Wright’s family listened that summer as prosecutors denounced a vigilante who chased after a Skittles-toting 17-year-old in a hoodie. They listened as the other side argued self-defense, and they heard when the case that launched the Black Lives Matter movement ended in acquittal.
“Can he go to trial for something else?” Wright remembers asking.
For Wright and many high school and college-age members of Gen Z, their formative years brought gut punch after gut punch to their faith in the American criminal justice system. Other widely protested deaths of Black Americans followed Martin’s, spawning hashtags and headlines but either no charges or no convictions: Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Breonna Taylor.
Now, the generation that grew up with Black Lives Matter — increasingly activist, attuned to inequity, more likely than their elders to see far-reaching problems behind George Floyd’s killing last May — is watching another case in which they have been anguished bystanders but also key witnesses and drivers of change. A White ex-police officer is in the hands of a court system that near–majorities of young adults have long viewed as unlikely to deliver justice free from racial bias.
For Gen Z, Floyd’s case is “an orienting point for all their political values coming to life,” said John Della Volpe, who directs polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and is writing a book on the “Zoomer” generation, often defined as those born from 1997 to 2012. “It’s like Floyd being suffocated is almost a metaphor for millions of other vulnerable people not having the opportunity that White people have had in this country.”
Like many of her peers, Wright says her outrage does not start with Floyd’s death and will not end with Chauvin’s trial. She spent the summer after high school making TikToks about Breonna Taylor. Attending college from home in West Point, Ga., she tuned in this fall to a bond hearing in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery — a still-pending case that went without arrests for months in a town several hours southeast.
“The problems in our justice system are way too big to be reassured by one case,” Wright said. She hoped the nation would “do the right thing.” But all she could do was watch.
Homework in hand, she listened this week as two young women, also 18, recounted to the court how Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck until he went quiet and limp. The teens testified off-camera because, as the judge put it, “these are children who did not choose to be a part of this case.”
“It was difficult because I felt like there really wasn’t anything I could do,” said Alyssa Funari, who drove to Cup Foods with a friend.
“It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologized to George Floyd for not doing more,” said Darnella Frazier, whose cellphone video would change the course of history.
Wright, too, had felt a horrible helplessness.
“Even though I wasn’t there, I watched the video as if I was there,” Wright said. “As if I was standing exactly where she was.”
Jolt to a generation
More racially and ethnically diverse than any generation that came before it, Gen Z is no monolith, with differences of opinion along the usual lines of skin color, class and political party. Compared with people of color, White Americans were less supportive of last summer’s protests and less critical of police, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll.
But the jolt of Floyd’s killing would in some ways cross demographic gulfs, experts say.
Last fall’s Harvard Youth Poll found what it called “overwhelming support” across races for more government action to confront systemic racism. Pew Research said in the fall that more than half of White Republican adults under 30 years old reported taking steps to educate themselves on racial inequality in the past few months, notably higher than White Republicans overall.
“So younger Whites were more aligned with other younger people, and not necessarily their parents and their grandparents,” said Della Volpe, a longtime leader in surveys of U.S. youths.
Floyd’s killing was another call to action for a generation that already mobilized on mass shootings and climate change — a group that shares many values with the millennials before them but stands out for their sense of “urgency,” as Della Volpe puts it.
He said Floyd’s death and the racial reckoning that followed is “certainly one of a top five, if not the most significant event in the political development, the political maturation of Generation Z.” Young adults lagged behind their elders in tracking news about the coronavirus pandemic and the election, but that gap disappeared when it came to last year’s Floyd protests, according to Pew.
The O.J. Simpson murder trial in the 1990s was also seemingly inseparable from big questions about race and justice in the United States. Black and White Americans were sharply divided at the time on Simpson’s guilt but united in the belief that the trial hurt race relations and undermined faith in police and courts.
“All of America stopped and watched almost every moment of that trial,” Della Volpe said.
Chauvin’s case feels different to him. He pointed to the other national stories competing for attention in a tumultuous year — a pandemic, a new president.
But young people said that even if they do not regularly tune in to the trial, they will be reading the news, absorbing the reactions on social media and tensing for a verdict.
A not-guilty finding would electrify a new wave of activists, predicted Armonee Jackson, a 23-year-old from Phoenix who leads the youth and college division of the NAACP in Arizona. She sees Floyd’s killing as an especially weighty turning point for the younger members of Gen Z: “This was their Trayvon Martin,” she said, recounting the hoodie she wore to eighth grade in protest of Martin’s death.
