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George Floyd and Racism in America -- June 2020

This has been a bad week in America. We in St Louis were witnesses to it six years ago, in Ferguson, in the shooting of Michael Brown. And the violence struck people here this week as well. Without minimizing the harm, this week's events can be an inspiration for progress, and there are signs of that as well. I begin by setting forth five truths that relate to the killing of George Floyd and Black life in America:

1. What the Minneapolis police officers did to George Floyd was obviously criminal -- they must be fully prosecuted.

2. Violent protests that kill, threaten to harm, destroy property, and loot are criminal -- they must be fully prosecuted.

3. Most protesters are not violent, their protests should be welcome; they promote justice.

4. There has been considerable progress in civil rights for Blacks (and others) over the past generations.

5. Blacks are nevertheless still more likely to suffer than other groups in 2020 America.

Why they are true, and how they can all be true simultaneously requires a deeper analysis, and not everyone will agree. Different people will emphasize different truths, meaning that our conversations will often be skewed. I will provide commentary to each of these five truths.

1. What the Minneapolis police officers did to George Floyd was obviously criminal -- they must be fully prosecuted.

a. Criminal action against Blacks in America happens, and it happens much too often. Floyd's death was caught on camera; the officers falsely filed their report putting the onus on Floyd. We don't always have video evidence, so it is likely that many official police reports are also biased.

b. There are, in every profession, bad apples -- physicians, lawyers, professors, teachers, businessmen/women, athletes, entertainers, politicians, and the clergy. We could cite numerous examples. But when an institution acts with willful disregard to human life and dignity, when it protects its own institutional interests and people over the human beings it is supposed to serve, we have a major problem. Unfortunately, I can understand a cruel act by an officer. Whether his cruel action is because he/she is cold and heartless, or whether because he/she is mentally unbalanced, or whether stress and cumulative experiences jade him/her toward increasing indifference, cruel actions follow. That officer, though even he deserves a fair trial, appears clearly to have committed homicide. To what degree? That depends on all of the evidence and the laws, and the human beings who are involved in the case. As for the other officers, we will also need to hear more.

What is harder to accept is the indifference of not one, not two, but three of his fellow police officers, people trained to protect life, to aid members of the society, who wear the badge that represents the high honor and great responsibility of an officer of law. What is going on? Why should it ever be this way? Why more than 50 years after the civil rights movement, more than 150 years since the American Civil War, and racist acts before, between, and after, do we still have this problem?

From where I stand it is not hard; it is simple; it is basic. It is as simple as "God created every human being in His image" (Genesis 1:27), "Love your fellow as yourself," (Leviticus 19:18), "Do not murder" (Exodus 20:13), and dozens upon dozens of basic rules of life found in Torah, in the wisdoms and basic insights of other sources. And admonitions against indifference is found in many places, but specifically, "Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow."(Leviticus 19:16) When a single individual acts cruelly, especially with three others nearby indifferently watching, how could none even attempt to intervene? We have yet to learn whether the police officers had their audio-visual technology activated, and if so, what was said, or whether it was not activated and why. There is still much to learn.

c. I am also moved by revealing personal comments of the conversations that Black parents have to have with their children, namely, that even the police whose primary job is to protect them can be a source of harassment and threat, simply because they are Black. For their sakes and for ours, this must be rooted out. All must be called to account: police officers who look on, those who harbor prejudice and allow that dehumanization to fester, and the establishment that looked the other way, in Minneapolis and in every precinct. They are partially responsible for the harm caused by the violent protesters to innocent people, including their own officers. If they want and expect the public to honor them for their service, they must operate at the highest standards. These officers have done great harm.

2. Violent protesters that kill, threaten to harm, destroy property, and loot are no less criminal -- they must be fully prosecuted.

a. The killing, threatening harm, destruction of property, and looting cannot be excused or justified. Justifying bad behavior will lead to more. The linkage on a moral level, no matter how true on some levels, is misplaced sympathy and will only cause more innocent suffering.

b. Various reports indicate that the leaders, at least within the local areas, as well as some who have travelled from the outside, coordinated their assaults. They acted criminally and conspired to do so and incited others to do so. There are several organized groups which preach violent overthrow; their names are starting to be publicized in news reports. Some people carry threatening placards. One I saw said, "By any means."

c. Some violent protests have led to cars running over people, shooting and killing people, including wounding four St Louis police offers and shooting in the head and killing a 72-year-old retired Black captain who was trying to prevent looting. Armed civilians are ready to protect their lives and their property when they feel that law enforcement cannot.

d. Others have advocated defunding or significantly reducing funds for police departments. One has to wonder what the consequences would be.

e. And this report: A BDS petition to the U of California links Israel with police brutality against Blacks.

