An open letter to the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe family:
George Floyd, may his memory be for a blessing — a life taken at the hands of a police officer, with other police standing as bystanders, as citizens on the sidelines spoke up, terrified for Floyd’s life. So, too, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, stretching back to Emmett Till and long before him.
Each life is of utmost preciousness and precariousness. One life in the eyes of all, in the eyes of G-d, as in the Jewish teaching on creation: “For this reason, the first human being was created alone to teach that whoever destroys a single life is as though he had destroyed an entire universe, and whoever saves a single life is as if he had saved an entire universe. Furthermore, the first human being was created alone for the sake of peace among peoples, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.’”
Sitting these past months and reading a collection of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons, and now watching cities across the U.S. climbing into unrest, I am compelled to write to you all. The world is on fire. From my small corner, it is less rage, anger, or hatred that consumes me. In this moment, my heart is swollen with empathy and tears.
George Floyd’s family has lost their precious father, grandfather, brother. Now they are left with their memories of him and a national movement of protest on their living room TV and out in their streets.
My empathy extends to those who march the streets peacefully, boldly in protest — who stand up and are counted, unwilling to be complicit in the brutality of black and brown bodies.
I understand where the depth of so many people’s anger comes from. As Trevor Noah said, “Try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day. Because that’s fundamentally what’s happening in America. Police in America are looting black bodies.”
For every life — Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd — how many others were not killed? How many did not go viral? How many could not breathe? For too long, the breath of black people has suffered under the weight of America’s racism.
My profound empathy extends to those who serve in law enforcement each day, putting their bodies on the line for others. I refuse to believe that empathy for the lives of one is mutually exclusive of the other. My work with vulnerable populations shows me a fraction of a window into what the police deal with every day. It rips my heart open to think of the terror experienced and split second decision-making cops make to uphold safety in society.
Understanding the humanity in law-enforcement officials also must take into account the authority they hold, with which comes significant power and responsibility. As such, it is essential that law enforcement be held to our society’s highest humane standards.
And as we do so, there is a bigger picture too. I’ve heard that a few “bad apples” should not spoil the rest of them. But it is not the apples that are the problem; it is the system of racism that has for centuries built a nation’s prosperity on the backs of black bodies, including through violence.
Law enforcement has historically been tasked with upholding these systems through the enforcement of laws and policies that disproportionately impact the lives and bodies of people of color.
Much of the daily work of the police is a byproduct of the inaction of the dominant white culture in the face of inequity. We must take accountability for our own complicity.
Black communities and black people need to be taken seriously and met with equitable systems that do not discriminate through blatant or implicit bias. What is needed are equitable education systems, proper health care, community policing and accountability, economic justice, and more. When one out of three African-American children live below the poverty line, we must do so much better than we are doing now. This includes the inclusion of people of color at the table in places of power, being heard, towards healing and repair.
People who are black or brown are by no means the only ones who need help, not the only ones who need better scaffoldings and support systems. Black lives matter does not mean that other lives do not matter, too. Yet, black lives are disproportionately brutalized. And it is upon us to see the reality of the situation and the humanity of each life under duress in our society, helping to breathe life into those places that are gasping.
You might say: What does this matter to us in Vermont, where there are few black folks to begin with and an abundance of liberal values?
At a Racial Equity Alliance of Lamoille meeting last year, an older woman shared her experience of being black in Vermont. She said that until she moved here from the South, she had not experienced such racism as she had here. Another family I know moved out of Lamoille County because of the racism their children experienced in the schools. None of this shocks me.
Additionally, statewide outcomes within the Vermont criminal justice system consistently show a vastly inequitable impact on people of color in our state. We either believe that this is because people of color are disproportionately criminal (a belief that is inherently racist), or we acknowledge that our systems are disproportionately impacting the lives of people of color.
So what is there to do? For those who do not know how to answer that question, particularly all of the white people, of which I count myself, I too have empathy for us. There is simply no way to get it all right. I am quite certain I’ve gotten at least one thing wrong in this very letter. As one woman told me: This undoing and rebuilding will take years. And in the process, it will get messy.
Yet now is the time we must activate ourselves. Here are a few things that at least us white allies can do right now:
• Read and share about the lives of those who were killed. Bring the humanity of this moment into the conversation and out of the hands of pundits. Say their names.
• Reach out to friends across race lines to talk, discuss, and to black and brown folks, to let them know: “I’m here. This is horrible.”
• If your children are white, teach them how they can use their white privilege to disrupt racism and hate. Talk to your children, your grandchildren, and other youth in your lives about this moment and the historical moments of the past. Why did prior generations march for civil rights? What happens when you stand up for what you believe? What do you think we can do now?
• Write your children’s teachers and principals, letting them know you care about this topic being taught in your children’s classrooms.
• Join the Racial Equity Alliance of Lamoille by emailing email@example.com. Within our alliance, you can show leadership in one of the subcommittees working on equity with local schools, civics and law enforcement, community, and businesses. Everyone’s voice matters in this conversation. If you email, we will let you know soon about a countywide book reading on the history of racism.
If we are not continuously learning, teaching our children about race issues, finding our own peaceful, impactful way to protest this atrocity, praying for lost lives, reaching out to listen, and acknowledging and fighting for the divine spark embedded within each of us — then, yes, we are complicit.
As MLK wrote: “The real tragedy of narrow provincialism is that we see people as entities or merely as things. Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. … We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or American, Negroes or whites. We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image.”
We are dealing with a pandemic, an economic collapse, and now we face racism square in the eye. Only one of these things has been around for hundreds of years and deserves the urgency the other two are now rightly getting.
The world is on fire. Empathy, accountability and humility are steps in the right direction, as we seek to understand the humanity behind the anger, frustration and rage pouring out into the streets. Perhaps it will help us move towards healing, hope, and change.
Tihiyu bri’im, stay safe, be well.
Rabbi David Fainsilber is spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe.