White protestors in Lansing, Michigan brought weapons to a meeting of the Michigan legislature in mid-May. They entered the capitol building with their weapons and issued death threats against Governor Whitmer. The legislature ended its session rather than meet under threat of violence. State police, under orders from the governor, limited where the protestors could go but did not respond with any kind of escalation or violence. The protestors wanted Michigan’s businesses to reopen in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Two weeks later, a camera caught a Minneapolis, Minnesota police offer, a white man, kneeling on the neck of a black man he was arresting. The black man, George Floyd, cried out to his assailant and to bystanders that he couldn’t breathe. The bystanders pleaded with the police officer to change his position, to relieve the man’s suffering, to let him live. The officer kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes. He kept his knee on his neck until he was dead.
Mr. Floyd’s death led to protests in Minneapolis, which began peacefully. But they have not remained peaceful. The protestors began to damage property in Minneapolis. Unlike the response from law enforcement in Michigan when faced with white protestors threatening violence, law enforcement in Minnesota responded to protestors with rubber bullets, tear gas and arrests. Minnesota state police arrested a journalist for CNN, himself a black man, on live television last night. The journalist, who was polite and who offered to move wherever the police needed him, seemed to be arrested for covering the story in the first place.
Violent protests might shock you. You might be fearful at the sight of property damage. I know people in Minneapolis who are not sure if it’s safe to go outside, even during the day. But before we condemn the destruction of property, we must condemn the system of racism and injustice which prompted the protests in the first place. We must condemn the white officer who knelt on a black man’s neck until he was dead. We must condemn the legacy of hatred and inequality in America.
This has been a long struggle. Our nation struggled in war to overcome slavery. We struggled to make reparations to enslaved African Americans in Reconstruction. We struggled for formal equality during the civil rights movement. We are still struggling for equality for people of color in America today.
In 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Stanford University. He spoke against poverty and against the Vietnam War. He spoke in the wake of racial violence in Detroit, Los Angeles and elsewhere. He said,
“And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
“Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” We need policing that values de-escalation and is responsive to community oversight. We need an end to poverty and health disparities that have made COVID so much more deadly among communities of color. We need to depopulate our prisons and decriminalize peaceful behavior. We need national leadership that believes that Black Lives Matter.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith proclaims that people can always change for the better. We are always open to the guidance of conscience, which points us toward our best selves. I pray that America may yet undertake the social justice, antiracism and progress that will lead us to the nation we could be, with liberty and justice for all. I pray for George Floyd’s family and friends, that they may find comfort in the days to come. I pray for the police officer who killed him, as he faces the consequences of his actions, that his heart may be opened and that his police force may be reformed for the better. I pray for all of us, longing for the day of peace, to recognize and cut out the root causes of violence.
Rev. Sarah Stewart