Adding an existential element to the old movie title, “Waiting to Exhale” we all breathed a sigh of relief when the verdict was read in the Derek Chauvin trial. After a two week long trial, during which those of us who are a little too addicted to the news, witnessed over and over, bits of the video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of the already dead George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, the verdict came as a relief.
It was a case of police brutality that turned into murder that was witnessed by children and professionals who pled with Chauvin to get off of George Floyd’s neck, to start CPR, to check for pulse.
Expert witnesses explained what was obvious to all of us, that Floyd died, not from his own pre-existing health problems, drug use, or anything else. He was deprived of air. He was choked to death by members of the police force, led by Derek Chauvin.
We were waiting to exhale because, as many black community leaders have said, “We’ve seen the movie before.” Lots of evidence, videos, witnesses, and still, the police usually are found to be not guilty, or, in many cases, not even to be charged.
I kept assuring my more cynical friends, “There is no way that Chauvin is going to walk away from this. There is just too much evidence.” But every time I said that, I prayed silently that I would be right because, well, we’ve seen this movie before.
No one celebrates in a case like this. George Floyd is still dead. The court system can only do so much to give justice to his memory but, at least they did what they could. We are not guaranteed that they will do the same the next time.
In fact, we cannot say much more than that in this case, the dark wall of injustice has been cracked, but it will take many more hammer blows for that wall to be broken.
I am relatively certain that all of you who listen to my sermons will have spent some time listening to some of the evidence in this trial. You saw a large black man, with his hands handcuffed behind his back, lying still on the pavement with Chauvin’s knee on his neck as he pleaded for his life, saying, “I can’t breathe,” and even calling for his dead mother to help him.
But I want to take you back 11 months ago, to May 25th of last year, before the video went viral. Before the police officers involved were fired under public pressure and before Derek Chauvin was charged.
The day after Chauvin had murdered George Floyd in the street, the Minneapolis Police Department released this statement:
May 26, 2020
May 25, 2020 (MINNEAPOLIS) On Monday evening, shortly after 8:00 pm, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded to the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South on a report of a forgery in progress. Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence.
Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.
At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been called in to investigate this incident at the request of the Minneapolis Police Department.
No officers were injured in the incident.
Body worn cameras were on and activated during this incident.
They gave themselves several hours to concoct an account of the murder of George Floyd that made it sound like, “nothing to see here,” they made it sound like they were almost sympathetic, that it was just so unfortunate, that he just happened to have a medical incident while we were questioning him. We know that George Floyd had been dead for the last five minutes that Chauvin was kneeling on his neck, but the police, in their official press release, said that he was taken to the Hennepin County Hospital and that he had died there.
Chauvin was found guilty of murder. But there were four officers involved in the incident. There was a dispatcher watching on video. There were other members of the police force who were aware of this while it happened and when it was all over, their official offices wrote this piece of fiction to try to convince the public that these helpful officers had just noticed that something was medically wrong with George Floyd and they acted to save his life, but sadly, he died later at the hospital.
What have we learned from this incident? I don’t like this, but I need to ask you to think about it. What have we learned?
I will tell you very honestly, in the summer of 1995, when the trial of O. J. Simpson was being televised, when I heard that LA Detective, Mark Fuhrman, was accused of planting evidence intended to frame O. J. Simpson with the murder of his ex-wife and her friend, I just thought that was the silliest thing I had ever heard. A detective tries to find out who committed the crime, they don’t manufacture evidence to frame someone.
Now, I do believe that O. J. Simpson did commit the double murder, but I also think that Mark Fuhrman was a racist who was determined to smear blood from the scene on Simpson’s clothes, gloves, and in his car, to make it impossible not to convict him.
I don’t know if you are old enough to remember the trial or if it occupied much of your attention at the time, but it took me a couple of years to accept the fact that I had been made to believe in a fiction of police nobility. And this was three years after the four police who had beaten Rodney King nearly to death had been captured by a video camera and those four were acquitted of all wrongdoing; when we had all seen them do it.
I was one of the people who, initially, was prepared to believe that they must have had some compelling reason to use that kind of force, something that didn’t show up in the video recording. I was programmed, from the earliest days of elementary school, to see the police as being friendly helpers. They protected us from crime.
They were the ones we were to run towards when we are scared. Of course, my early elementary school years were spent in an all-white segregated school but, still.