Anti-Israel protesters disrupt an event at the University of California, Los Angeles, May 17, 2018. Photo: Scree...

3. Most protesters are not violent, their protests should be welcome. They are part of the solution; they are not remaining passive, but seeking justice and basic human dignity. "Justice, justice, shall you pursue," (Deuteronomy 16:20), or Amos' teaching in 5:24: "Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream." And Micah's words (6:8), "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: To do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God." They are in the active spirit of these glorious teachings.

Lumping most protestors together with the criminals is also harmful. Theirs is a just cause, and their voices are needed. The length and breadth of racism, especially by the police, will not be rooted out unless the public demands it.

4. There has been great progress in civil rights for Blacks (and others).

Those who ignore the great progress made in civil rights also cause harm. By ignoring or minimizing the progress they make those who have worked for that progress feel as if their work was in vain. They fuel those who do not care about civil rights to think that no matter what happens, progress will not be recognized or appreciated. The distortion will call into question the truth of the cries of pain.

Americans were broadly ashamed of the officers' actions against George Floyd. To be sure there are some racists, Whites and Blacks, but they do not represent most Americans. In all professions, in housing, in popular culture, in socio-economic achievement, in the general social and business interactions between Blacks and Whites, and in electing and re-electing a Black President of the US, whose family was a great model, American society has measurably progressed. It does not invalidate the other points, but neither should it be under-appreciated.

Furthermore, a Washington Post story published the following national statistics of 2019:

Police were involved in 1,004 fatal shootings.

Of those: 41 Victims were unarmed.

20 of those were White; 10 were Black.

Blacks are 13% of the population.

How shall we read and understand these facts?

5. Blacks are still more likely to disproportionately suffer from diseases, to be incarcerated, and to be on the lowest levels of our society economically. Some contend that it is primarily a money issue, others a cultural mindset, others the general decline of the Black family where fathers are too often absent. Some point to higher levels of substance abuse. Some point to the history of slavery and the continuation of racism. The topics are also so sensitive that the conversation that people call for erupts in emotions. If we can't talk about it, it indicates that we are further away from solutions than we would like to be.

However much progress we have made as a society, there is more to do. For some, it has not been fast enough. Patience has taken a toll. But it is also true that the pace of progress is never as fast as we would like, and forcing it often leads to regression.

I close by returning to some thoughts about the police, and adding something new.

I generally respect the police. There is much that they and do, risk, sacrifice, protect and make our society better. They do not do it for the money; it is not a lucrative job. They often are placed in difficult situations. Even a routine traffic stop is not routine, for someone may seek to kill them. And given the life-and-death challenges that they face, some may read the Washington Post statistics as better than what they might have expected. But for officers to violate that trust, they who represent us, they who are that thin line between order and anarchy, no officer, no matter the vital bond they share with each other, can ever place that above basic decency.

And it is not as if they aren't trained. They know what they may do and what they may not do. Sure, some situations are tough, and the wrong instant decision can cost an innocent life -- theirs or those who they encounter, or innocent bystanders. But this was not a complex and instantaneous decision It was cruel indifference, depravity. And it means that in too many police departments, in too many institutions of justice, there is something terribly wrong.

We learned a great deal about that from what happened in Ferguson. Although numerous investigations with forensic evidence found that the "Hands Up" narrative was not true, the investigations also found systemic harassment and abuses by the police, judges, and other officials.

Finally, the virtual unity -- the killing of George Floyd, universally seen as criminal and racial homicide, unifying us against racism and police racism -- is threatened by the violence amidst the caring protestors. That divide will complicate the issues for some. It would be a mistake to make this about Black and White. However true that is in part, it will divide us. The nature of modern media is to exacerbate conflict. It sells. But it harms as well.

As a Jew, as a Jew who studies Jewish history, I can relate to most of these points. We have in many generations and in many places, including in America, often faced institutional bigotry. Parents and children had disturbing conversations; however, it was rare for us to erupt in violent protests for reasons due to our Torah, our conditioning, and the cold and cruel response of our oppressors. At times we did find support from non-Jews, and progress was made, regressed, and progressed again.

We can do better. We have to do better.

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