The following letter was written to MICDS students in grades 7-12 on Tuesday, April 20, and forwarded to parents and guardians of students in grades 5-6 to share with their children at their discretion.
I would expect that most if not all of you are aware of the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin in Minnesota. Mr. Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is charged with second-degree and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. All arguments were concluded on Monday by the prosecution and the defense, since which time 12 jurors have been deliberating. Their verdicts are expected to be read at 3:30 p.m. today.
The trial has national significance because it is the latest instance of the prosecution or the attempted prosecution of a police officer on charges of unlawfully killing a Black person. In many instances, as in that of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson in 2014, criminal charges are never brought. In most cases in which criminal charges are brought, the result is an acquittal of the indicted police officer or the declaration of a mistrial.
Events like the trial in Minnesota are usually controversial in our country. Defenders of police officers often cite the stressful conditions under which they work and the difficult decisions that they have to make in real time in situations of potential danger. Defenders of victims often cite extensive and persistent inequities in the treatment of Black persons by police officers and by courts of law relative to the treatment of members of other racial and ethnic groups.
I do not know, of course, what the jury in the current case has decided—whether Mr. Chauvin will be acquitted of all, of some, or of none of the charges against him—but our expectations of you at MICDS are the same no matter what they have decided, and they are high expectations because we believe in you.
We expect that you will treat one another with kindness, respect, and dignity no matter the jury’s decision in this trial. We expect that, should you engage or be engaged in conversation about this trial or the significant challenges within our nation that it embodies, you will do so with a mind and a heart open to different perspectives than your own. We also expect members of our community to understand that the outcome of this trial might be experienced differently by a Black person, or a person with loved ones who are Black, or a person with loved ones who serve or have served as police officers, than it is experienced by other persons. We expect members of our MICDS community to honor these differences of perspective and experience in our interactions with one another.
I do not know how soon the divisions in American life that are exposed by events like the present trial will begin to diminish, but I do know that they will not be diminished by shouts and insults, by oversimplified sloganeering on clothing and signs, by profit-driven cable news or talk radio blather, by social media rants, by political grandstanding, or, in general, by the action or inaction of closed hearts and minds.
The bridges across the deep but not impassable social divisions in our country will be built by empathy and trust, by earnest efforts toward mutual understanding, by the establishment of partnerships and even friendships, by the elevation of our common humanity, and by a prevailing spirit of creativity and hope.
MICDS must be a participant in the construction of these bridges. We must be, at once, a sanctuary, a community, and a school. If you are struggling with the outcome of the trial in Minnesota or the divisions in American life that it exposes, you can trust that you will be supported by your teachers, counselors, advisors, administrators, and friends here, and I would encourage you to reach out to them. If you are interested in engaging in constructive dialogue with others toward a fuller understanding of the challenges facing our nation, you can trust that you will find it in conversations with members of our community. If you are interested—as I hope you are—in educating yourself about the vast complexities of American and world history so as to comprehend the earth in which our present challenges are rooted, and in listening to voices from our collective past, you can trust that you can learn about them and hear them at MICDS.
In reflecting on the death of Mr. Floyd and the trial of Mr. Chauvin, I am reminded of the words of the writer Alice Koller: “It takes a long time to learn that a courtroom is the last place in the world for learning the truth.” Her observation, though bleak, is worthy of our attention. The American criminal justice system is a human institution, and it is imperfect just as human beings are imperfect. I am also reminded, however, of these words of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “I am ever hopeful that if the court has a blind spot today, its eyes will be open tomorrow.”
Human society can often feel like a labyrinth—a maze of our species’ own making—of ancient customs and systems, of boundaries and restrictions, and of powerful institutions and laws. The experience of the labyrinth is sometimes the successful navigation of a continuous path through it, and it is sometimes a frustratingly circuitous journey or a series of dead ends.
The secret of the labyrinth is that it can be changed. “The very scientist who was the brain behind the horror of the labyrinth,” writes Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “quite as readily can serve the purposes of freedom. But the hero-heart must be at hand.”
Every one of you—every single one of you—is known and loved at your school. Every one of you belongs equally at MICDS. I believe in you. Your teachers and all of our staff at MICDS believe in you. We believe in your hero-hearts. You must believe in them too.
This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: Sometimes It Snows in April by Prince Rogers Nelson, better known as Prince, who was born and raised in Minneapolis and who died in a suburb of that city in 2016. It was snowing in St. Louis as the letter above was being written and sent, and it continued to snow throughout the afternoon. (Apple Music / Spotify)