I taught a history class the day the Chauvin verdict was announced. The class started at 4:30pm, which was the exact time the verdict was supposed to be read. It was a surreal and tense experience to be teaching history at that moment. I found it particularly challenging as an educator, so I thought I’d write out a kind of teacher journal to recount what I did and how it went.
When I saw that the verdict would be announced at 4:30pm, I immediately thought: we need to watch it together as a class. I couldn’t teach my normal material. It’d be hollow, unresponsive: we’re living through history and I insist on teaching other historical material? No way.
I emailed my students saying that we’d watch the announcement and have a dialogue about the verdict afterward. I didn’t want to center commercial media outlets and their coverage, so I thought CSPAN would be best to show. I’d share my screen (we’re on zoom).
I was getting it set up when students started entering the zoom room. The livestream showed the seal of Minnesota prominently featured on a dry-brown wall, with a corner of the reflective surface from the plastic covid safety panel in the bottom left corner.
I saw a hand with a ring on it and some papers moving in the reflection of the protective glass, nothing else.
Once class started
I usually start with a check-in, but it didn’t feel right to do anything usual. I said hi to everyone, reiterated that we’re going to watch the live feed and after a dialogue we’d continue with normal content.
A quiet tension grew, and increased.
I have two Black students and I wasn’t sure how they might react to my decision to feature the coverage. I received a private message from one of them thanking me for taking time out of class to watch the proceedings. The other kept their camera off, as they sometimes do.
In the growing silence, I mentioned the trauma of these events but the importance of witnessing them and talking about them as students of history and as educators.
It was 4:31pm and there was no indication of the announcement would be forthcoming. Indeed, the verdict would not be announced until around 5:02pm. But we didn’t know that. To us, in our zoom class, someone could come on the screen and begin speaking at any moment. The silent anticipation was electric but also nerve-wracking.
I’m a teacher after all. I didn’t want class time to be wasted. So at first, I tried to fill the silence by asking students if they’d been following the trial. Some had followed the stories, but others didn’t due to its painful quality. The silence continued. It was so potent!
I think I asked if anyone had anything to ask or say, but no one did. I kept feeling this pressure to fill the silence. But then I remembered my research on classroom discourse, particularly an account that emphasized how teachers should respect silence.
The book points out how settler teachers are always pushing students to talk, speak, etc, and how indigenous students may not want to. And perhaps we should reconsider our approach to pedagogical silence in general.
I also remembered how the communist philosopher of education Derek Ford has critiqued the liberal-capitalist compunction to speak, deliberate, be public about one’s thinking and compel others to as well. Following Lyotard, Derek called this forcing of students always speak and share as a kind of terrorism.
I thought about these things as the silence built. I actually stopped myself from saying anything else and made myself sit with this silence. It felt right: this was the silence of historical anticipation. I brought that into the classroom space of the call. This silence was the silence of whether a repressive apparatus, coded with white supremacy and defending a super-exploitative society, could hold itself itself accountable. Would the US repressive apparatus in Minnesota repress its own goon?
Would it recognize a murder that its own representative committed? It hadn’t in the past. Generations of Black murder and death stain its practices and protocols, not to mention its other crimes against other populations.
We were listening to the silence of these generations. And we were waiting for the interpellation: would we be hailed as subjects by a society committed to justice, or its own special brand of injustice?
It was painful but generative.
Afraid of right or left?
In that crucible, a conversation started. I think I looked at twitter and said that I saw a tweet showing people at a shop in Philadelphia waiting around a cell phone, standing in pensive silence just like us. I wanted to give us a sense that we weren’t alone in the silence. I saw another tweet that Philadelphia was shutting down its FEMA vaccine site in anticipation of uprisings.
I noted to the class how much cities and the country as a whole had to do to prepare for that moment, given the uprisings. The second Black student, camera off, mentioned how there’s fear about the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations fro last year. But another student disagreed: they thought it was a fear of the Jan. 6 insurrection prompting cities to shut down.
An interesting discussion emerged: was it the rightwing reaction (evidenced on Jan. 6) that the country’s ruling classes were preparing for, or was it the leftwing protests that happened in May 2020 that was compelling them to board up windows and shut down facilities?
The question was: which recent historical event was more present in people’s minds at this moment: BLM or Stop the Steal? One student said the Floyd Rebellions are clearly the more relevant one. But the other student said no: the right’s insurrection surprised him. People had died! I mentioned that I’d seen Val Demings respond to Jim Jordan in their congressional committee. What angered her was Jordan’s support for the police being politically convenient: If you’re supporting Chauvin, why not support police during Jan. 6?
It seemed the Chauvin verdict was articulated with fears of the right, not fears of the left. The rightwing’s commitment to police was in doubt now since Jan. 6. My other student understood that perspective. I hadn’t thought about it that way either.
More silence. 4:52 pm.
It had been Black students mostly talking, but at this point others felt comfortable joining in. I asked if anyone had seen/registered impacts of this verdict announcement at school. An elementary school teacher said elementary schools mostly try to avoid talking about this.
A student who coaches described how coaching staff discussed talking with their student athletes. But before they could, administrators came down the fields and told them to cancel practices, send kids home once it was made public that the announcement would be that afternoon.
The verdict moment
After some more silence, I saw some movements on the reflective panel. The hand with a ring on it was shuffling around more than it had been. Voices were starting to come through. My screen froze and there was feedback. I had both Democracy Now and CSPAN open just in case. I struggled to close one.
It was hard since I was sharing my screen. But we ended up watching it and hearing it clearly. The verdicts came down. Each guilty. I was still feeling the tension from the wait but it was melting into sadness, tinged with relief.
It was only a few minutes. The decision was rendered. We watched Chauvin’s eyes darting back and forth at the words. Then we watched him get up, get handcuffed, and be taken to an unmarked door at the back of the courtroom.
The door shut. That was that.
I stopped sharing my screen. I said, “well there you have it. Any reactions from anyone?” Again, silence. I decided to fill it. I said I feel like…I shrugged. I rolled my eyes. I sighed. “That’s how I feel.”
I said there’s no justice because George Floyd is dead and the system is broken. But this is a tiny step in the right direction after going the wrong way for hundreds of years. So I guess there’s that.
Other students weighed, feeling similarly: sad, resigned, relieved. In one last moment of inspiration, I said if there’s anything that gives me comfort, it’s this: There’s an idea out there that protest doesn’t work. That it’s unproductive, not called for, doesn’t get change. People will tell you not to take to the street, trust the process, etc.
But I feel more than ever, in this moment, that that’s wrong. So clearly wrong. People took to the streets. They made things unbearable for the ruling classes and their allies. They have been for years, but especially under the BLM banner.
I take comfort in the fact that there appears to be at least a correlation with the pressure from those movements and this outcome. The ruling classes and their apparatuses are on alert. The movements are exerting that force. And we won’t let up.
I felt something more than resigned and sad relief then. I felt a little sprig of energy in an otherwise enervating space. I decided to end that part of the class there. I said let’s take five minutes to rest, gather ourselves, come back and focus on the day’s material.