On Tuesday afternoon, like so many of us, I spent an hour anxiously waiting for the Derek Chauvin verdict to be announced, after which I connected with others to share our reflections. A dear colleague shared that recently they had been feeling that if they can’t fix all the things in our world that are broken, why even try? Why not just give up amidst the heartbreak and the overwhelming demand put on our moral compasses?
Still, amidst the despair, there was that moment, in the first hour after the verdict, when so many of us had an initial reaction of relief, thanking God that a measure of justice was achieved.
And then we pulled back and reflected on the larger scope of what was happening. That this was not justice. Justice would be George Floyd being alive today. This was accountability for one officer who had committed murder. Justice would be a world in which this conviction was not so profoundly newsworthy as it is in the world in which we live, where only 1 in 2,000 deaths at the hands of law enforcement result in this kind of accountability.
So, what does this moment in Minneapolis mean? And equally important, what does it not yet mean? How do we sustain and build on this all-too-rare moment of accountability to imagine a different future, one that values the humanity of all Americans, protects their lives and provides them with all that this country has to offer?
It means that a single police officer committed an act so heinous, that his fellow officers did all they could to disassociate themselves from his violence – and that he was held accountable in a court of law for those actions. We hope and pray that for the family of George Floyd, of blessed memory, there is some measure of comfort and healing that can take place now that his killer was convicted.
Yet, as we have been reminded by so many Black voices this week, ones often tinged with anguish and rage, justice would mean that Black Americans wouldn’t have to calculate their every movement, for fear of being killed as they go about their daily lives. Justice would mean that Black Americans would have the freedom to spend their energy pursuing their dreams, instead of battling unimaginable exhaustion as a result of having to weather chronic and persistent racism.
I am thinking back to a meaningful moment, early in my own entry to the work of police reform and racial justice, when in 1999, Amadou Diallo was gunned down on his own front steps by four New York City police officers. In the weeks that followed, protests occurred at One Police Plaza demanding accountability, almost exclusively by Black and Latino public officials and community leaders. At a JCRC (New York) breakfast, Congressman Charlie Rangel was asked by reporters about the protests, and he noted memorably that white New Yorkers were more inclined to take to the streets after the death of a Central Park carriage horse than they were over police accountability.
Together, with friends, and through the vehicle of JFREJ, a local Jewish social justice group that I would later co-chair, we organized. Within a week, and fueled by participation from the majority of the seminary students at both Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, I, along with 126 rabbis and Jewish activists, was arrested in an act of non-violent civil disobedience that dominated the news cycle. Our presence affirmed broader and more diverse support for this cause than was being claimed by City Hall.
Those four officers would be indicted, and then, to our dismay, acquitted at trial despite the 41 shots at an unarmed man.
A year ago, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, we witnessed the extraordinary sight of Americans of all races taking to the streets to demand justice, on a scale not seen in decades. They – we – understood that all of us are implicated in the racial inequities that plague this country, and that all of us are needed to effect real change.
At JCRC, we doubled down on the long term and painstaking work of systemic change, informed by the experience and expertise of Black members of the Jewish community and by our legislative and interfaith partners. We joined with them to advocate for police reform in Massachusetts. We connected synagogues and churches craving meaningful ways to act together to build a more just community. We gathered with our friends at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization to hear from the members of their 50+ diverse organizations, about the issues that matter most to their lives and to build the power to address them together.
How do I respond to that colleague, holding tension between this moment of possibility and the vastness of the challenge?
Unfortunately, there is much that hasn’t changed in 22 years. And yet there are, moments like the one we experienced this week, of genuine progress, including in the scope of public consciousness, and the diversity of people who are holding ourselves and each other accountable to do this work.
And I told them that I am reminded of the second century rabbi, Tarfon, who taught us: “It is not for you to complete that task, but neither are you free to stand aside from the work.”