WASHINGTON — Even as the United States still finds itself grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, outrage, grief and anger over the latest killing of an unarmed black man outweighed caution as hundreds of thousands turned out nationwide to protest and many of the country's Catholic bishops joined the calls for justice.
"The outrage around the death of George Floyd is understandable and justice must be served," said Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila in a May 30 statement referencing the killing of the 46-year-old Floyd, whose last moments of life were recorded on a widely disseminated video showing a white police officer in Minneapolis pushing down on his neck with his knee May 25. Floyd was later pronounced dead.
Four officers from the Minneapolis Police Department were fired May 26, including Derek Chauvin, with whom Floyd pleaded "Please, I can't breathe" as he held him down. Chauvin is facing third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges.
"What did we expect when we learned that in Minneapolis, a city often hailed as a model of inclusivity, the price of a black life is a counterfeit $20 bill?" said Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, in a May 31 statement saying he had spent the last few nights watching the protests "in great personal pain as the pent-up anger of our people caught fire across our country."
Floyd was apprehended by the group of officers after a deli worker called 911 saying he had paid with a counterfeit $20 bill.
Cardinal Cupich said he's watched as "the city where I was born, the cities where I have lived, the city I pastor now, catch embers from the city where I was educated," and then he watched them "burn."
"Was I horrified at the violence? Yes. But was I surprised? No," he said.
In Providence, Rhode Island, where vandals broke into stores and set a police car on fire Monday night, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said that for decades, the Catholic Church, in its teachings and actions, has been at the forefront in opposing every expression of racism, and he renewed that commitment Tuesday.
“Resorting to violence does not honor the memory of George Floyd whose tragic death in Minneapolis is morally offensive and repugnant to all. Nor does it promote the just cause of civil rights,” Bishop Tobin said in a statement Tuesday.
“It is very clear that there are pressing issues in our society that urgently need to be addressed and corrected — including racism, inequality, and discrimination —whenever, wherever they occur. The Catholic Church fully supports those who are promoting these values in legitimate and peaceful ways,” he said.
The bishop said the Diocese of Providence also stands in solidarity with public officials and law enforcement officers as they seek to ensure the safety and security of our community, noting that their public service is often difficult and dangerous.
“The recent incidents of planned violence here and elsewhere cannot be encouraged or accepted. These events simply cause division in our community, and result in additional suffering and pain to many good and innocent people,” Bishop Tobin said.
Though protests around much of the nation were largely peaceful, small groups within the demonstrating masses have burned cars, broken into and looted businesses in cities such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York and Washington — all which now have put curfews into place.
But in some localities, such as Coral Gables, Florida, and Flint, Michigan, authorities have dialogued and even prayed with protesters.
On May 30, police officers in Coral Gables kneeled down with heads bowed and joined protesters, observing several minutes of silence, the amount of time reports say that Floyd spent under Chauvin's knee. The same day, Sheriff Chris Swanson from Flint Township approached a mass of protesters, telling them he was putting down his weapons and is seen on video telling them: "The only reason we're here is to make sure that you got a voice -- that's it." Then they asked him to walk with them and he did.
But in other places, such as the environs of the White House, cars were burned, businesses were vandalized and authorities used tear gas on protesters.
"The looting, vandalism and violence we are witnessing in Minneapolis and throughout our nation dishonors the legacy of Mr. Floyd and further complicates a tragic situation," said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington.
They were calls echoed by Floyd's brother Terrence, who said on a national television show that the violence was "overshadowing what is going on because he (his brother) was about peace. ... (This is) destructive unity. That's not what he was about."
Others said the tragic situation was being used for a variety of reasons and was a warning signal.
"COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd, the needless deaths of so many people of color, the shameless exploitation of social division for personal gratification or political gain — these are apocalyptic events that are not meant simply to scare us — to take our breath away — but to warn us of serious trouble on the horizon as well as the true meaning the peril that is already among us," said Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, in his Pentecost homily May 31.
"We desperately need to breathe, so that we can recognize that the efforts by people of great power to divide us are diametrically opposed to the plan God has for this world," he said.
Also referencing the pandemic in his Pentecost homily, Washington's Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said the incident has served to reveal "the virus of racism among us once again even as we continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic."
Denver's Archbishop Aquila reminded Catholics to keep church teaching in mind, not political preferences, when it comes to the killing.
"The Catholic Church has always promoted a culture of life, but too often our society has lost its sense of the dignity of every human being from the time of conception until natural death," he said. "Every Catholic has a responsibility to promote the dignity of life at every level of life. Too many have made their god their ideology, political party, or the color of their skin, and not the Gospel of Life and the dignity of every human being."
The archbishop added: "I encourage the faithful of the archdiocese to examine our consciences on how we promote a culture of life on all levels, to pray for the conversion of hearts of those who promote racism, to pray that our society may return to a culture of life, and finally and most importantly, to pray for the repose of the soul of George Floyd, for his family in their loss, and that justice may be served in his case."
In the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, Bishop Mark J. Seitz, who last year wrote a pastoral letter on racism, gathered with priests from his diocese and carrying a "Black Lives Matter" sign kneeled in silence for eight minutes, the time Floyd was said to have spent under the officer's knee before becoming unconscious and later dying.
On May 31, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued a statement on George Floyd and the protests in American cities that had taken place over the previous several days.
“I am praying for George Floyd and his loved ones, and on behalf of my brother bishops, I share the outrage of the black community and those who stand with them in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and across the country. The cruelty and violence he suffered does not reflect on the majority of good men and women in law enforcement, who carry out their duties with honor. We know that. And we trust that civil authorities will investigate his killing carefully and make sure those responsible are held accountable,” Archbishop Gomez said.
“We should all understand that the protests we are seeing in our cities reflect the justified frustration and anger of millions of our brothers and sisters who even today experience humiliation, indignity and unequal opportunity only because of their race or the color of their skin. It should not be this way in America. Racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life.”
Rhode Island Catholic Executive Editor Rick Snizek contributed to this story from Providence, R.I.
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