Pinellas County religious leaders huddled around a phone Tuesday afternoon, awaiting the verdict next to a newly installed memorial about the 1914 lynching of John Evans in St. Petersburg.
An NPR broadcast, playing over Karen Davis-Pritchett’s cellphone, brought the news:
“Guilty!” cheered Father Victor Ray of Saint Theresa of Calcutta Church. “Guilty! Guilty!”
“This spot is where great harm was done to Mr. Evans,” said J.C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, addressing the crowd, “and unfortunately, in the 402 years that Africans have been on this land, harm has been done to Black and brown bodies.”
Pritchett spoke to a crowd of about a dozen in an impromptu gathering organized after the jury announced it had reached a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin. Among them was Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, and Mhariel Summers, district secretary for Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, who couldn’t attend because of the ongoing legislative session.
“It is an honor to stand with you all, and I’m mad as hell that I have to,” said the Rev. Libby Shannon from The Presbytery of Tampa Bay. “George Floyd should be alive.”
Several speakers brought up HB1, a controversial bill signed Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis that adds charges and enhances penalties for public gatherings that turn violent. Critics have called it an anti-protest law that could stifle protests for racial justice, like the ones that came after Floyd’s murder.
“It seems all the more important that we stand in these public places and say these words,” Smith said. “And the thing that I will keep with me in this moment was everyone huddled around the phone and the fact that we had to hold our breath and wonder if we would get justice, despite the fact that a camera captured every single moment of the execution of George Floyd.”
The crowd bowed their heads in prayer.
“My brothers and sisters, today is a sad day, but a happy day,” Ray said. “And I envision George Floyd in heaven today saying: ‘I can breathe.’”
In other corners of Tampa Bay, activists who protested for months over the summer reacted to the news.
Christina Boneta, a Black Lives Matter leader in Pasco County, felt a tight knot of anxiety in her stomach all day. After all the evidence presented at the trial, what would it mean if Chauvin wasn’t convicted?
“I had this feeling — he could really walk away from this,” she said. “If he was not found guilty, it would have been a scary thing to know a police officer can still kill a Black man in broad daylight.”
In the middle of a busy work day, she barely had time to let the news sink in. The verdict was announced right as she got hit with a flood of calls. But when she got off the phone and saw that the jury found Chauvin guilty on all counts, she wanted to cry.
Almost a year ago, the video of George Floyd’s death had pushed Boneta, 32, to the streets, to start protesting with other activists. Now, the verdict felt intensely personal.
“Before I ever marched, I always felt — like you are just one person, what is one person going to change?” she said. “But every one person in the world got together and made something happen, and I was part of that, a part of seeking justice and equality for everybody.”
There’s still a lot of work to be done, she said, pointing to the many police killings that happened in the past year. But there’s relief in knowing the jury didn’t acquit Chauvin, and there’s “a place to move forward from.”
For some, the moment felt heavy, difficult to celebrate.
“It’s hard to feel closure, because I think about that young man, Adam Toledo, who was just shot and killed,” said Bernice Lauredan, a community organizer who has been involved in Tampa protests, referring to the recent Chicago police shooting of the 13-year-old. “The same system that killed George killed Adam. "
She felt so paralyzed by anxiety when she heard the verdict would be announced Tuesday afternoon that she had to get out of her apartment. Instead of sitting by the TV and waiting for the judge to announce the decision, she drove to Ikea to pick up an order.
“I have not had a good night’s sleep since George Floyd died,” she said.
Donna Davis, who co-founded Black Lives Matter Tampa in 2014, and helped organize a peaceful march of thousands down down Bayshore Boulevard last summer, said her nerves were “shot” as she awaited the verdict.
She said she feared if Chauvin was acquitted, “people who have even less to lose now than they did before COVID-19 would be willing to take it there again,” referring to destruction and fires in Tampa following Floyd’s death. “If people feel their choices are taken away, they can act in ways that are harmful to the fabric of society. I’m glad that didn’t happen.”
She’s hopeful the verdict is the beginning of a “new trajectory on police brutality cases, and not just a one-off”, and believes activists’ “refusal to be told we’re simply hysterical” has helped bring change. “This verdict tells me, we’re going to win.”
Moments after watching the verdict online at home with their partner, Ashley Green found it difficult to speak.
”It’s a lot. It’s a lot of emotion,” Green said. “I’ve been crying for the last few minutes.”
Green, an activist with Dream Defenders and Movement St. Pete, helped lead marches through St. Petersburg for months after Floyd’s murder. She felt that those demonstrations, as well as others Green has been a part of across the nation in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., made some difference.
“The responses have been like night and day,” Green said. “Six or seven years ago, it was hard to convince people there was a problem at all, and now, it feels like there is pretty wide consensus that there is something wrong.”
And yet, Green was not expecting the jury to find Chauvin guilty.
”It’s a form of justice,” Green said of the verdict. “It doesn’t bring George Floyd back, nothing will ever bring him back to his family, but at least the system didn’t pretend like what happened to him was okay, like it normally does.”
Jabaar Edmond was driving to visit a family member in St. Petersburg when a flurry of text messages about the verdict hit his phone, “It’s coming, it’s coming.”
He listened on the radio.
”It was kind of a relief, it’s a morale boost, but just for a moment,” said Edmond, an independent filmmaker and activist who marched often after Floyd’s murder. “The realization dawned on me, it didn’t really change anything. The things we marched for are ever-present. This verdict was like a pep rally, but we’ve still got to get on the field tomorrow and play. I’ve still got to try to meet with those City Council members next week.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said of the verdict, “Justice. It should have never come to this. But, finally, justice. Let us not forget how much work we still have to do.”
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said, “A verdict can’t undo the tragedy of last summer, but this decision can ensure that George Floyd’s life was not lost in vain. His death is prompting the law enforcement profession to evolve across our country.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said deputies had made preparations before the verdict was read, though he expected people to obey the law and act appropriately. No protests were planned Tuesday night.
Before the verdict was announced, Gualtieri said, “what Chauvin did is reprehensible, inconsistent with law enforcement practices and policies, and is something that really was disgusting and took us backward with the community and law enforcement.”
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said Chauvin does not represent law enforcement officers in his agency and vowed to continue working to build bridges with the community he serves. “There is, and never will be, justification for the murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Officer Derek Chauvin,” he said.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.