Courtesy of Paul Rudof
Mavis Rudof, an aspiring public defender, poses at her father’s law office in Northampton, Massachusetts, April 25, 2021.

A year after Floyd, a teen activist takes stock

After George Floyd's death, Mavis Rudof resolved to “obstruct the injustice that we are living in right now.” A year later, she sees a “window of possibility for changes."

Mavis Rudof remembers the precise moment she realized what she wanted to do with her life. 

It was June 11, 2019, and she was 13 years old. Mavis’ father, a public defender, had invited her to watch the retrial of Darrell Jones, a Black man who had been convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury in 1986. Mavis watched from the gallery of the courtroom as her father laid out impropriety after impropriety in the original investigation and trial. When the jury, this time with two Black jurors, came back with a not-guilty verdict, she knew.

“I got into the car with my dad after the verdict ... and was like ‘this is the work I need to do,’” she recalls. “Knowing how the system works and how many people the system puts behind bars – guilty or not – I wanted to dedicate my life to a job that helps find justice for people of color, especially low-income people of color.”

I met Mavis when she was a student in my preschool classroom. Even then, she had a keen sense of justice, paying close attention to the rules and how they were enforced. When I caught back up with her a year ago, cellphone footage of George Floyd’s murder at the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had just emerged and Mavis no longer felt she could wait to add her voice to calls for racial justice. She joined protests and solidified her resolve to “obstruct the injustice that we are living in right now,” as she told me at the time.

A year later, Mr. Chauvin is behind bars, and many Americans are taking stock, wondering where this year of protest has brought us as a society. In Mavis’ view, “tremendous change” is still needed. “The system is just so broken,” she says. “Our first police officers were slave patrols. That says a lot about how our systems have been built.”

The events of this past year, from the surge of summer protests to the conviction of Mr. Chauvin on all charges, have helped to affirm her faith that change is possible. “I think the protests influenced these cops and made them want to testify against Chauvin,” she says. She welcomes his conviction as the “right verdict” but stops short of saying that justice was served. “Justice is a very complicated word,” she says. “To me, justice would be George alive with his family.”

But at a societal level, she says the verdict opened “a window of possibility for changes. It showed that convictions can happen. ... This can be a start.”

These hopes have been buoyed by the public discussion over the past year. In that way, she says, the protests were successful because they thrust issues of justice, privilege, and racial equity into the spotlight. “White people need to be forced to think about these issues,” she argues. “Black people live it every day.” 

Her advice to white people wanting to better understand and grapple with these issues? “Listen to people of color. And learn. ... If race is hard to talk about, then you are probably having the right kind of conversations.”

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