May 8, 2021

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The Backstory: What our journalists on the streets of Minneapolis saw and heard as the Derek Chauvin verdict was announced

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I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

USA TODAY

Wednesday’s stunning front-page image of a couple embracing in George Floyd Square after the Derek Chauvin verdict almost didn’t happen.

Photojournalist Harrison Hill originally was part of the media pack clustered in front of the Floyd mural, near the Cup Foods store in Minneapolis, where Floyd allegedly tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill. A clerk who called the police started the chain of events that ended in the Black man’s murder by a white policeman.

After Tuesday’s verdict, people at the mural were crying, celebrating. But the scene was cluttered, with photographers jostling for position. 

Harrison was carrying two cameras, one for video and one for stills. 

“I had this big video camera on a monopod and it was like bouncing on my chest while I’m shooting and I wasn’t getting any good images,” Hill said. “So I’m like, OK, I’ve got to try something else. So I just walk around the area and I stumbled upon this moment. And right when I put my camera up to my eye, I realized Cup Foods was in the back on the right. And then the mural was on the left. And I was like, OK, there’s a foreground, there’s a background. We have something.”

“Something” was one of the defining images of the day, capturing both the emotion of the crowd and the history of the moment.

Definitive photojournalism.

Hill’s editors were asking for all photojournalists to send two or three images immediately, so Hill ran to his car to file what he had. Then he went back to work. He didn’t fully realize what he had captured until his editor sent a proof of the front page. 

“When I saw that, I realized that this was so, so much bigger than me. That really wrapped my head around the importance of that day and of that moment, too,” he said. 

“I feel like I was placed in that position to capture that moment.”

Nic Hernandez was the man in Hill’s photo.

“He was like all of the other people at the square in that moment that were so shocked,” Hill said. “No one could explain how they felt at the time, because they were in such disbelief. Everyone was so anxious, but after the verdict came out and, once people realized that he (Chauvin) was convicted, then everyone just felt this huge pressure leave their body.

“After that, the scene was just filled with love.”

From top left, USA TODAY's Suzette Hackney, Jarrad Henderson, Harrison Hill and N'dea Yancey-Bragg.

Reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg was in her Minneapolis hotel when she heard the verdict was coming. She grabbed her gear and rushed to the square with Hill. 

At first, it was mainly media gathered, but then other people starting showing up. 

Some were on their phones listening for the verdict. Yancey-Bragg got close to a Jeep Wrangler with the radio on and leaned in to listen. “I heard guilty, guilty, guilty,” she said. “And then the crowds are cheering and hugging and crying. And people were throwing money into the air. It was crazy.”

Yancey-Bragg said almost no one she had interviewed expected a guilty verdict. And neither did she. 

“As a woman of color, (I’ve) seen countless high-profile police killings not result in charges, let alone convictions. People of color here have basically said the same thing, that they’re not really expecting convictions. I only talked to maybe two people who said they thought he would be guilty. So it wasn’t even a possibility.”

The result prompted a rush of emotions.

“I feel like everyone felt like justice was served,” she said, “but a lot of people I think  were experiencing disbelief, and joy, and the feeling of validation that our lives matter.”

At the courthouse, opinion columnist Suzette Hackney and photojournalist Jarrad Henderson awaited the verdict. “The anxiety that was there was like an all-time high,” Henderson said. 

Normally, the space outside the Hennepin County Government Center was filled with the constant click of cameras during the trial. Now it was silent.

Hackney had been in Minneapolis for a month, reporting on the community surrounding George Floyd Square and the justice they were seeking.

“I didn’t even realize how much it was affecting me,” Hackney said. “It was like, the moment is here, the moment of truth is here.”

People streamed to the courthouse, with cars crowding side streets. They wanted to be there for the moment. As in the square, people looked at their phones, listened to radios. The first verdict was read, guilty, then the second and the third. 

Then someone said on a megaphone, “Guilty of all three counts.”

“They were so relieved and you just felt all of their pain and everything they’ve gone through in the last year,” Hackney said. “It was really powerful. Strangers were hugging strangers.”

Hackney’s editor called to get details to add to Hackney’s reaction column. We were 45 minutes from our print deadline. But they couldn’t hear each other, so Hackney began to text what she was seeing.

“There’s this guy standing next to me all by himself sobbing, a young white guy,” she said. “And people were walking by patting him on the back and just like embracing him.”

Before Henderson left his hotel, he put extra batteries in his pack, clipped a helmet to his belt and dressed in layers in case he was in for a long night. He brought a video monopod to use for his camera but also for protection. He had to be ready for anything.

“And when it came in guilty, guilty, guilty, the crowd erupted,” he said. He could see relief on the faces around him: “I saw photographers crying. I saw old Black men crying. I saw young women crying, like everybody was emotional. And then the party began.”

Henderson knew he wanted to be a visual journalist when he was 14, when his dad told him the story of Emmett Till, who was also 14 when he was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. Two white men faced charges but were acquitted by an all-white jury. The Black teen was beaten, shot, strung with barbed wire and dumped in a river. Till’s mother wanted the world to see what had happened to her son, and insisted on an open casket at the funeral. A photograph of her looking at her son’s brutalized body galvanized a  generation of civil rights activists.

Many have noted the connections between the power of the images of Floyd’s and Till’s murders, both shocking the world and inspiring societal shifts. 

“I still don’t know what it all means,” Henderson said. “I need some time to reflect.” He said he’s still experiencing what he’s come to realize is “compassion fatigue.”

“I’m feeling like overwhelmed with empathy. Like you literally cannot bear all of the emotion and importance and responsibility of the moment. But as photographers, we’re trained to do that.”

Henderson knows the community’s work, and his, continues. 

“There’s still an ongoing fight for justice,” he said. “There’s still an ongoing fight for understanding and compassion that needs to take place and this healing that needs to take place in our communities. The effects (will) be felt for generations to come.

“Just like the Emmett Till story stuck with me for 20 years now, this story will stick with people for the rest of their lives.”

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here. 

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