Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve interviewed and spoken with several black Catholic leaders in the course of my reporting on racism and the Church’s response to the systemic bigotry and discrimination experienced by black-and-brown-skinned people in the United States.
The breaking point for many protesters marching in the streets was the horrific video of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, having his neck pinned by the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, for nearly nine minutes. Before dying, Floyd, 46, cried out for his momma and repeatedly told the officer – who has since been charged with second-degree murder – “I can’t breathe.”
The video elicited some strong visceral responses from the black Catholic ministry leaders and Church officials I spoke with. Here is what they had to say:
Gloria Purvis, host of the EWTN radio show Morning Glory
“That nearly broke me to hear a grown man call out like that in desperation,” Purvis told a virtual panel of other black Catholics hosted by Georgetown University on June 5.
Purvis said she remembers thinking, “Stop, in the name of God, stop!” while watching the video. She compared watching Floyd suffer in his final minutes of life to witnessing an abortion in real time, and not being able to stop it.
“I wished I could have just pushed (Chauvin) off,” Purvis said, “And that kind of helplessness, that kind of crippling helplessness, in the face of such a brutal act against another human being has greatly disturbed me and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
“The real issue is that a human being had his life snuffed out by the very state that is paying to protect and serve,” Purvis said. “That’s what black lives matter means. We want to be able to walk and live and breathe and move unencumbered and un-fearful, like everybody else. That’s what we want and that’s what this movement is about.”
Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C.
Archbishop Gregory told the Georgetown virtual panel the Floyd video brought back memories from when his parents took him as a boy to the viewing of Emmit Till, a 14-year-old black boy who in 1955 was brutalized, lynched and mutilated in Mississippi for the alleged offense of whistling at a white woman. Till’s parents insisted on an open-casket viewing to shock the world’s conscience.
“I remember as a younger man being overwhelmed by the awful event,” Archbishop Gregory said, “but also it was one of those moments that as a young black person, parents had to give you the talk — how do you perform, how do you respond, how do you behave when you’re in such a precarious situation?”
The archbishop said Floyd is one of several black men – Michael Brown and Armaud Arbery, to name a couple of others – who in recent years have been “assassinated for no other reason than the color of their skin.”
Pamela Harris, director of ethnic ministries for Diocese of Columbus, Ohio and president of the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators
“When Mr. Floyd was on the ground, it was like we all felt the pressure on our necks,” Harris said.
“Think about the amount of time (Floyd) laid there. It’s heartbreaking. For any person of moral and ethical value, it’s heartbreaking. We should not be watching what appears to be a murder.”
Danielle Brown, Associate Director of the USCCB’s Ad-Hoc Committee Against Racism
Brown told me in a phone interview about how the Floyd video speaks to the heightened state of awareness that black people in general need to have in navigating society.
“It’s exhausting,” Brown said. “There’s just this level of discomfit to be a person of color that you’re constantly faced with but you become so used to it that you get conditioned to being on your guard.
“Being a person of color in America, it’s very hard to relax,” Brown added. “Things like this really just take you to the next level.”
Dr. Marcia Chatelain, Georgetown University professor of history and African-American studies
Asked for her thoughts on the Floyd video, Chatelain told the above-mentioned Georgetown panel, “I think about the fact that at any given moment, everyday people, just because they are in the presence of a person of color, may witness someone’s last day of life.”
In the Floyd video, Chatelain said we witnessed the kind of public difference to black lives that allows that kind of death to happen.
“The knee that was on that man’s neck was weighted by all the systems that have sanctioned that behavior, and all the people who depend on that behavior in order to secure their own personal property as well as their status in society,” Chatelain said.
Percy Marchand, associate director of the Knights of Peter Claver
The Floyd video, Marchand said, “represented America’s knee on the neck of black america, with a total lack of regard.”
“He was still a human,” Marchand said while talking about how some white commentators have since tried to talk up Floyd having a criminal record.
“I don’t care if he had just murdered somebody, he’s still a human. He still has the breath of life in him. Particularly as a Catholic who’s pro-life, how do we not understand and value that?
“When you disregard life, you disregard God’s opportunity to come in and minister and be an example and live through people. You literally cut that off,” Marchand added.
Marchand said he was also taken aback at the apparent indifference on Chauvin’s face, and among the other officers who watched the entire incident with no emotion.
“To have no disregard for life to the point where (police) feel so protected and disregard life so much that even with cameras everywhere rolling, they’re still behaving like that? And to have more concern about people respecting your authority than you do regard for someone else’s life?”
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., president of the National Black Catholic Congress
“This man died over a $20 bill,” Bishop Campbell said in noting that the entire police encounter stemmed from an allegation that Floyd had tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby store.
“What I saw was they got him on the ground, I saw a policeman kneel on this man’s neck, and I could hear (Floyd) saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ his hands handcuffed behind him, lying on his stomach….
“I’m thinking, ‘No one needs to be treated like that.’ He was subdued. He was handcuffed. There’s on reason for it… The officer ignored his pleas… If those policemen didn’t think there was something wrong, why did they then call an ambulance? From time they called for an ambulance to when it arrived, the officer did not let up off his neck.”
Said Bishop Campbell, “That was murder, and this happens too frequently to black people and Hispanic people. It happens too frequently.”
“What I saw is a person not looking at another person as a human being… It comes down to seeing the humanity of everyone… That police officer did not see the humanity in the person he was suffocating, and to make it worse, the others around him just stood and watched. The three other officers were complicit in not doing what they should have done in allowing a man to die in front of their eyes.”
Vickie Figueroa, director of Black Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Detroit
“When I saw the video of the officer kneeling on him, life and air literally drained from my body, for many reasons,” Figueroa said.
“One is George Floyd was just vocalizing his discomfort, ‘I can’t breathe, oh my, oh my…'”
“The reaction of the officer scared me more,” Figueroa said. “Because he was kneeling there with his neck on George’s neck like it was another day in a parade. There was no emotion, no reaction. It’s almost as if he was kneeling on the ground and there wasn’t another human being there.”
“It was just like, ‘How can you be so cold and callous as to just kneel on someone’s neck, especially when you have people around you, people calling out at you to stop?’ But (Chauvin) just ignored them. He didn’t see a human being under him. He didn’t see human beings around him, and that type of disconnect from your fellow man should call all of us to gasp for air.”
“That just awakened something in the pit of my stomach,” Figueroa said. “We’ve had dozens upon dozens of years of racism, racist institutions of which law enforcement can be one sometimes, the criminal justice system can be one sometimes, but we’ve never gotten to the point where our guts were just ripped apart in this manner.”
Darren Davis, political science professor at the University of Notre Dame
“The video is just heart-wrenching. I’m still in an area of disbelief. It’s kind of like surreal to me,” said Davis, the co-author of a 2011 report, sponsored by Notre Dame and the National Black Catholic Congress, that offered insights into the spiritual needs of black Catholics.
“It reminded me of the conversations [about interacting with the police] that my father would have with me and how I’d brush it off and kind of ignore it,” Davis said. “It saddens me to think about that now.”