What is there left to say about the events of this week? The vicious death of George Floyd; the ensuing surge of protests across the country in denunciation of his death at the hands of Minneapolis police; the President’s reaction, unleashing the US military and calling on authorities to ‘dominate the streets,’ capped off by the violent scattering of peaceful protesters in order to clear a pathway for his blasphemous photo op using the venerable St. John’s Church as a movie set and the Holy Bible as a prop.
In the ocean of poignant images that flooded our consciousness this week, one small detail remains seared in my mind as symbolic of the state of race relations in our country today. During the nearly nine minutes that MPD officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, he always had his hand in his pocket.
What?! If his hand was in his pocket, how could he be under threat? If his hand was in his pocket, how could he realize the full impact of his actions? If his pocket held his hand, what held his emotions? His empathy? His understanding of the sacred trust implicit in his job? Yes, I was sickened by the knee that Derek Chauvin used to kill George Floyd. But I was also sickened by the casual way that this police officer addressed his situation—with his hand in his pocket—and what this implies for our country.
In an OpEd in the New York Times, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, hit the nail on the head: “All of these are dramatically heartbreaking events, all compounded by the ho-hum racism (italics mine) that is baked into our institutions and into those who hold positions of power and privilege.”
Chauvin’s hand-in-his-pocket posture is reflected in the cavalier attitude so many white people have towards our own privilege and the systemic racism that infects this country. Such ho hum racism leaves many of us blind to its impact on black people and other marginalized groups. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told the Times in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death, “Although as mayor, the chief of police reports to me, in that moment, I knew what every other parent to a black child in America knows: I could not protect my son. To anyone who saw him, he was simply who he is, a black man-child in the promised land that we all know as America.”
So, as allies with people of color, what can we do? In another helpful OpEd in the New York Times, Melody Cooper, the sister of Christian Cooper, the black bird watcher in Central Park who was threatened by the white dog walker, advises: “Stand with us. Bear witness. Continue the discussion and support legal action. Refuse to accept racism in your midst, even in small ways — call out a cruel joke or rude behavior. Be brave and challenge it all. You can transform your own world through how you teach your children, and how you speak to your neighbors and co-workers. It is up to you, not to a leader nor any single protest or petition. Your everyday commitment is what will start to bring the change you want to see. Start small, step forward and let your action join with others to become a rising tide that cannot be stopped.”
Mitch Landieu pointedly admonishes: “here’s the thing, America: We, particularly we white people, have to gain a greater appreciation for the centuries of oppression that have created the unrest we see today.
“And we will continue to see this level of unrest until we confront the roots of our division. We cannot continue to go over, under or around the issue of race. We have to go through it.
“So while we grieve, while we express our anger, while we listen to and honor black people who have told us time and again that the knee of America is pressed so hard against their necks that they cannot breathe, we must find the courage to face our past, commit ourselves to action that will right our wrongs and work together toward reconciliation.
“This requires new will. We must stand arm in arm to change who we are, so that we can become what we have always promised to be: equal, free and one.”
May it be so for each of us and for our whole nation.