CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
By now, it seems that the whole world has seen video footage from Monday, May 25, of George Floyd’s last moments.
For many, these images — Floyd’s neck pinned beneath the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, his hoarse voice begging for mercy until he eventually goes silent and limp — are a call to action, a summons to confront systemic racism in the United States once and for all.
For others, they are a brutally uncomfortable invitation to examine the unequal distribution of privilege that exists in this country.
For many others still, including Fr. Peter Patrick Kimani, the video is harrowingly familiar: a reminder of prejudice that has been lived, and of tragedy narrowly escaped.
“Every time I see or hear racial profiling, my heart skips,” said Fr. Kimani, who is the administrator of St. Sebastian and St. Catherine parishes in Milwaukee. Shortly after his ordination in 2014, Fr. Kimani was returning to a rectory on Milwaukee’s North Shore, where he lived at the time, after saying daily Mass at a neighboring church.
“As I was pulling to the garage, I saw a police car following. As an innocent person, I came out to inquire what was going on,” said Fr. Kimani, who is from Kenya. “To my shock, the officer pointed the gun at me and told me to raise my hands up. He asked me where I was coming from and I told him. He made a call with his radio and left without saying anything.”
Fr. Kimani returned to the rectory, trembling, traumatized and “not knowing what to do.” He was advised by the Vicar for Clergy to report the case to the local police; they informed him that there had been a robbery near the church, and “the suspect was a black man.” When Fr. Kimani went to the police station, he met with the officer in charge, an African-American, who apologized to him.
“But I still wanted to meet (the officer who confronted him) because after pointing the gun on me, he said nothing, just left,” said Fr. Kimani. “Is it because I don’t matter because of my skin color?”
Six years later, Fr. Kimani said he has still never been able to meet the officer or to receive an explanation for the man’s actions.
“Watching George Floyd going through that ordeal is painful and dehumanizing the dignity of the human person,” said Fr. Kimani. “Racism in this country is real. Instead of addressing the issue, we just react when such an incident happens, rather than being proactive and combating the sin of it.”
Sandra Melcher, a member of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a parishioner at All Saints Catholic Church, said the images of Floyd’s death are “brutal and traumatic” for her as a Black woman living in this country.
“They assault my psyche over and over again,” she said. “I am angry, appalled and outraged by these actions demonstrating that it is OK and justified to continue this violence on a people, especially if the police or others feel threatened or feel that the victim is most likely a criminal just because of the color of his/her skin.”
Fellow BCMC member and All Saints parishioner Janat Davis said she has not been able to watch the video of Floyd’s death, which was taken by onlookers at the scene.
“I can’t watch it and I won’t watch it. Just to hear people describe what has taken place — it’s heart-crushing. For me, I just feel a really deep, deep anguish. My soul is hurting,” she said. “I just can’t bear to hear one more name added to the litany of names that just keeps growing and growing of black and brown people losing their lives at the hands of law enforcement for ridiculous and petty reasons.”
Floyd’s death has triggered a tidal wave of outrage across the nation that has materialized in the form of protests, riots and calls for action. Davis said the reaction among citizens has reminded her of the protest marches for open housing in the late 1960s, in which she participated.
“That momentum of ‘something is wrong and needs to be corrected, and we’re not going to relent until that happens’ — that’s what I’m seeing now,” she said. “I feel like there’s something different amongst the people. I don’t necessarily feel that things are different with politicians. I still think they don’t get it.”
Catholics have a crucial role to play in the transformation of the culture, said Fr. Kimani.
“George Floyd’s death is a wake-up call to us as a Church and the country as a whole,” he said. Confronting racism will take “all of us,” he said — “Black, white, brown, you name it.”
“It can’t be left for the Blacks only to fight it,” he said. “We will never win.”
“It is important for Catholics to become involved in fighting racism and to not run away from uncomfortable feelings,” said Melcher. “Rather, they should acknowledge and accept their uncomfortable feelings and ask: ‘What can I do to help?’”
The responses of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Wisconsin Catholic Bishops Conferences are “strong beginnings,” she said.
“It’s a nice place to start with, but a lot of work needs to be done on the ground,” agreed Fr. Kimani. “I think we should listen more to the black and minority communities. If we can dialogue and hear their stories and provide the basic needs, then we are going to have a brighter and united country.”
“Racism is worse than COVID-19,” he added. “It has killed many and left many heartbroken. If we can come together the way we came together to fight COVID-19, we can win this war.”