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The tension was palpable as a verdict announcement drew near.
In Kansas City, hundreds of miles from Minneapolis, helicopters circled overhead, putting everyone on high alert for whatever reaction the decision might bring.
It had been almost a year since the world saw George Floyd die on video with then-Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. Almost a year since cities and towns all over the country erupted into protests and eventually police standoffs with protesters, barricaded streets, confusing arrests and clouds of tear gas.
The nation started grappling, in a new way, with conflicting narratives. In the scenes that played out, some saw an America they didn’t know. Others saw an America they knew quite well.
Folk musician Danny Cox wasn’t new to any of it.
When Cox was a kid growing up in Cincinnati in the 1950’s he read Ebony and Jet magazines, which spoke directly to Black Americans. Both magazines published photographs of lynching victims, including Emmett Till.
“I remember as a kid seeing that picture of Emmett Till, I could not believe it,” Cox says. “To this day. I can still see him in that coffin.”
That photograph was a call to action. By the time Cox reached high school, he was all-in on the fight for civil rights. His mom would call the school on protest days to inform them that he would be absent due to incarceration. He went to jail four times before he graduated.
Now a grandfather, Cox held his breath waiting for the Chauvin verdict.
I called him right after the thrice-guilty verdict was announced. He’d been on my mind all afternoon because, when protests were still going full force last June, Cox told me he’d shown his 15-year-old grandson some now-historic video footage. It was the infamous video of four white Los Angeles officers beating a young Black man by the name of Rodney King.
Like the killing of George Floyd, King’s beating was captured in a video that went viral, in the 1991 sense of the word. In those pre-cellphone days, someone saw what was happening on the street outside their window and ran to retrieve a camcorder. What happened to one Black man at the hands of four police officers was suddenly visible to the nation, all over the news.
“Look what you see,” Cox told his grandson. “The whole world saw it. This was on the news every day, forever. Those officers were acquitted.”
Many predicted a similar outcome for Chauvin’s murder charges.
When things turned out differently, Cox was the person whose thoughts I wanted to hear. He answered his phone with a bellowing hello, shouting over television news blaring in the background. Not wanting to interrupt a big moment, I scheduled another phone call for the next morning.
Eighteen hours later, when I called again, the television was still audible in the background. “How long have you been watching the news?” I asked.
He’d been at it since 4:30 that morning. Cox sounded happy.
“I have several feelings,” he told me, “one of which is, maybe the words to these old songs, you know, ‘my country ’tis of thee /sweet land of liberty'”— and here he begins trailing off. “Maybe all these songs are starting to ring a little stronger in my heart.”
Cox has his own history with what it means to be a Black man stopped by white police officers. He remembers being a touring musician on the road in the 1960s.
“I’d pull into a little college town with a new car, it was a rental car, but a new car. Every time a policeman would stop and pull me over,” Cox remembers. “At the time, he didn’t ever have to have a reason.”
After enduring predictably scary situations in one town after another, Cox got an idea. Waiting to be pulled over put someone else in the power position. What if he made his first order of business, in every town, to flag down a police officer? It was worth a try.
“I’d tell him, you know, ‘I’m here in town doing a concert at the university, they gave me the wrong directions,'” Cox recalls.
Pretty soon, the officer would be asking what kind of music Cox played, chatting him up. When Cox was lucky, the officer would even give him a police escort to the venue under the auspices of showing him the way there. It worked, but as Cox says, “it’s a shame that’s what I had to do.”
Cox had to introduce himself and prove his good intentions by asking for an officer’s help, he says, for reasons that played out in the Chauvin trial.
“A person builds the concept of what a Black man is that’s been passed down from slavery times: a brute. Even though it’s not spoken, it’s told in stories,” Cox explains. “Look at a sport event. The white guy is smart. The Black guy has strength. He has athleticism. You know what I’m saying? … This story comes down forever. Like, they were talking about George Floyd like he was superhuman. I mean, my God, still to this day.”
Cox is referring, of course, to witness testimony about Floyd’s stature and athleticism, and the defense’s argument that the officer kept Floyd in a chokehold after he lost consciousness because theoretically, he could awaken powerfully and violently.
It’s not that Cox sees a guilty verdict — on its own — as the end of that story, or a happily ever after. In the course of the trial, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed by a Minneapolis Police officer during a traffic stop while on the phone with his mom, and 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed with his hands up in Chicago.
“I have to keep it in perspective. It is a milestone,” Cox says. “The change will take time, but it’s like you’re finally out of the forest and the place of rest and a cup of coffee is another three miles away. But you know it’s there.”
His optimism is informed by two other recent developments that have more to do with American pop culture than American judicial proceedings. One is that he is seeing a ton of commercials featuring interracial couples casually doing things that, Cox says, would once have been unimaginable — or even dangerous.
“They would’ve put you on a cross and hung you for this stuff, sitting on a bed together, laying on a bed together,” Cox says. “You know how powerful that is?”
The other is the fact that a Black woman and a white man co-hosted the Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony last Sunday night. It was the first time a Black woman, Mickey Guyton, appeared onstage as a host of this major country music event. Not only that, but she performed a song — “Black Like Me” — that she released days after Floyd’s murder. But it was seeing a Black performer and a white performer sharing that stage that really got Cox.
“I’ve been praying for it for a long time,” he says. “I’ve been saying, ‘These guys, they could change the attitude of people through country music, just visually seeing people together.’ And they did it. They did it. It was beautiful. And then two days later we get this verdict.
Cox calls the verdict “what it should be,” adding that “there’s no great celebration.”
But there is a before and after.
The country didn’t just see what happened to George Floyd. The country focused on it, struggled with it, for over a year. People fought to be sure of it. Cox says in the moments leading up to the verdict, he felt that “if we didn’t do the right thing now, we were stepping back 100 years.”
“It can never go back to the way it was,” Cox says. “It will never go back to the way it was.”
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