The lump in my throat won’t go away. It’s not the onset of the coronavirus. It is the result of another terrible disease afflicting this nation, the lethal virus of racism and racial injustice. I close my eyes and see the video that grips the country, African-American George Floyd pinned on the street, the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes 46 seconds, depriving him of oxygen while three fellow police officers -Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao -stand by and do nothing. We hear Floyd gasping, “I can’t breathe.”
Nearly six years ago, in Staten Island, the words were those of Eric Garner, killed in a choke hold by police concerned he was selling cigarettes without tax stamps. In that homicide, Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times. He died in hospital an hour later. This May, it was Breonna Taylor, a young emergency medical technician killed by Louisville police entering the apartment where she was asleep with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend, who had a licensed gun, feeling endangered, fired, hitting one of the police who had forced their way in in a no-knock entry. Officers shot Breonna eight times. In 2014, Tamir Rice was just 12 years old, playing with a replica toy gun, when Cleveland police officers arriving on the scene, shot and killed him. The same year, in Ferguson, Missouri, it was Michael Brown. It was Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015. The list goes on and on. These are just among the better known tragedies, but they all reflect the sad truth that African-Americans are treated differently from whites in confrontations with police.
The store owner where Floyd was stopped explained that often those passing counterfeit bills do so unintentionally. An SMU professor chillingly remembered his experience buying a pizza with a phony $20 bill from an ATM machine. He was white; the outcome was very different. Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, whose incumbency is seriously challenged by Democrat John Hickenlooper, echoed: “If I had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, I might have been arrested, but I’d be alive today.” That truth needs wider understanding. Black men and boys are at higher risk of being killed by police than whites, 96 per 100,000 compared to 39 per 100,000 for whites.
And that’s not the whole story. African-Americans are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus as whites. And it’s not just because they suffer a higher rate of obesity, diabetes and hypertension. In New York, for example, they are 75 percent of front line workers, those people who have kept our communities running while we white collar folks work comfortably from the safety of our homes.
The racism and discrimination have gone on for years, decades and centuries. From time to time, well-meaning politicians of both parties have spoken pretty words and pledged their help, but the ugliness and inequities continue. So whites, blacks and others of color have turned out for the past week to protest. And, while you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the news media, most of those protests have been peaceful. In some cities, good cops dealt respectfully with the protesters, marched with them, knelt with them and joined them in prayer. Sadly, in too many cities, at some point, peaceful protests have been hijacked by extremists on the right and on the left, using protestors as human shields, injuring the police, wantonly looting and damaging property, including destroying the livelihoods of small merchants already crushed by the economic impact of Covid-19. And there are scattered stories of police abusing their power, notably toward journalists.
Meanwhile, the man who occupies the White House, while claiming he is “an ally of all peaceful protesters,” [remember Colin Kaepernick?] directed his lapdog Attorney General, William Barr, to let loose on those law-abiding protesters the force of pepper ball tear gas and rubber bullets, to clear them out so that same despicable Chief Executive could stroll over for a photo op in front of St. John’s Church, the so-called Church of the Presidents. The Church was boarded up due to damage done by extremists the previous night. Daughter Ivanka pulled the prop de jour out of her $1540 MaxMara designer bag so dad could hold a Bible for the picture. That he held it apparently upside down and backwards would have been funny if it weren’t so offensive and terribly sad. As commentator Tim Morris observed, “Every president does photo ops, but how many physically harm American citizens to do it?”
Not all is so desperately bleak. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop in D.C. responsible for the church, expressed outrage at the President’s clearing the area with tear gas so he could use St. John’s as a photo op, and a Catholic priest lamented the use of the Bible as a prop was “disingenuous and exploitative.” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced today the charges against Derek Chauvin have been upgraded to second degree murder, and the other three officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder. The city of Philadelphia removed a statue of its blatantly racist former police commissioner-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo (1967-1980), and the governor of Virginia is moving the iconic monument of Robert E. Lee from its place of honor. Chief Justice Ralph Gants and other Justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court called on all lawyers and judges to examine systemic racism in the legal community. Former Defense Secretary General James Mattis finally spoke out against the President’s being a threat to the Constitution. And presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden gave a speech demonstrating the tone and values that people across the political spectrum might desire from the leader of the free world.
Words and symbols aside, the needed medicine for this country’s racial illness is more than inspirational rhetoric and grand gestures. Uplifting language doesn’t allay the fears of young African-American males warned by their parents about the perils of driving or jogging while black. Noble thoughts alone won’t correct economic, housing and health disparities, differential treatment in the justice system, or achievement gaps due to inferior schools. Examples abound demonstrating that the road ahead is not smooth and meaningful reform will not be easy. Look only to today’s U.S. Senate’s blocking passage of a bill making lynching a federal hate crime and the videotaped middle school students in Pennsylvania gleefully re-enacting the killing of George Floyd.
We, as a nation, shouldn’t have to be spurred by coast–to-coast and international protests of George Floyd’s murder by official guardians of public safety to correct these wrongs. But that’s where we are. And where we go from here will say a lot about whether we can move closer to fulfilling the ideals of our Constitution or continue giving the lie to the promise that all of us are created equal and deserve the benefits of equal access to the American Dream.