Last week, the tally of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. reached 100,000. It is almost impossible to grasp the number of personal losses and the sum of the suffering of the victims, their families, and friends.
Two days before we arrived at that horrendous number, George Floyd, an African American man, was killed while being arrested by Minneapolis police. According to the criminal complaint filed later, officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on the road. In a harrowing video taken by a bystander, Floyd can be heard calling for his “Mama,” sobbing, and saying, “Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe.”
Chauvin did not remove his knee from Floyd’s neck until emergency medical personnel arrived and put Floyd on a stretcher. At that point, he had been unresponsive for almost three minutes. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, protests have spread in many cities and communities across the country. In the beginning, the protests were peaceful but they later turned into violent events in many cities. Buildings and police stations have been burned down and stores have been looted. The National Guard was deployed in 12 states to help keep the peace.
The violence and destruction that have accompanied so many protests will undermine their original goal. People usually are receptive to the message of pacific protests, but they side with the guarantors of law and order when they see mindless looting and destruction. A vast majority of the protesters are not the looters or arsonists, and it is unfair to dismiss the rightful outrage of so many because of the unlawful actions of a few.
The characterization of police officers as racist, by default, is also unfair and untrue. The 800,000 officers that protect our cities and towns can’t be collectively blamed for the actions of bad cops. At the same time, our police departments have to get to the root of these repeated crimes and establish recruiting, training, and supervising protocols to eradicate these monstrous acts committed by members of the police force.
The slow-motion killing of George Floyd, captured in the video, was the spark of the protests and unrest that have engulfed the whole country. But — as horrendous as it is — Floyd’s killing didn’t provoke these protests on its own. The centuries-long accumulation of injustices toward African Americans is behind the reaction to this latest, heinous crime. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement, “We should all understand that the protests we are seeing in our cities reflect the justified frustration and anger of millions of our brothers and sisters who even today experience humiliation, indignity, and unequal opportunity only because of their race or the color of their skin. It should not be this way in America. Racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life.”
At the point when we have reached 100,000 deaths due to the pandemic, we should be united by the tragedy that has hit so many families and communities across the country and the world. But America’s original sin is again the source of conflict and unrest. “There is no peace without justice,” it has been said. The killing of George Floyd — like the killing of Ahmaud Arbery before him — are extreme examples of a systemic injustice that our African American brothers and sisters experience in their everyday lives. For many communities across the country, this was not an isolated example of police brutality, but a telling, horrifying reminder of the discrimination they feel every day. Until the demons of racism are exorcised from America’s soul, we are not going to live in peace.