Personal Reflections

Grieving and Breathing for George Floyd

floyd memorialNACRJ President Sheryl Wilson shares a personal video message on NACRJ's Facebook page, refecting on the losses and many responses related to the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Wilson invites us to take a moment to become aware of our own breathing as a way to value life, specifically to value the life of Floyd whose breath was taken away.

WilsonWilson's video message also captures the powerful connections made through NACRJ's recent virtual community circle (on Saturday June 6) that held space for people nationwide to process hard emotions and prepare for new ways to re-engage society. Twenty facilitators assisted with breakout groups, allowing for every participant (150) to share and listen from the heart.

NACRJ Executive Director Michael Gilbert also provides a personal statement of response, highlighting how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded our nation decades ago that "a riot is the language of the unheard." Gilbert's piece, "Can You Hear Me Now?" invites everyone to think more deeply about what we are hearing these days. 

“Can You Hear Me Now?” A Statement of Response to the Death of George Floyd by NACRJ

by NACRJ Executive Director, Michael Gilbert

The last week of May 2020 was an incredibly painful week. After learning how COVID-19 claimed more than 100,000 lives in the US, disproportionately impacting impoverished communities of color, we witnessed the brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Understandably, massive demonstrations in cities worldwide declared a strong message against racism and the use of lethal force against people of color. Some of those demonstrations boiled over into destructive riots.

It was a week that generated deep emotions – hopelessness, humiliation, frustration, anger – due to the fact that Mr. Floyd’s repeated pleas (“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”) were ignored by the police. What these officers valued was power, control and police culture. They did not value Mr. Floyd’s life. He was treated as less than human. It was racism in action.

The image of the officer’s knee on George Floyd’s throat is uncomfortably close to a more common symbol of oppression – the boot of totalitarian authority on the neck of oppressed peoples. This connection was not missed by protesters, and in some places their anger and frustration pushed back with destructive force, matching their feelings of being pushed around far too long within an unjust society.
In a speech titled “The Other America” given at Stanford University on April 14, 1967, Dr. King commented that:

"Riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear?....So, in a very real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. As long as America postpones justice we re in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. "MLK photo wikicommons

It was a week in which the structural, social, political, and economic inequalities were laid bare by the disproportionate impacts of both the coronavirus pandemic and the criminal justice system on people of color and impoverished communities. One young person among the protesters in Minneapolis carried a sign that said simply: “Can you hear me now?”

Sadly, these issues are not new – they are baked into the foundation of American society. We have made very little progress toward a safe, just and sustainable society for all people. The manifestations of inequality and injustice today are less overt than they were in the past, making it easier for white Americans to not see, indeed, to not hear the truth of these disparities. It is hard for us to acknowledge how people born on the 50 yard line have unearned advantages over those who are born at or before the starting line.

These unjust conditions are rooted in housing policy, zoning laws, budget decisions, access to resources, school funding, adjudication of white collar crime cases in civil courts instead of criminal courts, and thousands of other policies that limit human potential based race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference and identity.

Dr. Lonny Bunch, founding director of the African American Museum, noted in an interview with CBS,

"I keep hearing the words of Ella Baker every day, when she said, 'Until the killing of a black mother's son is considered as important to this country as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.' So, it tells me this is a time for us not to rest. For, [it is] a time to realize that history…is part of a long arc. It bends towards justice slowly. And the challenge for us, is to recognize that this… moment… really needs to be a tipping point."

“Can you hear me now?” asks the young protester. It is a question that NACRJ wants to take seriously in its mission of restorative justice, a justice that prizes dialogue processes in which people can be truly heard.

Ella Baker