Activist P.J. Hill experiences high of Chauvin verdict, low of Ma'Khia Bryant killing

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Minneapolis native P.J. Hill, a former Ohio State basketball player, speaks at a protest in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd during the summer of 2020.

They were pressed together so tightly that cellphone reception was rendered impossible. Standing in the throng assembled outside the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, P.J. Hill and hundreds of others were waiting for the news they had fought for, marched for and anxiously waited nearly a year for.

But because there were so many of them anticipating the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, nobody could get a signal on their phones. Not Hill, not the man standing next to him who had flown in from France for the occasion, nobody.

Finally, a voice boomed out over a megaphone: “He’s guilty on all three counts!”

The reaction was visceral and immediate.

“Literally, people just started jumping up and down,” Hill said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, God is good, man.’ I hugged a guy and he just started crying on my shoulder. I don’t even know these people but it just feels like America was on trial and America showed up for the first time.”

Finding role as a community leader, activist after George Floyd's murder

It was a watershed moment for a man like Hill, a Minneapolis native and former Ohio State basketball player who has found himself at the forefront of the movement in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Chauvin in May. Leaning on his belief that everyone has to do their part to affect social change, and drawing on his wide range of contacts as a former athlete and current financial advisor , Hill quickly found a role as a community leader and spokesman for a city clamoring for change.

That started in May, when he began filming the aftermath of the violence that erupted after Floyd’s death. It led to a phone call from a family friend, encouraging him to make his presence felt throughout the city. In short order, Hill was addressing crowds of thousands and leading marches across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge.

More:Former Ohio State basketball player P.J. Hill working to make a difference

A vice president for the Minneapolis NAACP, Hill describes himself as a “servant leader” whose skills as a point guard help him bridge gaps and bring people together even in times of crisis. It was all put to the test as, together, hundreds of people stood awaiting the verdict.

Former Ohio State basketball player P.J. Hill, center, leads a protest through downtown Minneapolis during the summer of 2020.

“What you saw is people hopeful but uncertain, because it’s never been done,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory. You spend a whole year fighting in the streets. We damn near burned the city down to make a point. The war is still going on, but we won this battle, and I’m just grateful.”

'You feel joy. You feel hope': The response to the verdict reading

The 48 hours leading up to the reading of the verdict had been filled with meetings for Hill. He spoke with Derrick Johnson, national president of the NAACP, the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and even the Rev. Jesse Jackson. There were conversations with the national guard about protecting First Amendment rights and stopping the use of tear gas, and meetings with Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo about reimagining policing within the city.

Those meetings represent just a small sample of what occurred before the verdict for Hill, who also made time to wake up at 5 a.m. Monday to play basketball. Throughout, Hill said the message was one of hope that justice would prevail and history would remember this moment as a movement.

“This is a watershed moment,” he said. “You feel joy. You feel hope. You feel some sort of liberation that we took a step forward today. And now how do we hug on each other, love on each other and take our allies in close and move forward?”

Ohio State's P.J. Hill in action against Eastern Michigan on Dec. 5, 2009.

The feeling of victory was short-lived, though. Hill said he got home from dinner with his wife, who is due with their second child, and his daughter when the focus quickly turned to Columbus and the fatal shooting of Black 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by a white police officer.

“I come back and was just trying to unwind and think about how can I support my people from Columbus now, because it’s just never-ending,” Hill said. “I would tell the people of Columbus that you are not alone, that Minneapolis and the NAACP stands in solidarity. We are going to fight with you so that justice is served in their communities, in their state, just like it was here in Minneapolis.”

Hill is a devoted man of faith, and his great uncle is a senior pastor at a church located across the street from where Floyd was killed. Hill is quick to quote a verse of scripture from what he refers to as “The Good Book” and, in reflecting on his own path, he quoted Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in the man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that will prevail for your life.”

That purpose, on a day with such extremes like on Tuesday, remains unchanged.

“Black people are fatigued, man,” Hill said. “But you know what keeps me fighting is that I’ve got a daughter, that I’ve got God in my life and hopes that I can make this world a better place for my daughter.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy