Black lives matter. The mere utterance of those three words should not at all be considered controversial. Yet here we are.
The horrific murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed African American man, by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a week-and-a-half ago, has propelled racism to the forefront of American social and political discussion. At 8 p.m. on May 25, 2020, a grocery store clerk called the police after alleging that the twenty-dollar bill Floyd had used to purchase cigarettes was counterfeit. Less than twenty minutes later, Chauvin, and two other officers, attacked Floyd, who was already handcuffed, after he refused to get into their squad car. At that moment, Chauvin forced his knee onto Floyd’s neck for a period of eight minutes and forty-six seconds. “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe,” Floyd begged him during the fatal assault. “My stomach hurts. My neck hurts.” He even called for his mother. Tragically, Chauvin refused to listen to any of his victim’s pleas and kept kneeling on his neck, including for nearly three minutes after Floyd fell unresponsive. Floyd, who was a “happy guy” who “loved to be around people,” left behind a six-year-old daughter.
This reprehensible event has sent shockwaves throughout the nation. Protests against racism, specifically police brutality toward African Americans, have erupted in Minneapolis before spreading to nearly every corner of America, including my native Long Island. Although the vast majority of these demonstrations have been peaceful, some have resulted in violence, theft and the destruction of hundreds of businesses and millions of dollars in property damage. President Donald Trump has taken an adamant “law and order” stance by promoting the “need” of law enforcement to quell these protests at all costs. “We cannot allow the righteous cries of peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob,” Trump stated. “Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters.”
These statements appear to suggest that Trump’s problem is with the violence that has resulted from the protests, not the protests in general. After all, the president has called himself “an ally of all peaceful protestors.” However, his actions a few days ago illustrate that this is not at all true. Last Monday, Trump deployed the military in Washington D.C. Then, the police and National Guard used flash grenades and tear gas a to disperse peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park. These actions were taken to clear Trump’s path to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he posed alongside an all-white contingent of his administration with a Bible in hand.
A day later, even after the St. John’s photo op was widely criticized, Trump posed for another picture, this time in front of Saint John Paul II National Shrine, a place of prayer for Roman Catholics. Wilton D. Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington D.C., who is African American, condemned the stunt. “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree,” the bishop said.
As a practicing Roman Catholic, I completely agree with the sentiments echoed by Bishop Gregory. Trump and his supporters’ reactions to George Floyd’s murder have alarmed me to say the least. Instead of focusing on racism and the systematic prejudice African Americans face in the American criminal justice system, they are focusing almost exclusively on the violent protests, using words like “riots,” “looting” and “thugs” to energize their base and re-enforce the “law and order” message Trump successfully campaigned on four years ago.
Like his response to the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (which I detailed in my earlier post, “The Conservative Case Against Re-Opening”) this is yet another recent example of how Trump’s leadership has failed the United States. An ABC News poll from this morning shows that 74%, three quarters, of Americans – including 55% of Republicans (Trump’s own party) and 71% of independents such as myself – “view the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer as a sign of an underlying racial injustice problem.” This should be an obvious signal to the president, especially in year where voters will decide whether or not to elect him to another four-year term. The poll clearly illustrates that racial inequality should not be a partisan or ideological issue, but just like combating the threat of COVID-19, our great “divider in chief” is making it out to be one. Instead of uniting the nation’s liberals, moderates and conservatives against the evil that is racism, Trump, by his course of action, is enabling the giant chasm which already divides us to grow even larger in scope. It was the great Abraham Lincoln, the hero who occupied the same office Trump now holds, who said that “a house divided against itself does not stand.”
I absolutely do not condone any of the violence that is stemming from the otherwise peaceful protests. The obliteration of businesses, many owned by African Americans, has been devastating, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic had already inflicted severe economic damage. As a borderline pacifist, I will always firmly believe that violence is never the answer to anything. What America needs is a dialogue – on its vast racial inequality, police brutality and unjust criminal sentencing practices. However, this has not happened even after the lives lost to racial discrimination, at the hands of both police officers and civilians, in the past ten years. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and now George Floyd are just a few of the names who will live on in the years to come. The country appears to have learned nothing after all of these atrocious murders.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while renowned for his dedication to non-violence and civil disobedience once said that, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” These violent protests, we are currently witnessing are a symptom of this terrible enduring injustice which permeates America. Unless the cries of the peaceful protestors calling for tolerance and racial equality are heard by those who are in power, the “riots” will continue without end. Therefore, if politicians and communities do not take significant action against discrimination, the violence and devastation of our cities will continue. By focusing solely on the “riots” and “looting,” and failing to address the reason why they are happening, Trump and his confidants are pouring gasoline on the fire of racism which ravages America.
I find it exceedingly ironic and hypocritical that the same exact people who are singling out the “riots,” while claiming to “support peaceful protests,” have previously criticized earlier peaceful protests against racism and police brutality in our country. I am of course referring to the national anthem protests during the 2016 and 2017 NFL seasons, when hundreds of NFL players, led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, knelt during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Kaepernick, an African American and devout Christian, who started the protests, was advised to kneel by his friend Nate Boyer, a former U.S. Army Green Beret who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The quarterback, after consulting with Boyer, chose his method of protest as a way to bring attention to racial injustice in the country in the most respectful way possible. Boyer, who is white, himself noted that these protests were a “mechanism to raise that attention and to get those voices heard,” and were absolutely “not about disrespecting the flag or disrespecting the military.” However, this fact, and the fact that the protests were entirely peaceful, did not stop Trump and many of his supporters from slamming Kaepernick and the other NFL players as “unpatriotic,” dismissing them, and completely refusing to listen to the actual message of the demonstrations. Trump himself said that owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field,” in reference to Kaepernick – because he “[disrespected] the flag.” Trump made no mention whatsoever of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedoms of speech and assembly, as well as the 1989 Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson, which held that flag burning (yes burning, not respectfully kneeling in front of the flag) was protected under the same First Amendment.
In the last dozen days, millions of people, including myself, have taken to social media with the phrase “Black lives matter.” Many other people have countered by saying “all lives matter” – almost as pointing out that Black lives matter, takes away from the fact that every human being has the right to life. What the “all lives matter” crowd fails to realize is that by saying “Black lives matter” we are essentially saying that Black lives matter too. Robert Griffin III, who like Kaepernick is also African American, NFL quarterback and a faithful Christian, hit the nail right on the head with his tweet on Wednesday afternoon. Griffin wrote that, “saying all lives matter in response to Black Lives Matter is like saying you expect firefighters to spray every house they see on their way to the one that’s burning. All Houses matter but in this moment you focus on the one that’s burning. It’s been burning for hundreds of years.” Americans, left, right and center, must heed Griffin’s valuable words.
The same day, retired four-star U.S. Marine Corps General James N. Mattis, who served as Trump’s Secretary of Defense for two years, issued a statement saying “‘Equal Justice Under Law’…is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind.” I am in full agreement with Mattis. The Declaration of Independence itself states that all people “are created equal…endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I don’t want to see our country burn anymore. All I want is for us to finally live the words of the very document which marked the formation of our nation – equal rights for all Americans, and to stamp out animosity and hate and replace it with peace and love.