Mind you, I was a war protester in high school. I already knew that our president, Richard Nixon, was lying to us about Vietnam. But the police? And, let’s be clear, they don’t always lie. They are not always evil. You might even want to argue that most are good public servants . . . it might take some work and some evidence to convince me right now, but I’ll even grant you that many do good work and that I don’t want to be without them entirely. But will they lie to cover up their own crimes? You bet they will. When I ask you, “what have we learned?” I hope that I can hear your hearts whispering, “question authority.” I hope that I can see you set your jaw and refuse to believe propaganda without serious evidence.
As the famous actor, Will Smith, said five years ago, "Racism Is Not Getting Worse, It's Getting Filmed." In 1991, video cameras were becoming more common. We got the video of the beating of Rodney King from one of those cameras as a witness recorded the event from his balcony. But it was the advent of smart phones 25 years later that has put a much better video recorder in our pockets that makes it possible for us to keep real evidence of these events.
There was a 17 year old girl there who recorded the cellphone video of Floyd’s death. Chauvin threatened to pepper spray her if she didn’t stop, but the young woman would not lower her phone. Say what you will about Face Book, but she recorded Floyd’s murder and posted it on social media and the police lies about what happened started to fall apart because this young woman had the courage to document the truth.
Without her courageous action, I am afraid that we might never have heard of George Floyd. None of the police on the scene had the courage to tell the truth about what had happened. Everyone standing on the sidewalk, undoubtably had a cell phone in their pockets and they could have recorded it. She did it, and she saved George Floyd’s memory. She led the world to justice.
Now, when I say that she had courage, it should be said that she had to have courage in the face of a police officer who was murdering one large black man who was telling her to stop recording. But she also testified in the trial and you must understand, her life is now at risk, which is why I am not going to repeat her name or show her image and I wish that other sources would do the same. She has had the courage to put her life on the line to speak truth to power and we should all try to protect her from the many white supremacists who will now look for an opportunity to kill her.
Harvard professor, Cornel West, regularly reminds us that “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Love is a verb. It is something you do, not something that you feel. Love involves risk. Love requires courage.
When we started this church in 2008, we took as our motto that famous quote from the holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.” We cannot hope for justice if we remain neutral in the presence of injustice. Silence never creates justice. Silence is tacit support for oppressors. The powerful never give justice to the weak out of the goodness of their hearts. Presidents will lie. The police will lie. And though I hate it, denominations, Bishops, Popes, and pastors will lie to make their worst sins seem benign.
It is several years old now, but I recommend this book to you, though the title tells you a lot of what you learn from reading it or listening to the audio version, “Mistakes were made, but not by me." We are all the hero of our own novels and we have ways of telling our life story that makes us appear to be innocent of wrongdoing, no matter how close we were to the horrible events we have witnessed. Even if you were not the one making the mistake, if you stand idly by, you are a part of the propaganda that insists that no one is responsible . . . the police were just questioning him about a counterfeit bill when they noticed that he was having a medical problem.
What have we learned when we compare what we know now about how George Floyd died with what the police told us last May? It seems unavoidable to me that we have to learn to question authority. I am not encouraging you to be paranoid or to reach a new height of cynicism, that can be deadly on its own. But we must all accept that we know, with lots of evidence, that governments will lie to cover their own tracks. The police will lie. Wall Street Bankers will lie. The media will lie. The church will lie. Sometimes your most trusted friends will lie, when they need to assure you that they are innocent.
The sacrament of the progressive church needs to be something other than rituals and religious texts; it really has to be critical thinking.
There is a Buddhist tradition that says that when the Buddha was enlightened and he began to wander around India teaching, he was asked; "Are you a god?" "No," he replied. "Are you a reincarnation of god?" "No," he replied. "Are you a wizard, then?" "No." "Well, are you a man?" "No." "So, what are you?" Buddha simply replied: "I am awake."
Religion really can be the scales over our eyes that keep us from seeing the truth. Patriotism can blind us. Indifference can make us look away from injustice. Comfort with the status quo can make us wrap ourselves in white privilege, middle class insulation, the comfort of knowing that the police don’t beat people like us.
We need to wake up to the fact that we cannot allow ourselves to be programed by the propaganda of the media, the marketplace, the government, the police, or the church.
Love is our religion, and we make our religion visible by working for justice. People, please, know how to make a video recording with your phone and if you are a witness to police abuse, record it, post it, because without it, justice is hard to find.
Dr. Roger Ray