EPISCOPALIAN bishops in the United States have said that the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in police custody in Minnesota “reveals deep racial injustices”.
Mr Floyd, 46, died in the city of Minneapolis last Monday while being detained by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who could be seen in a video kneeling on his neck. Mr Floyd was reportedly arrested after a shopkeeper called the police, suspecting Mr Floyd of using a counterfeit $20 bill. In the video, Mr Floyd, having being pulled from his car, handcuffed, and pinned down by Mr Chauvin, says: “I can’t breathe.” Mr Chauvin — said in a preliminary autopsy to have knelt on Mr Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds — has been dismissed and charged with third-degree murder.
Mr Floyd’s death has sparked a week of mass protests across the US, marked by violence between police and protesters, the destruction of property, and looting. At least 4400 people have been arrested. In Minneapolis, hundreds of demonstrators have clashed with riot police. In Washington, DC, the demonstrations reached the gates of the White House. Across the street, the basement of St John’s, described as “the church of the presidents”, was set alight.
The Bishop of Minnesota, the Rt Revd Brian N. Prior, and the Bishop-elect, the Rt Revd Craig Loya, said in a statement last Friday: “We are heartbroken and angry about the killing of George Floyd. This horrific act of violence reveals deep racial injustices that continue to be present in our common life. We are grateful for and fully supportive of the lay and ordained leaders who are joining those protesting this injustice and keeping vigil in its aftermath.”
The letter quoted the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the US, the Most Revd Michael Curry, who said: “This crisis reflects deep sores and deep wounds that have been here all along.
“In the midst of Covid-19 and the pressure cooker of a society in turmoil, a man was brutally killed. The basic human right to life was taken away. His basic human dignity was stripped by someone charged to protect our common humanity.”
The US Primate went on: “Perhaps the deeper pain of this is the fact that it’s not an isolated incident. The pain of this is that it’s a deep part of our life. It’s not just our history. It is American society today. We are not, however, slaves to our fate, unless we choose to do nothing.”
Three bishops in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) wrote in an open letter last week that Mr Floyd had been “treated in a way that denied his basic humanity. Our lament is real. But our lament is not limited to George and his family. We mourn alongside the wider Black community for whom this tragedy awakens memories of their own traumas and the larger history of systemic oppression that still plagues this country.
“George’s death is not merely the most recent evidence that proves racism exists against Black people in this country. But it is a vivid manifestation of the ongoing devaluation of black life.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a statement: “Procedures must change, prevention systems must be put in place, and, above all, police officers who resort to excessive use of force should be charged and convicted for the crimes committed.”
In the UK, thousands of people defied social-distancing measures to join demonstrations in London, Cardiff, and Manchester on Sunday, organised in solidarity with those in the US.
Members of the campaign group Black Live Matter and others chanted and held up signs reading “Justice not peace” and “Justice for George Floyd.” In London, traffic was stopped, and protesters applauded, as the crowd marched through Trafalgar Square to Battersea, before gathering at the base of the shrouded ruins of Grenfell Tower. The police arrested five people outside the US embassy in Battersea.
The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, said on Monday: “The ethnic profile of the victims of Grenfell Tower, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of colour, the fate of George Floyd in Minneapolis — all suggest a similar story that we have still not got our attitudes to race sorted in supposedly sophisticated countries like the USA and the UK.
“We need to learn to value each other much better than we do at the moment. That includes in the church, where we know that people’s value lies in their being equally loved by God regardless of colour, yet where we still have a lot to learn.”
He wrote on Twitter on Sunday: “Really troubled over the past few days watching what happened to #GeorgeFloyd and reflecting on COVID-19 in BAME communities. Pentecost brings all peoples and nations together in unity. We seem to be doing the opposite.”
In another Tweet, he wrote: “If this isn’t injustice, I don’t know what is. It needs a long hard look at what leads up to things like this and a resolve to change — in other words repentance and resolve to make things different.”
The Associate Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in Trafalgar Square, the Revd Sally Hitchiner, witnessed the protests. She said: “I’m very sympathetic to the issue, but also surprised to see the strength of emotion that has gathered people together. Clearly, they’re not following lockdown and social distancing, but I think there’s a huge amount of passion, there and that’s overriding their concerns. It’s an issue that requires passion but at the same time there’s a huge amount of risk in what they’re doing.”
In a blog post published on the website of the publisher SCM Press, on Monday, the Associate Priest of St Peter and St Paul, and St Mary with St Alban, Teddington, Middlesex, the Revd Azariah France Williams, writes: “The death of George Floyd is the death of every black human. His physical suffocation speaks of the state sanctioned strangulation of black life. Black life is seen as arbitrary, not a necessity.”
He continues: “Some have . . . [said] that it is not the place of the Church of England bishops to speak about someone else’s issues, someplace else. In other words it is not our problem. Except it is, the Church of England has been a beneficiary of the labour and love of black lives for a long era. Black pain travels and crosses oceans.”