“This is going to be a make-or-break,” Jackson said, adding, “It’s either going to push them harder or not, depending on the outcome of the case.”
As lawyers gave their opening statements at the Hennepin County Government Center, a small group of youth-driven, women-led protesters briefly blocked the road outside, carrying a mock white coffin.
A guilty verdict for Chauvin, meanwhile, would feel like the bare minimum to Foyin Dosunmu, 17, who organized a protest last June with two other teenagers, hoping to light more of an activist fire in their suburban Houston hometown.
“It’s something that’s supposed to happen,” Dosunmu said. She said she expects to be out protesting this summer regardless of whether Chauvin is found guilty.
She compared a conviction to Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris winning the election in November.
“I’d be like, okay, good. What’s next?”
Pushing for more
Young people following Chauvin’s trial see far more work ahead. There are other causes to fight for, whole “carceral systems” to abolish, elders to persuade who may agree on what to do with Chauvin but not what to do with the Minneapolis Police Department.
“Our generation is more radical,” said Jackson, describing a justice system so harmful to people of color that reform is not enough.
“Their mind is on equity. Their mind is on justice,” said Alisha Smith Jean-Denis, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst whose research focuses on students. “They’re calling these things out definitely more. There’s a boldness.”
Smith Jean-Denis said she was struck last week when her 14-year-old daughter asked her on the drive to school, “Ma, did you know that a six-year-old boy was arrested for picking a flower?”
“She’s getting this from social media. … I wasn’t thinking about that at 14,” Smith Jean-Denis said. “ I knew things were happening, but I was not as aware. ”
Adults under 35 — a mix of Gen Zers and millennials — were the most likely to favor overhauls of policing, according to a Gallup poll from last summer. More than 80 percent said “major changes” were needed, compared with 61 percent of the 35-to-49 cohort and less than half of older groups.
For some young people, the generational divides in their circles extend to Chauvin, too, as his trial reopens fault lines with older, more conservative loved ones that emerged last summer.
Eighteen-year-old Jeffrey Jin, who also led racial justice demonstrations near Houston, has seen lots of people on Twitter talking about how “it’s the Derek Chauvin trial and not the George Floyd trial,” as Chauvin’s defense makes the drugs found in Floyd’s system key to their case. He agrees — and said he hopes to talk with an older family member who months ago dismissed Floyd as a “thug” on narcotics.
“It’s a conversation I want to have with her,” Jin said. “If she doesn’t bring it up, I probably will.”
‘Why is history repeating itself?’
Wright first saw Floyd’s name while browsing Facebook last May, a few days after high school graduation. She scrolled on.
“I’m kind of desensitized to seeing Black men killed in the media and nothing be done about it,” she said. “I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with something that I didn’t really think was going to change.”
Then, on Instagram, she saw the video of Chauvin, who is White, kneeling on Floyd’s neck while the Black man said he could not breathe. She started crying when Floyd called for his mom. She remembered, vividly, the video of another Black man who died after police pinned him to the ground.
With Floyd, the alleged offense that initiated the encounter with police was passing a counterfeit $20 bill; with Eric Garner in 2014, it was selling unauthorized cigarettes.
“I can’t breathe!” Garner had also cried out before losing consciousness as New York police put him in a chokehold.
“I was like, why is history repeating itself?” Wright said.
“The Trayvon Martin case cracked the foundation,” she said. “And then … George Floyd, I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
She decided she wanted to become a lawyer, filing a form to switch her major. She went on TikTok, sick of her conservative county, hoping to reach more young people who saw Floyd’s killing as a symptom of pervasive racism.
“Put a finger down if you live in the South and you’ve been blocked by nine White people on Snapchat in the past week because now you’re an uncontrollable Black girl …” she began, talking rapid-fire, in her first TikTok video. It went up May 30, five days after Floyd’s death.
“We do not need to take our foot off the gas pedal because we have reached justice for George Floyd,” Wright said in a video.
On Tuesday, Wright said, her family yelled at the TV — “He’s trying to discredit her!” — as Chauvin’s defense attorney questioned a distraught firefighter. On Wednesday, Wright found herself crying along with a 61-year-old witness after Floyd called out on video for his dead mother. It was just like the first time she watched.
She said she feels a duty to keep tuning in, as an aspiring lawyer and as a citizen, “as bad as it gets.”
“Our criminal justice system is on trial right now,” she said. “And I fully intend on watching every moment of it.”
Jared Goyette contributed to this report.