Memphis teens open up about witnessing history and the racial justice work that remains.
Tuesday’s verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial will be a “where were you when…” moment for a generation of young people.
That’s because George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a former Minneapolis police officer, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, have been pivotal news events of their childhood.
As the historic verdict came down, Chalkbeat Tennessee asked Memphis high school students to write about their reactions to Chauvin’s conviction on all three counts. In the pieces below, four teens share what the decision means for them, their peers, the racial justice movement the case inspired, and the work that lies ahead.
If you are a student who would like to share your thoughts about the case or about other issues you feel are important, please email us at [email protected].
The verdict is ‘a small win’
Zoe Tripp, 11th grade
Middle College High School
My body is sweaty. My fingers are shaking. My stomach is churning, turning over every minute that the verdict doesn’t release. An uneasiness falls over my household and other households that identify with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the other Black angels we’ve lost this past year.
I just checked Twitter, and a smile comes across my face. A victory! Derek Chauvin has been found GUILTY.
While I find this a small win, it is just that — a small win. We shouldn’t have to trade Black deaths for justice, trauma for guilty verdicts.
It’s incredibly upsetting that the only way George Floyd and his family could receive justice was to have his death filmed and his last words caught on camera. That’s sickening to me.
Right now, I feel content, but there’s no joy. I’m upset that African Americans constantly have to trade something to be treated equally by our white peers. Our country should not stop with this verdict. Real change begins with accountability.
We ask those who may not identify with us to stand with us in solidarity. Outside and inside of the classroom, lead lives that focus on dismantling racism and being anti-racist. Lead with that in lesson plans, in school functions, in everything you do.
‘I am watching history’
Makhia Smith, 11th grade
Central High School
I am seated here waiting — my heart palpitating, my ears ringing fearfully. There’s a vengeful burning inside my soul, Ah’m fearful. I’m listening and counting down the minutes. The defense has already claimed an automatic appeal.
This is history!
I find myself realizing that I am watching history. The silence in my room is challenging my sanity. The sounds in my house feel too still — a calm before some imaginary storm. I am on edge, gripping my chest, seated on my bed. I am typing up history. My throat is dry. My eyes, fixed.
My nervousness will not overcome my faith in our justice system. MY NERVOUSNESS WILL NOT OVERCOME MY FAITH IN OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM.
Like a resounding blaring drum, a rushing wave, I feel the pounding within my body. Patience young soul. PATIENCE YOUNG SOUL. I have to practice breathing so I don’t have a panic attack. I CANNOT HAVE A PANIC ATTACK! Listen to my heart, listen to my breath. One moment at a time, one step in front of the other.
While I wait, it’s important for me to say that this is more than a race problem: It’s an American problem. I stand with other minority communities; we stand together. I stand by the good police officers who do their job showing that human lives matter.
Any moment. Any moment. I WILL NOT LOSE FAITH IN THE AMERICAN JUSTICE SYSTEM.
I am singing now. “I am going to stand up, take my people with me …” Sing with me: “Together, we are going to a brand-new home.” Then, “by and by, when the morning comes.” And, “It’s been too hard living.” Music is my avenue. I cannot help when songs flow from outside of me. I guess that’s the Memphis in me.
I AM CRYING TEARS OF JOY. I CANNOT GET THEM TO STOP FALLING FROM MY EYES. My faith in the justice system has been restored. MY FAITH IN THE AMERICAN JUSTICE SYSTEM HAS BEEN RESTORED. MY GOD, MY GOD. Guilty on all counts!
I know the work is far from over, that this is only the start of a constant battle and war that has yet to be won. Take my hand, stand with me. JUSTICE TODAY.
These tears mean justice. I am holding on to my belief that one day I will be a constitutional lawyer, and that I will never forget this day. This work will impact all young people of color to come.
Justice served? We have to know and remember the history of this country. This isn’t the first time, and I am sure it will not be the last. But it has impacted us on this day, today. Maybe someday the Supreme Court will decide that the policing methods in this country are not OK.
Thank you, America, for redeeming my faith and hope, even through all this trauma.
Signing off, a teary-eyed young adult filled with relief — not joy, relief. George is still gone, his life was still unjustly taken. I will never forget that. Relief today, but the fight continues.
‘What will this mean for our generation?’
Mikayla Higgins, 12th grade
Whitehaven High School
As I was emailing school counselors to make them aware of a scholarship opportunity for students, my mom told me that the jury had reached a verdict in the George Floyd case, and the decision would be released in an hour. I immediately froze.
One hour was not enough to prepare myself for the possible outcomes. In all honesty, I had not been keeping up with the trial — on purpose. It was draining just to think about the trial and to worry that nothing would change. Last spring, toward the beginning of quarantine, I became more hopeful than before that people in the United States would treat African Americans as humans, but as time passed and initiatives for Black Lives Matter and other movements decreased, so did my motivation.
