Bishop William J. Barber, II
Dear América: Like many of you, I have heard George Floyd cry “I can’t breathe” and “Momma, I love you” on the recording of his lynching in the streets of Minneapolis. I have watched as crowds of people—black, white, and brown; gay, straight, and trans—have taken to those same streets to cry out against systemic racism. The image of a white officer choking the life out of a Black man while fellow officers looked on is viscerally reminiscent of the lynching photographs that were used to terrorize African-Americans for decades in this nation.
Protestors are right to decry such brutal and inhumane treatment as racism. Thank God people are in the streets, refusing to accept what has been seen as normal for far too long. What a shame it would be if this nation could watch a policeman murder another human being, then pose like a hunter with his prey while his colleagues looked on, and there not be protest, anguish, anger, outrage, and moral disruption. All that is needed to understand why Black people are crying out is to ask what the response of our justice system would have been if a video had emerged of four black men doing that to a white man. We all know what racism looks like. But the lethal violence of racist officers is only one manifestation of the systemic racism that is choking the life out of American democracy.
Thank God people are in the streets, refusing to accept what has been seen as normal for far too long. What a shame it would be if this nation could watch a policeman murder another human being, then pose like a hunter with his prey while his colleagues looked on, and there not be protest, anguish, anger, outrage, and moral disruption.
In fact injustice, period, is causing many to question whether this nation’s commitment to the establishment of justice means anything at all. George Floyd’s murder would have been enough alone, but it comes after the compounded death and deadliness of a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on poor and low-income communities across this nation. More than 100,000 people have said, “I can’t breathe,” as this disease choked them to death. The coronavirus had spread through the fissures of our society, exposing the inequalities we have long accepted like a contrast dye in our body politic.
We must be clear, long before COVID-19 came to our shores, 140 million Americans were poor and low income. 700 people were dying every day from poverty in this nation before we declared a national emergency. 80 million people were uninsured or under-insured, when we know that thousands will die every year for every 500,000 uninsured.
Last week ,Columbia University published a study that said many of the 100,000 Americans we have lost did not have to die. Their deaths are the result of a government that refused to care for its people. Yet too many in political leadership have accepted the greed and wanton disregard for human life that has become normal in our political system. We all know what Americans need to survive in this pandemic: access to healthcare, living wages, paid sick leave, affordable housing, and the capacity to stay home to slow the spread of the disease. Yet the poorest and most vulnerable Americans are being sent back into harm’s way, often without the proper PPE, while 85% of the trillions of dollars we invested in so-called stimulus bills has gone to the wealthiest Americans.
So you see, this moment demands that all who care about the American experiment in democracy listen closely and deeply to the uprising that is itself a collective gasp for life.
As a pastor, I turn to Scripture in times of crisis, and I have prayed with the prophet Isaiah that God would open my ears to offer a word that might sustain those who are distressed. I have prayed with Jeremiah that we will not try to heal the wound of the people lightly and fail to recognize how the wounds of poverty demand social surgery and a strong antibiotic of truth to cleanse a septic democracy. In the church, we are preparing for the season of Pentecost, when we recall how God’s Spirit allowed people from various backgrounds to each hear the truth in their own tongue. I pray this letter might be likewise received.
To those who are crying out in Minneapolis and in solidarity actions across the nation, I write to say, “I hear you.” I hear your cry as a collective expression of the racial wound we have all inherited in this nation. And I join you as we scream, because of the constant death-dealing wounds suffered by our people over and over when all we want is to be free and full citizens. Damn, I hear you, and I hear the echoes of screams from the past and the screams of our children as they head towards a future afraid that they may face more of the same.
Forensic scientists tell us that wounds always speak. For those who have ears to hear, the wounds of a victim have something to say about the perpetrator of a crime. What’s more, wounds echo, compounded by repetition like a concussion for someone who is struck on the head. We all hear the echo of Eric Garner’s last words in George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe.” The people of Minneapolis cannot watch this video without reliving the trauma of Philando Castille’s murder at the hands of police. From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Terry Brandon, we all know the names of some who have borne this trauma. But there is also a litany of the lost that each Black community cannot forget—names and stories that never made the national news but echo this trauma throughout our communities all the same.
Each of us who carry this trauma in our bodies is crying out, “This is screwed up!” And it is true. A society that tolerates such disregard for Black life is sick, and we are right to insist that the public note America’s symptoms of spiritual death. When the President calls you “thugs,” he speaks more truth than he knows. THUG is an acronym for “The Hate U Give.” It has long been claimed by communities that have experienced criminalization as an assertion that the disruption of rebellion is only a reflection of the hate and violence a community has received—the inevitable reflex of people who cannot breath, because their life is being systematically snuffed out.
Mr. President, we know what you are doing when we hear your tough talk and see you using the military as a pawn. We all remember 1968 and the way the call for “law and order” was used to consolidate power. We are not naïve. But we can, as active participants in a fledgling democracy, still imagine better leadership.
