Shouts and gasps could be heard as nearly 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus huddled around a laptop computer and a mobile phone in an ornate room steps from the House floor Tuesday to learn that a jury found former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.
The hush before the verdict was interrupted only by the occasional beep of a digital camera from the surrounding photographers and reporters. Then, each of the three verdicts of "guilty" was met with a brief burst of reaction, followed by shushes.
The Democratic lawmakers then began to leave together to hold a joint news conference outside. A few were hugging, and some could be heard saying, "Wow" as they left the Rayburn Room. Freshman Missouri Rep. Cori Bush had tears in her eyes. Connecticut Rep. Jahana Hayes was one of the last to leave. Clearly emotional, she received a hug from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.
"We want our message to be very clear, that this is just the first step," she said.
The verdict came after Democrats defeated a GOP attempt to censure California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters for saying that protesters would need to get "more confrontational" if Chauvin was acquitted.
California Rep. Karen Bass, a former Black Caucus head, said Congress needed to move forward on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in March on a 220-212 vote.
The bill would require more reporting on police data and restrict the use of practices such as choke holds and “no-knock warrants” by federal law enforcement and local departments that get federal funding. It would also authorize lawsuits against departments that engage in racial profiling and eliminate “qualified immunity” protections for officers.
Bass told reporters that she is working with South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, one of three Black senators, on the bill.
Scott, who was not with the Black Caucus as the verdict was read, told reporters in the Capitol the verdict showed "we can have confidence that the justice system is becoming more just."
At the White House, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both called for the Senate to take up the policing overhaul bill, which Harris noted she introduced when she was a senator, along with Cory Booker, D-N.J.
"This bill would hold law enforcement accountable and help build trust between law enforcement and our communities. This bill is part of George Floyd's legacy. The president and I will continue to urge the Senate to pass this legislation, not as a panacea for every problem, but as a start," Harris said.
Harris spoke of systemic racism in health, education and criminal justice, especially affecting Black men.
"Because of smartphones, so many Americans have now seen the racial injustice that Black Americans have known for generations, the racial injustice that we have thought for generations, that my parents protested in the 1960, that millions of us, Americans of every race, protested last summer," Harris said. "Here's the truth about racial injustice. It is not just a Black America problem or a people of color problem. It is a problem for every American."
Biden, who had spoken with Floyd's family and legal team shortly after the verdict was read, expressed hope that "this can be a giant step forward in the march towards justice in America."
The Capitol Police had announced before the verdict that they would be reinstalling portions of a fence around the outer perimeter of the complex in anticipation of demonstrations. Biden is also due to give an address to a joint session of Congress next week.
House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan said in an interview Tuesday that there had been conversations about security for the Biden address, but he had not discussed the need for fencing in response to the Chauvin verdict.
Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, which has oversight jurisdiction over USCP, aired frustration that the fencing decision was made without his panel being notified.
"I'm certainly not aware of any particular threat to the Capitol, nor do I think that every time there's some incident somewhere in the country that could possibly create a public response that we can fence off the United States Capitol," Blunt told reporters. "I think it's a mistake, and maybe more importantly, as the top Republican on the Rules Committee, no one has stepped forward to explain to me why it would be necessary."
As the the Black Caucus held its news conference, about a half dozen Capitol Police officers were on hand.
"It shouldn't be that there is this worldwide wait to find out what the verdict is. Because the truth of the matter is we are Black folks in this country that are — all we're doing is saying our lives matter," said Bush, who became a Black Lives Matter activist in 2014 after police fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo..
After the speeches, Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II led the group in prayer.
"As we dismiss from this place, Oh God, let us never dismiss, with your blessing, our commitment to making this nation what you expect us to be based on the blessings you've poured over us in all these many years," Cleaver said. "This is our prayer."
Niels Lesniewski, Herb Jackson, Katherine Tully-McManus and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.