Jas Brown called his grandmother in tears when he heard the news of Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict on Tuesday.
"I felt, for the first time in a long time, like this fight is not a lost cause," said the 24-year-old Pittsburgh resident. "I was prepared for the worst because that's what history has taught me. It feels like a win, even though there's so much more to do."
A sense of relief permeated Pittsburgh, Beaver County and southwest Pennsylvania Tuesday evening as area residents and politicians reacted to former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict in the death of George Floyd.
Chauvin, 45, was found guilty of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. A video of the initial arrest showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd cried out, "I can't breathe" and "mama."
More than 100 demonstrators young and old gathered at Pittsburgh's Freedom Corner in the city's historic Hill District to reflect before taking to the streets with chants and music. While some said they were joyous, others felt the news was bittersweet.
"I don't take this as a victory at all," said Pittsburgh student Alexis Mighty, before sharing an original poem with the crowd. "It took this long to finally get justice, and mainly because they caught it on camera."
Black Lives Matter activists in Pittsburgh flooded city streets for weeks this summer demanding meaningful police reforms, often facing tear gas, less-lethal projectiles and arrest.
"It means the pressure, the calls for action and all the collective emotional trauma we endured this year made a difference," said Ashlee Carter, a 25-year-old Washington County resident who came to celebrate.
A difficult year
Brandi Fisher, president of the advocacy group the Alliance for Police Accountability, acknowledged how difficult the past year has been on Black Lives Matter activists.
"I know you have been traumatized and assaulted," she told the crowd. "I know many of us are not here today out of fear that they would not be safe from the response of the police. That is a reality. We are grateful for this moment, but we do not forget that this movement is not about individuals...it's about systemic change."
Fisher pointed to the Black Americans killed by police in recent months; the fact that Chauvin's guilty verdict wasn't guaranteed means there's still work to be done, she said.
"An entire country was not sure what the verdict would be after we all witnessed a very long and torturous murder in front of our eyes," she said. "We still were not sure what would happen."
'Hard to feel anything but hope'
The crowd at Freedom Corner drew interest from public officials. State Rep. Ed Gainey, the Democrat challenging incumbent Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh's mayoral election, said it was "hard to feel anything but hope" following the verdict.
"I didn't believe that this day would come...because we haven't seen it in generations and generations," he said. "What we've seen is how they dominate us and put us in jail...They've never had any justice for us."
Several Beaver County groups held demonstrations this summer, too, calling for an end to police brutality and the insular culture they say protects law enforcement from legal repercussions.
Sign of justice
Ambridge resident John Thomas stood on the corner of Eighth Street and Ohio River Boulevard in the borough Tuesday evening holding signs that read "Guilty x3" and "know justice, know peace."
He said he hopes the trial verdict is a turning point for the country.
"Whatever is denied any of us is denied all of us," Thomas said. "Anything we do for our brothers, we do for ourselves."
Eric Bendekovic, of Beaver Falls, said "it's a travesty that someone should die at the hands of a police officer," and blamed poor police training for Floyd's death.
"Chauvin was not equipped to do that job," he said.
The death of Floyd, the trial of Chauvin and the now-guilty verdict elicited an array of emotions from people throughout the country, and Bendekovic is no different.
"I'm so tired of the division," Bendekovic said, pausing for a few moments with tears in his eyes. "It shouldn't be like this. There's no reason for it."
Mixed reactions for some
Many residents in Ellwood City parks and on streets hadn't heard of Floyd and Chauvin, and were unaware of any trial concerning them, despite the highly publicized unrest surrounding it. Others were familiar with the historic conclusion, but their options on it were mixed.
Scott Davidson, 60, of Portersville said the jury made the right decision.
"I think it would have been really hard to reach any other conclusion," he said.
George Launi, 70, of Wurtemberg said it was a mistake to let jurors reach any conclusion at all.
"As far as I'm concerned, they should have thrown (the trial) out," he said. "I don't know if he's guilty or not, but there was nothing fair about that trial."
Launi said jurors were under immense pressure from the public, politicians and media to find Chauvin guilty, and cited comments from U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters as support for his claim.
Waters made public comments during the trial encouraging activists to "stay on the streets" and remain confrontational. The comments spurred defense attorney Eric Nelson to call for a mistrial Monday, which Judge Peter Cahill did not grant, still noting that Waters' comments may be grounds for an appeal.
The idea of repercussions was a reoccurring theme in Ellwood City.
Most residents who had an opinion of the guilty verdict wouldn't go on record with their thoughts for fear of backlash from the community. Those individuals, ranging from professors to business owners, offered a range of positions. Some said the justice system completely failed, while others said it was finally served.
Floyd's death gripped the country and sparked an intense discussion over police reform, social injustice and race.
Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said Congress needed to pass police reform legislation in order to combat systemic racism and injustice.
"This verdict is about accountability, but it is not justice," Casey's statement began. "While Derek Chauvin will be held accountable for the murder of George Floyd, it's not enough. Countless others have died at hands of police because of a broken system that must be reformed."
Fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, also released a statement. It read, "Today, Derek Chauvin was convicted by a jury of his peers of the murder of George Floyd. My sympathies remain with the Floyd family. While nothing can cure the hurt the Floyd family lives with every day, I do hope this verdict brings them a degree of solace."
Gov. Tom Wolf also called for reform in a statement. "A measure of justice has been done today for George Floyd and his loved ones," it read. "But true justice won't come until we do the hard work of changing policing and ending centuries of discriminatory and traumatic policymaking."
U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, R-17, Mount Lebanon, echoed the calls for bipartisan police reform, saying in a statement, "Our criminal justice system is far from perfect & in urgent need of comprehensive, bipartisan reform. But today, justice was done."
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16, Butler, said in a statement, "Our pledge of allegiance declares we are one nation under God that guarantees liberty and justice for all, and today justice was served. The defendant received due process and a jury of his peers determined he was guilty of murdering George Floyd. I respect that decision and admire our judicial system for carrying out a fair trial under the rule of law. Now I pray the Floyd family can find peace, and that our nation can move forward to heal."
In a statement released early Tuesday evening, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said, "I was relieved to see that justice was served in the jury's decision today finding Derek Chauvin guilty of all three charges in the horrific murder last year of George Floyd,"
His statement continued. "But I also realize that no verdict can bring back a life or eliminate the pain the Floyd family and so many Americans - especially in our Black community - continue to feel."
Professional sports organizations entered the social justice conversation following the wave of protests sparked by Floyd's death. The Pittsburgh Penguins released a statement from President and CEO David Morehouse shortly after the verdict was announced on Tuesday:
"You don't need a jury trial to watch the video and know that George Floyd was murdered. We are engaging with our employees who have experienced racial injustice, and we are redoubling our efforts in the community to fight racism and promote positive social change. We hope today's verdict provides some semblance of healing to the Floyd family."
This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Southwest PA reacts to Derek Chauvin's murder verdict