CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
The videotaped death of George Floyd has sparked outrage and protests, motivated policy changes and led to proposed overhauls of the police system. The fallout from it has rocked the country, illuminated our social media feeds and our television screens, spilled into our streets and splashed across headlines.
While it is Floyd’s death in police custody that may be garnering attention and inspiring change, leaders in Milwaukee’s Catholic community warn that his is only the latest on a long list of names belonging to Black men and women who have been subject to disproportionate and violent discrimination in this country.
The tragedy of Floyd’s death “doesn’t exist in isolation,” said Anne Haines, executive director of UrbanInitiativeMKE, a project of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that works to enact Catholic Social Teaching.
“Black Lives Matter has been screaming from the rooftops about similar killings for a long time,” she said. “What I feel has happened is that Mr. Floyd’s brutal killing came on the heels of the horrific racially charged deaths of Breonna Taylor on March 13 and Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23. Couple these racially motivated incidents with the profound impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and it really should not come as a surprise that we have finally reached a tipping point.”
Taylor was a 26-year-old woman who was killed by the Louisville Metro Police Department in her apartment in early March. Arbery was a 25-year-old jogger who was shot by Gregory and Travis McMichael, a white father and son, in Georgia. Both Taylor and Arbery were Black.
In Taylor’s case, the LMPD was executing a “no-knock” search warrant on the premises and witnesses allege the officers never announced themselves before battering down her door in the middle of the night. The officers are under investigation but have not been arrested.
In Arbery’s case, the McMichaels claimed they recognized him as a burglar, and chased him down with a shotgun. They were not arrested until May 7, more than 10 weeks after Arbery’s death and after video footage of the murder went viral.
For many, both deaths illustrate how the wrongful deaths of Black citizens and the deaths of white citizens, at the hands of both law enforcement and their fellow citizens, do not seem to carry the same weight in the judicial system.
“It’s not something you get used to,” said Janat Davis, a member of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a parishioner at All Saints Catholic Church. “Since March, we’ve heard the names — we’ve heard Breona Taylor, we’ve heard Ahmaud Arbery, we’ve heard George Floyd. But there are some 20, 30, 40, 50 other names before those names.”
According to the Washington Post, which has logged every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States since 2015, the rate at which Black Americans are killed by law enforcement is more than twice as high as it is for Americans who are white.
“And each time you hear a name, each time you hear another incident, it just builds on the one that happened before,” said Davis. “And there’s just a level of anger that just keeps building and building and building. It calls to mind Langston Hughes’ point — ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ It explodes. There’s no place else for it to go. And that’s what we’re seeing now — we’re seeing an explosion.”
“This outburst is not surprising to many,” said Fr. Michael Bertram, OFM Cap., pastor of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Benedict the Moor Parishes in Milwaukee, referring to the protests. “The stories of St. Francis parishioners are many when it comes to incidents — major and minor — of discrimination, racism and bigotry. There is a sense that I have, and I know others have as well, of: how often are we going to ‘visit’ this? It feels like we have endured so many events that have uncovered an ugly side of our life: a not-so-latent racism that brazenly is repeated with less and less concern on the part of the wider population until now. How much can anyone be expected to endure before we erupt into the demonstrations that we have witnessed?”
Jim Piatt, president of Messmer High School, described this as “a heavy time” for his school community.
“Many of our families have been affected past and present by systemic racism,” he said. With the video footage of George Floyd’s death widely disseminated by media outlets, the fear and anxiety surrounding these kinds of acts of violence is intensely real to them, he said.
“Our students not only see the pain of witnessing a black man’s homicide by an authority directly in the present day, they know the pain of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations that have been multiplied for decades and surely passed on,” he said. “These are truly layers of injustice and trauma that drain the soul and tax the mind.”
“It just wears on you. You’re always on guard,” said Davis. “You just never know; is today something else going to happen? What else is going to happen?”
In the uncertainty, Davis said she turns to her faith, taking solace in the Eucharist, in the rosary and in letting herself “lament” to the only One who understands.
“With the release of ‘Open Wide Our Hearts’ (the 2018 USCCB pastoral letter addressing racism), I worked with a couple of the other BCMC members to do a series of discussions for Black Catholics, in the context of prayer. I helped to put the prayer together. For me, it was necessary to lament,” she said. “I don’t think that’s something that we do very often in our Catholic faith. Sometimes you don’t feel comfortable expressing your anguish — you don’t think it’s OK to do so, not before God. But yes, it is.”
In fact, she said, in the current moment, especially for Black Catholic Americans, it’s the most appropriate thing to do.
“It gives a release. You need to be able to express the pain and sorrow and the frustration that you’re feeling,” she said. “I need to say: ‘Lord, I am not comfortable with what’s going on. Lord, I feel forgotten.’”