Lorie Shaull | CC BY-SA 2.0
April 21, 2021
The verdict has come down. The jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man living in Minnesota, was killed while being arrested by the police. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, pinned Floyd to the ground while he was handcuffed. Chauvin pressed his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. During the nine minutes, Floyd repeatedly stated that he could not breathe, and Chauvin continued to press his knee on Floyd’s neck, even after Floyd lost consciousness. This was filmed by a bystander, a teenager, on her cell phone. That video was shown around the world, and to the jury at the trial.
The bystander video of the incident led to community, national and international outrage, an F.B.I. civil rights investigation and the firing of Derek Chauvin and three other officers who were at the scene. Chauvin was charged with second-degree and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd; these charges carry penalties of up to 40 years in prison. All three charges were considered in Derek Chauvin’s trial, and each charge had to be proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt. Chauvin’s defense lawyer sought to persuade the jury that in fact there was reasonable doubt that Derek Chauvin had committed the crimes with which he was charged. In the end, the jury was not persuaded by the defense's arguments.
The other three officers, whose trial will happen later in 2021, are each charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, as well as aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
The murder trial of Derek Chauvin began on March 29 and concluded on April 19, 2021. The jury of twelve, the selection of which is often scrutinized in these cases, included three Black men, one Black woman and two jurors who identify as multiracial. While jurors are supposed to be an impartial “jury of your peers,” all too often in the history of the U.S., Black jurors and other jurors of color were kept from serving on juries, even with the increasing diversity of our nation. On April 20, 2021, the jury announced a verdict of guilty on all three counts. Chauvin was denied bail and taken into custody; his sentencing is scheduled to occur in eight weeks.
This verdict represents the first time in the history of the state of Minnesota that a white police officer was held accountable for killing a Black man. Upon the verdict being read, Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother said, "I was just praying they would find him guilty. As an African American, we usually never get justice."
While some received this verdict with relief and a sense of accountability, it was also noted that this was one case, one instance, and that systemic racism will not be dismantled by one case in a single criminal trial. Rather, more systemic approaches that address underlying causes and deep institutional bias are needed.
Talking with young people
Teachers, parents, families and others will want to talk with young people about the outcome of the trial and the larger issues around police violence, racial disparities in law enforcement and systemic racism. In addition to our suggested approaches below, we have a variety of free lesson plans, family discussion guides, children’s literature and other tools for Teaching about Racism, Violence, Inequity and the Criminal Justice System. These resources include content on race and racism, the police-involved killing of Black people, activism, equity and social justice. They also include an updated Table Talk family discussion guide, George Floyd, Racism and Law Enforcement.
Here are suggested approaches for engaging in discussions with young people about the verdict or the issue of police violence in general.
Prepare yourself—emotionally and with information.
It can be difficult to be present for young people when you are feeling distracted or overwhelmed. Spend at least a few minutes yourself to acknowledge and work through your own feelings so you can be calm and supportive when talking with young people. This will help them feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings. Learn as much as you can about the case and the verdict so that you can respond to questions young people ask. At the same time, be mindful not to overdo your own research at the expense of talking with them soon after the verdict.
Create a safe and supportive environment, especially for vulnerable and marginalized students.
Whether at home, school, the community or elsewhere, it is essential to establish a safe and inclusive space for young people to talk, share and learn. Consider the experiences and identities of young people represented (if in a group or classroom setting) and prioritize consideration of those who may feel particularly vulnerable such as Black and Latinx young people and those who have lived experiences with police violence and racism. Be mindful to use language that is helpful, supportive and anti-bias. For example, using an expression like “a few bad apples” to describe police involved in cases of excessive force or murder invalidates the lived experience of Black and other people oppressed by police, and continues to cause harm. If other students in the group conversation say or do things that are insensitive or biased, address those comments immediately and directly.
Provide time and space for young people to express their feelings and be alert for signs of distress.
Young people will have a range of feelings about the verdict and the larger context of excessive force and police-involved killings of Black people. Whether they are feeling angry, confused, relieved, sad, satisfied, enraged, serious, unsafe, guilty or other feelings, it is important that you provide the space and vocabulary for sharing how they feel, without judgment. Model this by being open about your own feelings. Allow students the opportunity to express their feelings verbally (in pairs, small or large groups) or in writing or drawing, and respect students’ right to pass if they are not ready or don’t want to share. Having a trusted adult to hear those feelings with acceptance and support is very helpful. Also, be aware that feelings sometimes surface at unexpected times. Some young people may have a delayed emotional reaction to what happened. Therefore, be alert for those signs later, and be ready to respond appropriately by listening and acknowledging those feelings.
Answer questions, share facts, and encourage additional questions and investigation.
Students will likely have questions about the trial, verdict and the larger issues of the criminal justice system, systemic racism, and what can be done. It is important that amid so much information coming at them, the 24/7 news cycle and the way that social media can spread rumors and misinformation, that we help ground young people in facts. Determine what students already know, what they’ve heard, what questions they have and what they want to learn more about. Share basic information about what happened by responding to their initial questions. If you don’t know the answers, come up with a plan to find out. Treat all their questions with respect and seriousness. After getting through some of the basics, you can take their inquiry to the next level by helping young people dig deeper, using critical thinking and discerning the perspective of the person or news source providing the information. If interest remains high, you could have students conduct research projects on the trial, the history of Black Lives Matter, other recent cases of police use of excessive force, racial violence throughout history, law enforcement reform efforts or systemic racism. Be mindful that some young people may not be ready to talk about what happened or their feelings about it. Invite young people to share questions they have that can be revisited later.
Use accurate language and don’t sugarcoat it.
It is important to name bias, racism and other forms of oppression for what they are. Depending on their age level, explain and define terms in ways young people can understand. For the youngest children, "prejudice" may be the most appropriate term to use (e.g., “some police officers are prejudiced against Black people.”). Even young children can understand prejudice and bias, so there is no need to over simplify or sugarcoat it by saying things like “he (Chauvin) is not a nice man” or “not all police officers are bad.” With tweens and teens, help them understand racism and systemic racism, specifically how the murder of George Floyd happened in the context of systemic racism within the criminal justice system and a society predicated on white supremacy. Issues of privilege and racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system can also be discussed with older students.
Help young people consider actions they can take.
It can feel overwhelming to see racism and injustice happening in the world and feel powerless to do anything about it. That’s why it is essential to encourage and help support young people’s efforts to do something after the verdict comes down, or about other issues of injustice. Let them know that following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the largest protest movement in U.S. history took place with widespread protests and activism happening across the country and world. Also, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 was introduced in Congress. Teens in Minneapolis and elsewhere are walking out of class to condemn the killings and protest racial injustice. You can talk with young people about what they might want to do next and explain that actions can take many forms. Some examples include advocating for legislation; attending or supporting local or national protests; writing to elected officials with their concerns; reaching out to family members of the victims; reading and learning more about race, racism and racial justice; organizing a schoolwide information session; and speaking out on social media. It’s okay to tell young people that some forms of activism have consequences, such as punishment for missing class and even risk of arrest at some protests. Activists make choices about whether the impact of their actions is worth the potential risk.
The larger context of police excessive use of force with Black and Latinx people and the Black Lives Matter movement continues. Despite some police reforms in some places over the last few years such as body-cams and banning chokeholds, accountability remains elusive. It is very rare for police officers to get arrested, prosecuted or convicted for excessive use of force and shootings. This lack of accountability has led to a public outcry for justice and a reimagining of policing and what public safety for all means. Young people should be given the opportunity to envision a just world in which all people can feel safe and free in their communities. Their thoughts, feelings and actions have and will make a difference.