I was not doing online school last May when Floyd’s killing first made headlines, but once school started back and I participated in other extracurricular activities, I stopped paying attention to the news and other things that would distract me. I realize now that that was a mistake. There is always a chance to make a change, and now, more than ever, the youth need to be a part of that change.
Almost one year later, the six white people, four Black people, and two multiracial people on the jury held the power to decide the fate of the accused former officer, Derek Chauvin.
With the hours of deliberation are over, my mom and I are sitting in the living room waiting to hear the news that could define the progression of racial movements today. While listening to George Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, as she, too, awaited the verdict, I hear her pain and desire for relief. She says, “I hope that his heart will come through everybody.”
This crucial event in American history should cause every supporter to lead with love when fighting injustice. Ross’ words brought me to tears as I realized that this loss did not only affect his family but also the world as a whole. People worldwide feel pain and anger, and they sense that the verdict of one man has the power to create change or chaos. Around 4:05 p.m., while watching CNN, I saw the judge walk in, and I became extremely anxious. Then he read the verdicts: “guilty, guilty, guilty.”
I instantly wanted to scream and jump but my camera was on during a Zoom meeting. Over 60 years of mistreatment without consequences, from Emmett Till to today. Only now can we finally begin to evoke a change within our system.
When I log on to school tomorrow morning, I expect to have important conversations among my classmates and teachers in chats or verbally to see what this means for our generation. Schools must realize that this can be a lot for youth to take in, and if we are not talking about it with someone, it can lead to inaction rather than effective action. Adults must understand that the youth have a voice that can change the world. I believe that if we listen to each other, we make a difference in our justice and education systems.
‘For a brief moment, we can celebrate.’
Kalisa Lee, 12th grade
Collegiate School of Memphis
It’s 3 p.m., Central Time. Since virtual school finishes earlier than regular school, I am sitting in the dining room talking to my mom. My dad comes into the dining room and says, “They reached a verdict.” My mom says, “What did they say?” “Nothing yet, but they have the verdict. So go ahead and turn the TV on.” I reply, “ You know what is faster than TV? Twitter.” I pull out my phone and look at the trending page, nothing yet. However, I know that in the next few hours that will change.
This trial is so interesting to me. I am not a person who gets involved with the law, besides the “Law & Order” reruns my mom watches. But I continued to stay updated on the trial. I heard the big details of the trial from the social media accounts that I followed. I remember the trial of the man who killed Trayvon Martin. That was the first time I realized that Black people were not treated equally in this country. Any time another unarmed Black man is killed, it brings me right back to when I was 9, and I saw the news about Trayvon Martin. Just sitting here and waiting for the verdict I get so scared for George Floyd’s family and for the community that saw him every day. I just hope at the end of the day they get to have some sense of peace.
At 3:25 p.m., as I scroll through Twitter, I see videos of people in Minneapolis’ George Floyd Square protesting, praying, and hoping, and I am right there with them hoping for change. The idea that a murder happened, the evidence was shown to the whole world, and still, some people say they don’t see anything wrong — it amazes me. It’s so hard having hope, knowing how so many other verdicts have resulted in Not Guilty, Not Guilty, Not Guilty. I am terrified to know what happens next if this former police officer gets to walk free. I just know he won’t get convicted, but I have hope that he will. I still have hope in the system. I want this murderer to get convicted because I want to know that even in a country built on the backs and the bodies of people who look like me, I might be able to receive justice. I want to know that if, God forbid, anything happened to my father, grandfather, uncles, or cousins, they can receive justice. But with every minute that goes by, I feel that hope fading. I am just reminded of all those other cities, communities, and families that have been through this before and have all seen the same outcomes. I am terrified that no matter how much I hope the system will fail.
It’s 4:05 p.m., and wow, the system did not fail me today. When I heard guilty for the first charge, I screamed. I felt this huge release off my shoulders. There was just this weight and tension in my body that I didn’t realize I had been carrying. I felt like I could breathe a little bit better. I am hoping that Mr. Floyd’s family, friends, and community feel a sense of relief and peace today because they have gone through so much.
Looking at Twitter now, after the verdict, I see the trial trending at No. 1., I see a celebration that justice prevailed, and I would want it no other way. I think that we should celebrate this victory, but also understand that the fight is not done. We still have so much room to grow in this country and even in our communities.
Recently, I had been working on an art project about Black America. There is so much that we have to go through, but we still live, celebrate, and encourage each other. I feel like that is happening today. As a community, we are still grieving the loss of Mr. Floyd and so many other African Americans in this country, but for a brief moment, we can celebrate. Today we won a battle and we relish this victory, but the war is not over. Keep fighting, keep working, because Black Lives Matter — today, tomorrow, and always.
This article was originally posted on For young people watching, the Chauvin guilty verdict brought ‘relief, not joy’