I was asked if I could write something about the death of George Floyd while being held by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25. If you want to know what happened, there’s plenty of news coverage, plenty of opinion, and plenty of video. There are politicians and police departments condemning the actions of police officers, and there are crowds in many cities doing the same through protest and occasional violence. From this far away, the simplest and first thing we can offer is prayer. I recommend you engage in prayer over all the hurt surrounding this, right now, before going any further.
The next best I can offer is thoughts about how we can best respond to the event and its aftermath. I believe that the best way to enter any time of conflict is to listen well, and to work at understanding the stories that brought the characters to where they were, and where they are now. For me, that means going beyond the disciplinary record of the officers involved, or the criminal record of George Floyd. We can take that information and use it to reinforce whatever biases we already hold, whether we take sides against one police officer or against all; whether we take sides against one convict or against all. What happens in one encounter between these men is only the tip of the iceberg, the moment that makes the news. It is the long coming together of different worlds with totally different experiences. There is a harder story to absorb, because we all have a part in it. A violent and angry man who becomes a police officer represents our culture that continues to glorify violence, that isn’t good enough at identifying unhealthy behavior and addressing it. A man who out of foolishness and desperation tries to use counterfeit money at a grocery store represents a culture that is daily crushed underfoot by racism and scorn, and by an economy that makes substance abuse cheaper and more accessible than medical care. Like the Molotov cocktails thrown in New York last night, this cultural collision is always a fire waiting to explode.
I need to insert that even now, there is not clear evidence that white officers disproportionately kill black people or vice versa. We only know that black people are killed by police far out of proportion to their population. (https://www.citylab.com/equity/2020/02/police-violence-racial-bias-shootings-by-race-research-data/605866/; https://www.statista.com/statistics/585152/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-race/).
Whether this moment was fueled by racism or not, the police officers involved in Floyd’s death do not represent the ideals or culture of their departments, but they do represent a strong strand of hatred, fear, violence and anger that refuses to go away. The explosive anger of some of the protesters against that strand of America will also refuse to go away, because racism, fear, violence, and anger continue to call it into existence. We all know better, and every day most of us manage to keep the violence at bay. I know that police departments from Muskegon to Minneapolis to Mississippi would love to be able to filter out the officers who are likely to use unnecessary lethal violence, but they don’t succeed. People who are trained to use violence will ultimately use it for wrong as well as right. Police officers, like everyone else, resort to violence when they are afraid, they feel endangered, and they don’t know another way to defuse the situation.
We are also not going to get away from the fact that protesters are themselves using violence as they protest across America. I hope it’s fair to say that they are protesting no longer about a particular killing, but against a lifetime of perceived and real oppression. They are afraid, they feel endangered, and don’t know another way to defuse the situation. The situation now includes a pandemic, which has only served to highlight that the poorest and most urban among us are the most in danger of contracting and dying from Covid-19. Lack of access to medical care, the highest burden of job losses, and the least financial resources to get through a hard time, all fall disproportionately on black people in America. There’s plenty to be angry about. The good news is that the vast majority of people don’t respond with violence. The bad news is that we are all responsible for perpetuating the world of profound inequality in America. America’s income disparity in 2017 was 5th or 7th worst in the world (depending how you measure), and that was long before the coronavirus made it worse (https://data.oecd.org/inequality/income-inequality.htm). Inevitably, people get sick of being at the bottom of such a big heap.
I started with wondering how we can best respond to this situation. The situation is much bigger than the death of a man in Minnesota. It is as big as a deep strand of violence in America, continuing racism and oppression, and the startling inequality of income within our country. What can we do? We are definitely going back to prayer. And we need to find every local way we can to build up trust between the richest and the poorest, between people of different colors and backgrounds. We need to treasure and look after the poor until there are no poor any more.
I was reminded of this by a friend on Facebook: the United Methodist vows that we take at baptism include these words: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? I do.”