On Thursday, about 20 students logged onto a class called Communications 101 at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Northwest Philadelphia.
The class and school are predominantly Black — located in a district where students of color make up about 85% of all enrolled.
Veteran teacher Stephen Flemming started the class with a couple of announcements.
Then he showed the class a picture of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, recently convicted in the murder of George Floyd.
“That man was found guilty of all three charges brought against him,” Flemming said to a grid of mostly blank video chat boxes. “My question is: What are your thoughts?”
What follows below is a sketch of the conversation that tumbled out from that simple question.
One note: We agreed to change students’ names so that they could have an open conversation.
David was the only student in the class with his camera on — and the first to speak.
Flemming and David had actually watched the Chauvin verdict together on a separate Zoom call.
At the time, David expressed relief — and a restrained measure of joy.
“Hallelujah, hallelujah,” he said when the verdict came down. “I’m glad the family finally got the closure that they need.”
Two days later, in class, David’s mood had shifted.
“I was thinking it over again. I’m not really as happy as I was. I’m not as happy because, I mean, yeah, he got convicted. But now, it’s like, now what? I guess you could argue it’s a step in the right direction. But the thing is: How many steps is it gonna take?”
It became clear, quickly, that this verdict did not come with a sense of relief.
So Flemming posed a second question.
“Are the guilty verdicts justice?”
A student named Aminah jumped in.
“I don’t really know what justice is. Somebody going to jail is not really justice, you know? It’s just, like, being locked up. You still get food every day. You still can see your loved ones while that [victim] is dead and gone, you know?”
Another girl, Aliyah, agreed with Aminah. It didn’t seem fair. But she said that whatever this verdict was, it had to be justice because “there’s nothing else that they can do.”
Soon, the conversation pivoted to other cases of Black people shot by police.
“They’re like, ‘Oh well, we didn’t see that. It wasn’t on tape. Blah blah blah.’ And it’s like — that doesn’t mean it never happened … I think that’s one of the reasons [Chauvin] went to jail — because it was on tape. You can’t say ‘no’ to that, but you can say ‘no’ to Breonna Taylor because it wasn’t shown. That’s just how I feel.”
Deena felt like there couldn’t be justice in any of these cases. To her, the Chauvin verdict felt hollow.
“Justice for me would have been: George Floyd wouldn’t even end up on the ground begging for his life. That’s what justice is. The fact that they’re able to treat Black bodies however they want — like they’re less than … like that’s just ridiculous to me.”
The shooting death of 16-year-old Ma’Kiyah Bryant in Columbus, Ohio resurfaced throughout the conversation. Bryant’s killing by a Columbus police officer is still under investigation, but preliminary body camera footage appeared to show her wielding a knife in an altercation.
Two students said they’d recently gotten into debates about Bryant’s death. One of them, Jenn, talked about a Facebook exchange that left her particularly frustrated.
“And [the other person] was like: ‘What was [the officer] supposed to do? Go grab the knife?’ That’s like saying a firefighter not supposed to run into a burning building because the building is on fire and he could die. He’s a police officer! He’s trained to de-escalate situations — not use lethal force on a 16-year-old girl!”
Flemming asked the students if there were solutions to the problems they’d raised.
Until this question, the conversation had been intense, but harmonious. The students largely agreed on the outlines of the problem and the absence of real justice.
When Flemming asked for solutions, debate started to rumble.
Janelle argued that police kill Black people because they don’t feel the “fear” of retaliation. She proposed an eye for an eye. If an officer killed a Black person, someone should kill that officer.
“I know violence isn’t always the answer, but they’re taking action with violence. Why can’t we take action with violence?”
The chat box came alive with responses.
One girl agreed with Janelle in principle, but said a “war” with police was simply not winnable. She’d seen Facebook videos of white people preparing for a “race war.” Black people, she reasoned, would be fighting a losing battle.
Flemming interjected again.
“Janelle, to your point, what you’re proposing — is that not already what we already see … in our own community where there’s a life for a life and retribution for retribution, but no problems have been solved?”
Flemming’s question resonated with David, who talked about what he’d seen growing up in West Baltimore. He called it a “cycle of violence.”
“I see it all the time. And I ain’t gonna lie. I had the same mindset, too, back then. He get mine. I’m gonna get his. It just creates a cycle … All it does is create more death and bloodshed. And we don’t really need that.”
David said solutions would start with people of different backgrounds having conversations — “controversial conversations,” as he called them.
“So we can better understand each other so we can build as a whole. Because one stick by itself is weak. You can easily break one stick by itself. But if you had a multitude of sticks, together, that is harder to break.”
The conversation became a debate about militancy. The students of Martin Luther King Jr. High School asked themselves: Should they work peaceably to reform the system? Should they rebel violently against it?
Janelle reiterated her call for retaliation.
Aminah said she understood it, but disagreed.
“We’re in anger right now,” Aminah said. Escalating violence would only lead to more destruction and more innocent lives lost, she argued.
A boy named Randall flipped on his camera for the first time.
“Y’all understand, like, third world countries, they’re having constant wars — years and years — because they have that singular mindset. If they hit me, I gotta hit ‘em back harder.”
Randall then addressed Janelle’s original point — that police didn’t have a necessary fear of Black people.
“They are scared of us. One of the main reactions of fear is to get rid of it. Because that fear is what makes you vulnerable.”
Janelle conceded the point. In the chat box she wrote:
“Ok … you’re right … my mind has been persuaded and changed.”
The conversation had run over an hour, when Flemming decided to cut it off.
The teacher thanked his class, telling them the ideas they’d mulled were, at root, the same ideas mulled by “generations of Black people.”
“That was fierce, in a productive way. The discourse. The disagreement. I like it when we can disagree — when we can put ideas out there, no matter what they are, and we interrogate each other’s ideas. We push. We agree with some things. We disagree with others. That, to me, is healthy. It is healthy. That’s what our democracy should be.”
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