Thistlethwaite: It’s not enough just to feel sorry about the death of George Floyd
Good to know, but it is not enough, especially for white people such as myself or Justin Bieber or others, just to feel sorry.
These horrific incidents of killing unarmed African American men must be stopped. And yes, it is true, Bieber did call for that, as have many others.
The crucial, thing, however, is not only to be sorry, or call for such violence to stop, but take the steps necessary to actually stop it.
After years of resisting racism as a white pastor and seminary teacher, I have learned (at least) four things:
- Don’t turn away. Feel empathy, and especially see the horror and recognize it for the lethal racism it is. Name it.
- See how differently people of color and white people are treated and recognize the difference race makes in police violence or nonviolence. Name that.
- Take action through systemic policy and legal change.
Don’t turn away. Feel empathy, and especially see the horror and recognize it for the lethal racism it is. Name it.
“Please, please, please, I can’t breathe,” George Floyd is repeatedly heard rasping as a Minneapolis police officer used a knee on his neck to hold him down. George Floyd was handcuffed at the time. He later died.
“I can’t breathe,” Eric Gardner rasped as a New York City police officer pulled him by the neck with his forearm to the sidewalk. He later died.
These events, and the many that we don’t see, are the horrors of lethal racism today.
See how differently people of color and white people are treated and recognize the difference race makes in police violence or nonviolence. Name that.
Minneapolis protestors of George Floyd’s death chanted “I can’t breathe!” as police fired tear gas canisters at them.
Pay attention. Notice how differently these protestors of George Floyd’s death were treated than the armed white men who recently marched into Michigan’s capital, carrying guns. The worst those armed demonstrators apparently faced was having their temperature taken.
Walter Shaub, former Director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, was outraged by this contrast. “So a bunch of white guys with guns storm Michigan’s capital and the authorities stand around doing nothing. Then, people protest the murder of a helpless black man by the police, and the authorities unleash rubber bullets and tear gas on them. This is despicable. This is America.”
It is frankly ludicrous to argue that the multi-racial protestors in Minneapolis, who were chanting, raising their hands and some kneeling at a makeshift altar, posed a threat and white men carrying huge guns did not.
The real difference is the color of the skin of the demonstrators.
Take action through systemic policy and legal change.
We must not just feel empathy and observe the differences in how different races are treated, we must make systemic change to stop the killings.
Stopping police violence is not easy, but it is also true that the paths to get there are many. They exist, and progress, while small, is being made.
Instead of wringing our hands about another, truly horrific, attack played out on video for all to see, and just feeling sorry about that, it is possible to take concrete steps to stop it.
“Campaign Zero” is an effort to lay out these paths through policy proposals and legislation.
- At least 107 laws have been enacted from 2014-2019 to address police violence.
- New legislation has been enacted in 41 states from 2014-2019.
- Ten states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, Utah, Texas, Washington) have enacted legislation addressing three or more Campaign Zero policy categories.
- Executive action has been taken at the federal level as well as legislation.
- Local ordinances have been passed in many of America’s largest cities.
If you want to take one step toward actually stopping this violence, visit the website of Campaign Zero, read their proposals and their successes. Donate to them.
Our own state of Colorado has made progress on reducing racial profiling, for example. That is why my fourth point, vote, is so crucial. We cannot get the legislation passed to actually change what is broken in policing in our communities without voting people into office who are committed to making those changes.
The kind of “sorry” that comes from genuine empathy is necessary but not sufficient to make the kinds of changes necessary to stop this carnage. It is also crucial to be aware of how different communities are treated and cultivate that awareness.
But what will stop the killings is a complex strategy of policy and legal changes brought into being by local, state and national officials dedicated to making those changes, and making them stick.
Sorry alone just doesn’t get it done.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.