Last week, jury selection began in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who was arrested for the killing of George Floyd after kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — a horrific killing that sparked a movement of racial reckoning. In part, this trial is about justice for the Floyd family, about whether a jury will find Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd. However, this trial, this moment, is about far more. It is about us and the future we want to build.
Despite ongoing protests and increased media attention on police violence since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, not much has changed when it comes to accountability. A Washington Post database shows that nearly 1,000 people have been shot and killed by police just in the past year. Since 2005, only 42 nonfederal law enforcement officers arrested for murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting had been convicted on any charges, including lesser charges like reckless discharge of a firearm, according to data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight.
The dark and unfortunate reality is this: Even after years of organizing and protest — and the 2020 summer of racial reckoning — police violence against Black Americans has not decreased. According to a recent Vox report, “in the first few months of 2021, police have killed at least 23 Black Americans; prominent incidents of violence include an officer in Rochester, New York, pepper-spraying a handcuffed 9-year-old girl, and police killing 52-year-old Patrick Lynn Warren following a mental health 911 call placed on his behalf.”
This is about us. It is about attitudes and systems that privilege some and are a constant threat to others. In many ways the entire justice system and our government that supersedes it is on trial. We all witnessed the cruel killing of George Floyd and have grieved the fact that this continues to happen in America. This is about an entire system that criminalizes Blackness, that turns a blind eye to hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, that incarcerates those seeking refuge from the consequences of American imperialism, and that, too often, pardons the deadly outcomes of white supremacy. We are facing an unprecedented crisis as it relates to race in this nation and we have an urgent need for justice and transformation.
In his book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, Esau McCaulley looks to the writings of the New Testament to construct a Christian theology of policing. He argues that, while Paul’s words to individuals in Romans 13:1-2 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities...") have received the bulk of exegetical attention, it is Paul's words concerning the soldier and the state in 13:3-4 that point the way to a Christian theology of policing. McCaulley highlights how the Romans passage asserts the sovereignty of God over the state, and the state over the soldier.
“Paul recognizes that the soldier’s attitude toward the people who reside in the city will in large part be determined by those who give the orders,” McCaulley writes. “The problem, if there is one, does not reside solely in those who bear the sword, but those who direct it. In other words, Paul does not focus on individual actions, but on power structures.”
Chauvin’s trial is not about one incident. Nor is it ultimately about a series of incidents of police violence over the course of a few months in a year of racial reckoning. It is about the ways racism has infected our governing structure and will continue permeate in our institutions, exacerbating our divides, if we do not recognize the urgency of this moment and deal with it in a transformative way.
We don’t have an individual issue; we have a systemic issue.
When Paul says that "rulers are not a terror to good conduct" (Romans 13:3), he is saying the innocent should not live in a constant state of terror and trauma due to the activities of the state.
I serve as the pastor of a historic Black church in a predominately Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Our community knows all too well how Black parents fear for their kids' safety when they leave their homes, worried about the encounter their kids might have with an officer. Black people fear for their safety when pulled over in a car by police. This past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Breonna Taylor; her death signaled that even if you are innocent and at home, you are not safe, and if you are killed it is not a crime. Black people fear knocks at the door even in their own homes.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the most recent piece of legislation that offers policy changes, could lead to tangible results. It would ban chokeholds, alter qualified immunity for law enforcement, ban no-knock warrants in some cases, require officers to deploy de-escalation techniques and use deadly force only as a last resort, limit transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement, mandate training on racial and religious profiling, move funding to community-based policing programs, and more.
While these protections are needed, much more is required.
We have an urgent need for bold transformation. The wounds of our country’s racial tyranny remain untouched by collective healing. We pile more trauma and grief with each senseless murder of a Black body by police, with growing white supremacist violence against Asians and Asian Americans, and with the constant disenfranchisement of Latinx people.
As we watch the Chauvin trial over the coming weeks, as we consider the magnitude the George Floyd murder, it is devasting that there is not a question of "if" this will happen again, but "when." We need change. We need it now.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have put forward a resolution in the House and Senate that call on the Biden-Harris administration to establish, via executive order, a truth and racial healing commission to document the truth about systemic racism in the U.S., to repair past harm and inspire racial healing, and to transform our country as one truly dedicated to liberty and justice for all.
Considering the stream of recent events around racial injustice, including deep health inequities exposed by COVID-19, rampant racialized policing, and unconscionable economic inequality, we are facing deep wounds that have not and will never heal if we don’t intentionally work toward healing.
This trial and the most recent incidents of racial violence are showing us ourselves and our society’s brokenness.
We see how law enforcement has and continues to terrorize Black people. We see our government, which should be accountable to we the people, slap Band-Aid policy over a system that needs to be overhauled. We must also see the God who loves justice and righteousness is at work in human history, calling us to be agents of liberation and transformation. We have a responsibility to help bring about that change.