This is America: Lessons I learned from covering the Derek Chauvin trial

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Where were you when you heard Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts of murder and manslaughter for killing George Floyd?

I was on assignment in George Floyd Square, surrounded by the Minneapolis community and about a million other reporters, sticking my head into some stranger’s Jeep trying to hear Judge Peter Cahill read the verdict on the radio.

I didn’t quite believe what I’d heard until people started cheering, crying and throwing dollar bills into the air. I even let a stranger hug me for the first time since the pandemic began (It’s fine, I am vaccinated, but still!). For the first time in a while, I got to report on a moment of collective joy and relief instead of trauma and anger.

Hey, I’m N’dea Yancey-Bragg, a race and diversity reporter at USA TODAY, and you're reading "This is America," a newsletter about race, identity, and how they shape our lives. Here are some lessons I learned while covering the Chauvin trial.

But first: Race and justice news we're watching

Important stories of the past week, from USA TODAY and other news sources.

It’s OK to admit when you’re struggling

The eyewitnesses who had to testify, the teenagers out protesting, other people whose loved ones were killed by police and the Black reporters covering the story have all talked about the trauma this trial caused. I think the verdict relieved some of that, but obviously, one conviction can’t erase centuries-old racial wounds.

Before this trial, I didn’t feel like I could talk about any of that. I thought if I did, someone might think I couldn’t report objectively on issues involving the Black community, even though I've been trained to approach each story objectively and take pride in my ability to do so.

But you know when you’re bottling up your emotions and then someone asks “are you OK” and then you just break down? Yeah, that happened to me on a call with our editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll so I had to talk about it.

I'm so grateful for my incredibly supportive colleagues (especially Jarrad Henderson, Harrison Hill and Suzette Hackney on the ground with me) who have been checking in and acknowledging how traumatizing this trial has been for people like me.

USA TODAY reporter N'dea Yancey-Bragg covers events surrounding the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin has convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.
USA TODAY reporter N'dea Yancey-Bragg covers events surrounding the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin has convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.

I got a crash course in everything from police training to pulmonology

This was my first time covering a trial and I learned so much from listening to the many hours of testimony from the 45 witnesses.

Watching 17 seasons of "Grey’s Anatomy" prepared me for the testimony/med school lecture from Dr. Martin Tobin, a physician with 46 years of experience in the physiology of breathing, who explained how Floyd died of low oxygen. The defense argued underlying heart issues and the methamphetamine and fentanyl in his system caused Floyd's death while he struggled with police.

I learned from multiple police officers including Chief Medaria Arradondo that while what Chauvin did was not following police training, the Minneapolis Police Department did allow neck restraints at the time of Floyd's death. Officers often say they acted consistently with their training to protect against excessive force allegations, but experts have said law enforcement training is often outdated and promotes a react first, think later mentality — ultimately validating officers' decisions even when they appear to defy logic.

A moment of relief, but there's still more work to be done

Experts I spoke to explained that it's rare for juries to convict police officers. Many community members did not predict a conviction. After countless high-profile police killings ended with no charges and no convictions, to say I was surprised by the verdict is an understatement.

In the square, as I put away my helmet, goggles and gas mask, I felt a glimmer of hope that maybe this verdict meant change. Maybe I won't always need to prepare myself for the worst-case scenario when it comes to law enforcement's relationship to Black and brown people in America.

But on Thursday, I will be attending the funeral of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man shot and killed during a traffic stop, not far from where Floyd died. I filed my story next to a cross bearing the name of Adam Toledo, the 13-year-old shot by a Chicago police officer while raising his hands. Not long after the verdict news dropped I learned 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant had been killed by Columbus police.

All of that is a reminder that one conviction can't fix systemic racism nor does it address the demands of protesters to reform police to prevent more cases like this from happening. Our duty to cover these issues doesn't end here.

And finally, the most important lesson of all

My first week in Minneapolis I lived off of sad little sandwiches from Target, Domino's pizza and hotel coffee. Thankfully, my colleague Trevor Hughes encouraged me to do better and introduced me to the best pizza (Black Sheep), burgers (Blue Door Pub) and cinnamon rolls (Isles Bun & Coffee) in all of Minneapolis.

Self-care is so important, especially for journalists covering a tough story. I learned it's important to take a break and eat some pizza with your peeps every now and then.

--

This is America is a weekly take on current events from a rotating panel of USA TODAY Network journalists with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. If you're seeing this newsletter online or someone forwarded it to you, you can subscribe here. If you have feedback for us, we'd love for you to drop it here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lessons I learned from covering the Derek Chauvin trial