As part of an exercise the staff participated in a few months ago, Anderson was asked what he most wanted to do in life. His answer, Ashton said, reflected that he was already doing it: He said he wanted to be an English teacher.
“Keenan believed that not just being a teacher, but being an English teacher was going to create and open more doors for our kids, and our kids meant kids who looked like him and who grew up in similar circumstances as him,” she said. “He saw being an English teacher as the most important way to break the cycle, the cycle of poverty that so many of our kids experience.”
At Digital Pioneers Academy, most of the students are Black and come from low-income households. They have also experienced more unexpected and unnecessary loss than many people their age.
In the last few months, the school has lost two students — Antoine Manning and Jakhi Snider — to gun violence. And now, students have been left, once again, reeling and grieving. This time, though, it is over the loss of a teacher who understood them and cared about them and died in a way that has sparked public outrage and division.
Anderson spent his days teaching his students that words matter, and now those students have been left hearing some of his last words echoing across the country.
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Video released by the Los Angeles Police Department shows the 31-year-old father on Jan. 3, in the hours before he died, pleading for help as officers forcibly restrained him in the middle of a street and repeatedly used a Taser on him.
“They’re trying to George Floyd me!” he cried out at one point. “They’re trying to George Floyd me!”
Those words have since been shared across social media and been scribbled on cards left at a memorial for Anderson in Los Angeles, where he had been visiting family over the winter break.
Those words have also left students and adults grappling with difficult questions at the D.C. school where Anderson taught.
“‘We see this on the news, but now this happened to a person we know, so can this happen to me?’ Our students are saying that. Our staff is saying that,” Ashton said. “Our educated, Black staff are saying, ‘This could happen to my son.’”
In the days after the death, Ashton released a public statement that contained a link to a GoFundMe for Anderson’s funeral and memorial expenses and described the school’s community as grieving and angry — “Angry that, once again, a known, loved, and respected member of our community is no longer with us.”
“Our school community will inevitably ask some really important questions in the days and weeks ahead: How could the police have de-escalated this situation? How are we going to stop losing our black boys and men to violence? How do we grieve and move forward as a community?” she wrote in that statement. “We all deserve answers to these questions.”
We all deserve answers to these questions. It’s a simple demand, and one that everyone should be able to get behind. For the sake of Anderson’s family. For the sake of his students. For the sake of public safety.
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After the police released more than 12 minutes of footage, some people were quick to accept the police department’s version of the incident and blame Anderson for his death. Authorities have said Anderson caused a traffic collision and possibly attempted to get into another car without that driver’s permission. They also, without waiting for an autopsy report, said preliminary tests showed he had cocaine and cannabis in his system.
Those details have been used to disparage Anderson online. But none of them, even if later proven true, justify the scene that played out in the final moments of his encounter with police. He wasn’t waving a weapon. He wasn’t hurting anyone. He was saying “Please, sir” and “Help me.”
“Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please,” he said at one point.
Words matter. He knew that. He taught his students that. And his words show that he needed help in those moments, not to have an elbow pressed against his neck, his legs bound and a Taser used on him repeatedly.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter held a rally to “demand justice” for Anderson. His cousin Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of BLM, spoke at the event.
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Tuesday also marked the first day that Digital Pioneers Academy reopened after closing for a few days to allow students and staff members a chance to mourn and process what happened.
“The pause was for us to say, ‘It’s not okay. It’s not normal. What happened to Mr. Anderson is not okay,’” Ashton said.
In the weeks since his death, as the rest of the country has focused on how he died, she has watched students remember how he lived. She said Anderson was the kind of teacher who noticed if a student was hungry or needed a new pair of shoes and that he would reach into his own pocket to make sure those students were taken care of.
“Mr. Anderson made me feel seen,” one student told her after his death. Another told her, “I felt he respected me.”
Two students described him as their “work dad,” which didn’t surprise Ashton. She recalled the words he often chose when talking to students.
“He would greet his scholars and say, ‘What’s up, fam?’” she said. “He treated them like family, and they felt they were family in his class.”