An Open Letter from the Executive Director on George Floyd, Riots, and Lament
Friends and partners, It is difficult to find words to describe where we are in the midst of what feels like chaos. As a friend, partner, supporter of Sunshine Gospel Ministries, we covet your prayer for our community right now. The topic at hand is so deep, hurtful, and rooted in history that I am fearful that it is humanly impossible to adequately say what needs to be said. But I will try. First let me tell you what has happened, then, to the best of my ability “why?” and “what’s next?” What happened? Part I Last week a black man was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. That man’s name was George Floyd. The officer was sworn to “serve and protect” but casually spent 8 minutes during an arrest choking the life out of Mr. Floyd, on camera. Protests spontaneously ensued, across the United States. Those protests were more often than not peaceful, but in a variety of places have become violent. Here in Chicago we have a history of protests, not riots (they are often confused). The initial protests on Saturday eventually did become riots, with random acts of graffiti, broken windows and ransacking. On Sunday I ran and walked 20 miles through the city, from the southside, through the loop and to the near northside and back again. The devastation from Saturday’s downtown protests became visible about four miles north of us, at Roosevelt, extending north from there to as far as North Avenue. I was honestly shocked. Hundreds of blocks and thousands of businesses with graffiti and broken windows, some of which were also ransacked and looted. It was all vastly more than I understood from the newspaper reports, and it was very random. Whatever block(s) the crowd had gone (or been forced down) there was significant damage. At the same time, stores just a block away, weren’t touched. Then the city shut down the loop. Every drawbridge raised except LaSalle. Garbage, dump, and plow trucks blocked every road into the loop from the west, only State street open from the south. All exits off the interstate from Cermak on the south to North Ave on the North, closed. Then they shut down the CTA. The entire CTA. This ended the protests in the loop, but essentially shifted the non-violent and violent activity to the south and west sides. And with the police overwhelmed, provocateurs and opportunists struck. Sunday night, widespread looting spread across the city. The city’s protection of the downtown area moved the chaos from being random in the downtown area, to being targeted on the south and west sides. Yesterday morning my wife and I drove throughout the southside. Every grocery store, pharmacy, corner store, shoe store, hair supply store, currency exchange and many banks were effectively demolished. Windows and doors broke out, and everything was gone or ruined. For the most part, few fires and (in relative terms) few people hurt. Yes, we had more shootings (80) and homicides (19) than any other weekend, but the mayhem was in a sense very targeted to items of some perceived value. Given that there were tens of thousands of episodes of looting, the fires and shootings were far less than could have happened. The schools, churches, residences and ministries were largely untouched. Sunshine was not touched physically. I count this as both the hand of God and the love of our neighbors. We don’t know if it will stay that way. What happened? Part II The unseen or misunderstood part of what has happened is the trauma that has been unleashed on our black brothers and sisters. An unseen trauma is flooded upon the black community again and again, every time another unarmed black person is killed, and especially when it’s at the hands of law enforcement. At least it’s unseen to many of us who are not black. It’s unseen, unappreciated, unknown even to a substantial portion of our society. If it’s never happened to you, if it’s never happened to someone you love, you won’t get it. Fear, anger, worry, dismay, humiliation. There are not enough words to describe what has happened in the mind and heart of virtually every black person, or parent of a child of color, in the country, at the same time, for the umpteenth time. This kind of devastation is deeper, more costly and more extensive than all of the smashing of windows, looting of businesses and burning of properties. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting the cost, consequence or significance of the looting. What I am saying is that the public murder, of yet another unarmed black person, is of more consequence than the burning of a thousand businesses. There’s no insurance to bring the soul back. There’s no board-up service to care for the panic set into the millions of people who think to themselves, “that looks like my son,” or “that looks like me.” Murder in public is after all, by definition, a lynching. A lynching casts a pall. The pall is spiritually and emotionally so devastating it can scarce be understood by someone who has no biological or parental connection. Why? Why the protests and why the violence? I’ve already partially answered this. But I need to say this, the city and the country did not blow up because of the murder of George Floyd. Just a couple months ago another young black man was out jogging. Ahmaud Arbery was running through a predominantly white community and was murdered by a dad and son. Eventually a video came out, making it clear that the original justification was false. This was a murder in public. Another lynching. The family asked that runners around the world consider running 2.23 miles in “Maud’s” memory, because February 23rd is his birthday. Runners around the world locked into the hashtag. #IRunWithMaud. Personally I decided to make that run 223 times this year. It would force me to come to an abrupt stop on my 5+ mile runs. Stop. Think. Remember. Honor. Grieve. I’m not even 10% of my way through this. . . and another black many is killed. You can’t lament fast enough. There isn’t enough time between the murders to grieve. But my place in the black community is adoptive. There is a sense in which I need the discipline of the 223 runs to keep this top of mind, to not forget, to press me to remember. Black American’s don’t need that. They feel it every time. George and Ahmuad look like my neighbors and co-workers and loved ones, but they don’t look like my dad, cousins, and sons. My frustration with the lack of time to grieve between lynchings is felt 100 times over by our black brothers and sisters. Some, so much they don’t want to talk about it. Some, so much they can’t talk about it. It is the piling up and up of black bodies. It is the need to say out loud that “black lives matter.” It is the tone-deaf nature of those in power. It is an endless anger, humiliation and anxiety that leads to people saying that enough is enough. That’s why the protests start and stay. And I can see nothing other than full and complete justification for the protests. I’m angry. I’m not nearly angry enough. I’m hurt, but not enough. If you read this and have not wept about the murders of George, and Ahumad, and Sandra and Rekia and Breonna, or if you don’t recognize their names, I suggest you won’t be able to come to terms with “why?”. These, for whom Christ suffered and died. What love must he have had for them? What’s next? In terms of what happens in the world, I honestly don’t know. Covid-19 has had a wildly disproportionately negative impact on the black and brown communities in our country. They were already “behind” in terms of educational attainment, economic wealth and resilience, health outcomes and all of these are made substantially worse by the pandemic. Add to that the hurt described here. I just don’t know what’s next. What I do know is that our work, rooted in the biblical vision of shalom, which says this is not the way the world ought to be, and we as followers of Christ are called to pursue this; The world as it ought to be. To steal a phrase from some of my favorite Honduran Christians; We are called to pursue a more just society. God’s love for people of all ethnicities and races is what compelled him to call us by His name and to make us His hands and His feet. His clear bias towards prioritizing those most at risk to suffer injustice suggests that we should follow His lead. With that said, it’s my conviction that if we have not yet cared enough to come to terms with our societal history, as well as the current lived reality of our black brothers and sisters, then that is the place to start. Moan, wail, cry aloud. If you can’t do that, it’s because it hasn’t mattered to you yet. Black lives matter. Start there.
Joel Hamernick Executive Director