The murder of George Floyd, a black man, on May 25 (Memorial Day) by four white police officers in Minneapolis overshadowed the coronavirus pandemic. The killing triggered enormous protest demonstrations in the streets of cities throughout the United States and around the world. These demonstrations are continuing even now, three weeks later.  

Floyd died when Officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds with the full weight of his knee on Floyd’s neck. The officers had apprehended Floyd for buying cigarettes in a nearby convenience store allegedly with a counterfeit $20 bill.

Two of the other officers, Thomas Lane and Alexander Kueng, assisted Chauvin in holding Floyd to the pavement. The fourth officer, Tou Thao, stood by, keeping bystanders at a distance. All four officers were fired the next day, and Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. On June 3, a charge of second-degree murder was lodged against Chauvin, and the other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Meanwhile, nightly street demonstrations continued throughout the country, mostly peacefully, but not without property damage, burned businesses and looting. On June 1 in Washington, D.C, after the “law and order” president denounced protesters as “thugs” and threatened to use the military to “dominate” the streets, Lafayette Square was cleared of peaceful protesters with tear gas, horse-mounted police and armed officers in riot gear so that the president could stage a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church armed with the Holy Bible.

The death of Floyd at the hands of the police was, we all know, not an isolated incident. In recent years particularly, street demonstrations have occurred following killings of black people. The organization Black Lives Matter was formed in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. On its website, BLM describes itself as “a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”

Signs carrying the Black Lives Matter message were everywhere during the protest demonstrations following Floyd’s death. In Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser authorized the painting of the slogan in giant yellow letters on 16th Street near the White House on June 5. That two-block portion of the street was renamed “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

For a year or more, two large “Black Lives Matter” banners have hung on the church that I attend. The congregation is almost entirely white people. I have felt uncomfortable with these banners, not because of the message—I agree that black lives do and should matter—but because I have questioned whether a white congregation has the moral right to claim ownership of that message.

I have now come to realize that the very asking of that question reinforces in my mind the “othering” of black people. Would it be appropriate only for “them” to proclaim Black Lives Matter? My own questioning is telling me that I am not immune from the effects of implicit racism that are embedded in the culture of America. I could not have lived in the United States for more than seventy years without being molded by that culture and its ill effects. In a country where black lives have been less valued ever since 1619, I have received at no cost the advantage of being white. 

The congregation’s endorsement of the Black Lives Matter message is not a declaration of our white enlightenment or a confession of white guilt. It is an affirmation that we value black lives. It is a message of welcome. It is a pledge of alliance in the necessary and overdue work of shifting the center of American culture away from white advantage, away from the country’s often obscured history of white supremacy.

On June 12, two white police officers in Atlanta confronted Rayshard Brooks, a black man who was sleeping in his car before the officers arrived at a Wendy’s drive-in. Brooks admitted that he had been drinking and said that he could walk to his sister’s house, if the officers would allow him to lock up his car under their supervision, but the officers instead attempted to put him in handcuffs. A scuffle ensued, Brooks getting hold of one officer’s Taser before being shot twice in the back as he attempted to flee.

Meanwhile in the shadow of these events lurked the coronavirus. Between the two killings—Floyd on May 25 and Brooks on June 12—some 15,000 people died from covid-19 in the United States. As if we needed further evidence of the supremacy our culture affords white people, black Americans were dying at a rate 2.3 times higher than the rate of coronavirus death among white people.

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