, and it’s really scary, and you’re running for your life — and finally you’re in a safe place and you lock the door,” she explains. “You’re probably not happy. You’re probably going to finally breathe, and shit yourself, and start crying, because your body finally can relax. Your body is allowed to slow down long enough to really feel these feelings."
“For many, since George Floyd died, people have not had the space to process and feel and slow down,” DeGeare continues. “You get to feel all these emotions, hold these emotions, and allow them to be true. We’re mourning the death of George Floyd in a new way right now.”
Singh's initial reaction to hearing the verdict was short-lived; it lasted two hours, at most. “Then, I started to really think about the reality of the fact that this is a singular conviction and that nothing has actually changed,” she says. “In my opinion, Chauvin was sacrificed so that this institution of policing could continue operating the way it’s been operating.” She describes her relief giving way to a more intellectual understanding of the situation: “My head filtered into my heart.”
By 7 p.m., she says, “I had already moved on in my mind to, Nothing has changed. I’m gonna let myself breathe and grieve for the night, and then continue organizing and speaking tomorrow,” she says.
It wasn’t until later, after she tucked her kids into bed, that Singh learned that about 20 minutes before the guilty verdict was announced, Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old, was fatally shot by police in Ohio. “I didn’t allow myself to really think about what another shooting would mean until the next day,” she says. “I’m trying to only allow myself to think about things like that at certain times. Having a son who’s about to go out into the world is having a real impact on me... I don’t know when a police officer is going to drive by, and what they may do or think, or if they’ll perceive my son as a threat. That’s just not healthy. I was just thinking about how traumatic that is, constantly living in fear for your children.”
Being Black in America is not even able to breathe a sigh of relief about the Derek Chauvin verdict before hearing about Mahkia Bryant’s death the same day. It’s honestly tiring.— allison. (@AllyKnowsBest_) April 21, 2021
This is why it’s essential for people — especially white allies — to understand that this singular instance of accountability can’t be viewed as proof of enduring change. There is still so much work to be done. “I think maybe there are some white folks who are using this word ‘relief’ because they’re glad their city’s not burning,” DeGeare adds. “For others, they’re using relief as an excitement term. They’re on Facebook, which I try to stay away from, saying, ‘Yes, this [verdict] is amazing news!’ But it’s more like, ‘Oh, you want to be off the hook because you’ve found it uncomfortable to talk about race for the past year.’” In other words, it would be dangerous to feel nothing but relief right now, because that would mean closing the door on a conversation and a fight for racial justice that must be ongoing.
DeGeare says this moment could be compared to January's runoff election in Georgia that allowed Democrats to take control of the Senate, for which Black voter turnout was incredibly high, in part thanks to activists like Stacey Abrams. For Democrats, there was a moment of celebration. Then, the January 6 insurrection happened. “Right now, it's very high emotion,” DeGeare says. “It feels like we got a win with this one verdict, but we don’t feel better.”
So while it’s okay to take time to process your emotions and heal, says Breland-Noble, no one should mistake Chauvin’s guilty verdict for a sign that this chapter in history is coming to an end. Vice President Harris put it well in her full response to the ruling. “Today we feel a sigh of relief,” she said, then continued: “Still, it can’t take away the pain. A measure of justice isn’t the same as equal justice. And, the fact is, we still have work to do.”