We still have the capacity to ask, what if leadership in this country was moved to arrest police who destroy and murder people’s lives as much as they are to arrest those who destroy property? What if, instead of a President who tweets “when the looting starts, the shootings starts,” we had leadership that could unequivocally say, “When you use police power in the name of the state to murder, lynch, and destroy, you will be prosecuted for your crimes.”
To those who look at the fires in Minneapolis and say, “There must be a better way,” I must say that no one wants to see their community burn. But they have also shared how their non-violent pleas and protests have gone unnoticed for years as the situation has gotten out of hand. No one knows who and what is behind the violence, but we do know that countless activists, grassroots leaders, and preachers were screaming non-violently long before now: “Change, America! Change, Minneapolis!” Rather than listen, many of those in power saw even their non-violent protest as an unwelcome development.
This is so often the case, because many Americans struggle to imagine that our government’s policies and its long train of abuses demand radical transformation. Too many want to believe racism is merely caused by a few bad actors. We often turn racism into a spectacle, only considering the cruel legacy of racism when an egregious action escalates outrage to this level.
Black Americans have rarely been able to sustain such illusions. Deadly racism is always with us, and not only through police brutality. In the midst of the current pandemic we are painfully aware that our families bear a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 deaths. In some cities where racial data are available, we know that Black people are six times as likely to die from the virus as their white counterparts. Even before COVID, large numbers of Black Americans died because of the racial disparities in healthcare, which are systemic and not unintentional.
African Americans are three times more likely to die from particulate air pollution than our fellow Americans. The percentage of black children suffering from asthma is nearly double that of white people, and the death rate is 10 times higher. This is but a reflection of the fissures of inequality that run through every institution in our public life, where the black wealth gap, education gap, and healthcare gap have persisted despite the civil rights movement, legal desegregation, and symbolic affirmative action. We understand that the same mentality that will accept and defend the violence of armed officers against unarmed Black people will also send Black, brown and poor people into harm’s way during a pandemic in the name of “liberty” and “the economy.”
Many have cited Dr. King to remind Americans that a riot is the language of the unheard. But I have been reflecting on the eulogy he offered when another man—a white man who came to Selma, Alabama, to work for voting rights—was brutally murdered by racist violence in 1965. At the funeral for James Reed, Dr. King said it is not enough to ask who killed the victim in a case like the murder of George Floyd.
Weak and unacceptable charges have been brought against the officer whose knee choked George Floyd, staying on his neck for three minutes after he went unconscious, but no charges have been filed against the other officers who stood by and watched. Even still, dealing with who did the killing is not all that justice demands. Dr. King said the question is not only who killed him, but also what killed him?
The systemic racism that killed George Floyd has taken untold souls from us for over 400 years. And it is killing the very possibility of American democracy today. I join those screaming that this is all screwed up, and it’s been screwed up far too long. But we are not “screwed up” as long we have the consciousness and humanity to know what is right and wrong. In fact, we are clothed and in our right minds. We insist that no human being should tolerate such cruelty.
Those of us who have faced the lethal force of systemic racism have also learned that we can be wounded healers. We don’t have to be arbitrarily destructive. We can be assuredly determined to never accept the destruction of our bodies and dreams as an acceptable reality by any police, person, or policy. We have learned that there is a force more powerful. When hands that once picked cotton have joined together with white hands and Native hands, brown hands and Asian hands, we have been able to fundamentally reconstruct this democracy. Slavery was abolished. Women did gain the right to vote. Labor did win a 40-hour work week and a minimum wage. The civil rights movement in the face of lynching and shooting did expand voting rights to African-Americans.
If we take time to listen to this nation’s wounds, they tell us where to look for hope. The hope is in the mourning and the screams, which make us want to rush from this place. There is a sense in which, right now, we must refuse to be comforted too quickly. Only if these screams and tears and protests shake the very conscience of this nation—and until there is real political and judicial repentance—can we hope for a better society on the other side of this.
The very people who have been rejected, over and over again, are the ones who have shown us the possibility of a more perfect union. On June 20th, 2020 (june2020.org), poor and low-income Americans of every race, creed, culture, and sexuality are planning a digital mass gathering to lift up a new moral agenda in our public life that promises transformative change to heal the wounds of systemic racism. When the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival set the date for this event almost two years ago, we had no way of knowing that over 100,000 Americans would have breathed their last breath due to COVID-19 nor that George Floyd’s dying words would have forced the nation to consider how the knee of white supremacy continues to bear down on our common life. But because we have listened to the wounds of this nation—from California to the Carolinas, from Maine to Mississippi—we know where to look for hope. Now is the time to unite our collective power and demand transformative change. Now is the time to revive the heart of América’s democracy.
I pray you will join us in this collective work.
Rev. William H. Barber, II, is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
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