After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and this last week of ensuing protests and riots, I have received a lot of questions from a lot of people.
The answer I find myself giving the most is that this outrage is not over the death of one man. What we are seeing happen across our country is the collective outrage of Americans of all colors over the unjust, illegal and un-American treatment of minorities, underprivileged groups and especially black men within our society.
In the case of the black community, we have been in this country before its foundation. We have shed blood to build it up alongside our white brothers and sisters. We have farmed its land, fought in its battles, contributed to its culture through art, music, literature, science and business. Black people have been building this nation since before its birth, and yet 400 years later the majority of black people are still poor. We are still being hunted down and killed in the streets, and we still have police called on us because we are seen as symbols of fear.
After all this time, and after all that black people have given to this nation, one must ask the question, “Why does this nation hate us?” All evidence seems to point to the horrible truth that 400 years of being here in this nation is not enough to be seen and treated as a full citizen.
We may be accepted on paper, but look how easy it is for our system to get around the inconvenience of black lives if a black man like George Floyd can be killed in public on a street in Minneapolis, in front of store cameras and onlookers, and still the former officers who killed him fully expected that there would be no consequences for it.
We do not live in the America we tell our children they belong to, and this is not the America we tell ourselves we belong to.
George Floyd is not an aberration. We have been seeing black lives killed well before Trayvon Martin in 2012, and black people have been calling for justice all of these hundreds of years. But now, even though black people now have the ability to show this injustice to others and put it up on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter so Americans can see it with their own eyes; our government refuses to do anything about it.
It is the inaction by our government that has sparked this rage. It is because of this inaction that we see millions of Americans gathering on the streets, even though there is a pandemic. What point is there in isolating yourself from a pandemic when your own government will not keep you safe?
This last Sunday was Pentecost. It is the Sunday where Christians celebrate the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles. And it was the Apostle Paul who said: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
The body of America is also made of many different people, but instead of accepting that we all are a part of what makes this nation great, we are trying to kill parts of our own body! Why?
The answer is that this is not just a race thing. It is also about sharing our nation’s wealth. Dr. Cornel West commented this week that as long as our nation is obsessed with money and keeping its working class in line, we will never be a full democracy, and it’s true. Because, while most black people are poor, it is also true that most poor people are white; and if our nation were to share the abundance of wealth it has with black people, then it would have to share with everyone.
The same applies to our own state of Vermont. If we continue to run our state just as a vacation economy instead of using those funds to build up Vermont citizens, businesses and institutions, can we really say that our state will focus on the needs of all Vermonters? If you want to do something about the inequality in our nation, we need to start here at home in Vermont.
The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, which is a group advocating legislative change in Vermont for people of color, has prescribed the remedy for real statewide and local change here in our state:
• The call for civilian oversight of law enforcement
• Statewide policy and procedure for the use of force by police (Senate Bill 119, House Bill 464)
• Reparations for Slavery (House Bill 478)
• Justice System-wide data collection
• Implementation of Act 54 requiring the Attorney General’s Office, the Human Rights Commission, along with other interested stakeholders to develop a strategy to address racial disparities across all systems of state government
• Designating a portion of COVID-19 funds to address the severe and disproportionate impact on people of color within the state.
This call to action represents a start that we could take together for a fairer and more equitable Vermont, but we need to walk this road together, with people of all colors.
As long as the knee of an uncaring government is pressing down on the necks of underprivileged people, then none of us will be able to breathe.
Rev. Devon Thomas is pastor of Waterville Union Church and the Second Congregational Church of Jeffersonville.