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Racism is the cause, violence should not be the solution

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Race riots and civil unrest date back to Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion in 1931. Buffalo was the spot of one of 159 riots that swept cities during the “Long Hot Summer of 1967,” when a group of African-American teens, frustrated by mistreatment by white government and police forces, broke car and store windows through William Street and Jefferson Avenue on the afternoon of July 27. The next day they returned setting fires and over-turning cars and looting stores. The riots nearly shut down the city.

The next year, riots broke out in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other major cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The most famous incident of racial unrest in recent years involved the L.A. riots that erupted after the beating of Rodney King in 1992.

Recently, protests took place in Minneapolis, Washington and Buffalo after African-American George Floyd died during an altercation with a white Minneapolis police officer who pinned him down and placed a knee on Floyds neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest. Floyd died on the spot.

On June 12, one Buffalo police officer and one New York state trooper were injured, when an SUV drove through a crowd of protesters on Buffalo’s East Side. One protestor, Martin Gugino, was injured during a fall after police pushed him away. The demonstrations caused curfews to be put in place. 

Following the protests, Pope Francis spoke at the general audience, saying we cannot claim to defend the sacredness of every human life while turning a blind eye to racism and exclusion.

“I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd,” he said. “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

The pope then cited a recent statement from Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, to denounce outcroppings of violence at some protests: “At the same time, we have to recognize that ‘the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost.’”

The pope concluded his remarks with an invitation to prayer.

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger released a statement asking for the Catholic community to “advocate for justice in this case and to be a voice of calm and reason in the ongoing conversion” to 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,” the bishop wrote. “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.”

The bishop said that in a society already anxious and tense due to COVID-19 coupled with everyday racism, the death of Floyd “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.”

He went on to write that civil discord does no honor to our best selves.

“Scratch the surface and we see that racism and its vestiges persist,” he wrote. “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.’”

The SSJ Sister Karen Klimczak Center for Nonviolence opened in Buffalo in 2007 to carry on the legacy of Sister Karen Klimczak, SSJ, who preached nonviolence. The center offers an Alternatives to Violence Project workshop, which trains people to find peaceful conflict resolutions. Currently that program is on hold, due to the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“The message that I give is that we need to hear the anger,” said Vivian Waltz, director of the center. “We need to listen. We need to try to understand the effect of racism on our country, we need to listen with humility to the black community. I’m white. In terms of what I would say to white people would be something different.”

Waltz said the central issue is racism. “What happened George Floyd was not a surprise to black people,” she said. “I don’t want to speak for them. I am very committed to listening. But, I know what I have heard is that this is a reality that black people deal with every day. So, I’m sorry about shop owners in Buffalo who had their shops looted in response to something that happened in Minneapolis, but the issue is the systemic racism that is the core issue of all of it. Until that changes, riots, looting, protests are likely to continue.”

Any interested in learning more about peaceful solutions may call the center at 716-362-9688.

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