The horrifying death of George Floyd exposes the sensitive state of racial relations and the volatility of our current climate for social unrest. This merits our utmost efforts as a community to advocate for justice in this case and to be a voice of calm and reason in the ongoing conversion that must ensue to repair the damaged roots and heal the hurt that systemic racism breeds on our society.
Everyone saw the incident of Monday, May 25, vividly on camera. Minneapolis police grounded an unarmed and handcuffed black man, one officer kneeing him on the neck. It soon went viral, as we learned the man was begging for air, and subsequently died. Protests ensued locally and soon erupted in cities throughout the country. By week’s end, different groups assembled, often very closely gathered, some becoming confrontational, with dangerous conditions involving fires, rock throwing, looting and destruction of property, reminiscent of the racial unrest which took to the streets in the ’60s.
With all of the tensions and anxieties already engendered by COVID-19 and the often mercurial responses to it, as well as the experience of so many who know the reality of racism and its vestiges on a daily basis, the George Floyd incident became a spark igniting a perfect storm, a confluence of expressions of frustration, anger and outrage about many inequitable conditions of a social, economic, political and racial nature. Almost as disconcerting, however, even frightening, has been the wholly inadequate response of many public authorities and law enforcement officials, charged to maintain order, ensuring the orderly exercise of the right to assemble, and keeping persons and their property safe.
A persistent theme, replayed throughout the viral crises we have been facing, is a hesitation to respond in timely and reasonable ways to what seems so obvious to the eye. It may be that our minds do not process what our eyes can see when we do not want to believe what we are seeing – because it upends our idea of what we think reality ought to be.
We see this in the evolution even of “the science” in the COVID-19 drama. At first, the thought that a virus spreading in China would even become a problem for Americans at home was ridiculed, even by some public authorities. Prominent civil officials actually encouraged more socializing. Barely a month later the tables turned completely. First masks were said to be useless, even harmful for curtailing the spread of disease. Now we cannot enter a building without them. From the earliest cases, as the pandemic was taking hold, we were seeing its disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable – the aging, the ailing, the poor – while younger populations were not nearly so susceptible, or even symptomatic. Yet as we closed schools and offices, in some states like New York, nursing homes were forced to accept the infected. Again, missing the obvious, slow to act on what was in plain sight.
This has done little to sustain confidence in those we expect to protect us. Thank God stories have not been lacking about extraordinary acts of generosity and heroism from first responders, health care providers and ordinary people. Many police and public officials have maintained outstanding professionalism. Though we have seen some of the worst, we have also seen some of the best of humanity. The skepticism or distrust of some “officials,” however, may have stoked a certain sense of independence, an essential component of the American spirit, and a drive to step boldly forward.
No doubt this impulse to take to the streets and to stand up with a righteous indignation for justice is sparking so many to become vocal for George Floyd. But now we are left wondering, in the face of the civil discord that has exploded around us, how this cause could so quickly have led to social upheaval, which does no honor to the decedent or to our best selves.
Scratch the surface and we see that racism and its vestiges persist. America’s “original sin,” as it has been called, must be not only acknowledged but vigorously resisted and corrected. Yes, the use of excessive force by some police is intolerable and must be addressed, especially as, racially and ethnically, it is systemically applied differently. Overcoming this continues to challenge us all, as the American bishops exhorted us 18 months ago in their pastoral letter, “Open Wide Our Hearts.”
In a recent statement, USCCB committee heads reiterated, “for people of color some interactions with police can be fraught with fear and even danger. People of good conscience must never turn a blind eye when citizens are being deprived of their human dignity and even their lives. Indifference is not an option. As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue.”
In the current crisis, however, the manner of response of public officials cannot be dismissed as an insignificant factor. Was there ever any doubt about what we all saw in that viral video? Then why did it take so long to remove the offending officers and finally place one of them under arrest?
Recall that, before the violence escalated, protesters were simply demanding justice, for the most part, peacefully. Why did it take five days to respond? Why this and similar delays in other cases with apprehension of law officials acting violently against someone offering no resistance?
Meanwhile as protests became more chaotic, why did so many local officials delay in sending in police to protect against criminal activity? Delaying has only made their job more difficult and opened the door for opportunists with other goals in mind than seeking justice for the slain man or ordered due process. Why did it take so long to figure out the difference between law-abiding citizens protesting and criminal behavior?
Seeing is believing, it is often said. But it seems at times we get the order reversed – that we are seeing more of what we want to believe, or maybe believing what we are afraid to see. Time to start trusting our eyes – and consciences – more.
This may be extremely difficult when captions, headlines and chyrons themselves pretend to summarize what a particular devised graphic appears to be messaging. A gas station or even a precinct on fire is interposed with scenes of store looters, masked teenagers on a curbside with signs reading “no justice, no peace,” and men throwing rocks at police in riot gear. It may not always be clear how near or far from each other these incidents may be happening – on the same block, within the same ward, or even in the same city. Often everything is lumped together as if all neighborhoods and cities are being destroyed and burned to the ground by a single, seething kettle of anger and frustration that is now boiling over.
The temptation is to conflate everyone on the street or within the focus of the camera into one. Implying that protesters, looters, rioters, incendiaries and law enforcement confronters are the same does an injustice to citizens who need to express their legitimate frustration and outrage not only at the most recent incident of police violence, but also the demonstrable racial and class-based inequities in our law enforcement.
The media, too, plays a big part, tending to flock to the most dramatic images, which then become Instagram memes characterizing an entire uprising from
people with very legitimate concerns as violent or chaotic. We cannot lose, in the heat of passion and in frustration over the incompetence of some public officials, our focus on the injustices in our law enforcement systems. Nor can we turn a blind eye to those who exploit a human tragedy such as this for personal, political or ideological motives.
It is not enough just to decry injustice, or even to pray and sympathize with those who suffer from an everyday experience of being treated as inferior or unworthy because of their racial or ethnic identities. As people of faith we believe that God wants everyone to be saved, and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.
We count on our public officials to create and maintain conditions where people can express their views publicly and peacefully. We expect our media to report and not just to dramatize. And we urge swift response to the injustices and unlawful actions, especially those we clearly see.
Justice delayed is justice denied. In this, everyone must play a part. If history teaches us anything, it is that the man with his head held to the ground could have been you or your brother. Where the police power of the State is not subject to restraint and the rule of equal treatment under the law, that man, black or white, could be you or me, Christian, Muslim or Jew. In pursuit of justice, all must ante up.