Remembering George Floyd and the global movement for justice he inspired

(Photo: Unsplash/Priscilla Gyamfi)

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd lost his life as a white police officer kept his knee on his neck, asphyxiating him, strangulating him, choking the life out of another black body. We owe a debt of gratitude to the teenager, Darnella Frasier, who recorded for all the world to see the treatment of an unarmed Black man by law enforcement officers.

That day changed everything. It was a defining moment in American history and race relations; it was also a global moment when millions of people witnessed the horror of another Black man brutally murdered. And what made it equally shocking and poignant was this: during the height of the global Covid-19 pandemic when Black and brown people were dying disproportionately from the virus that compromised their respiratory system, we saw Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd's neck for over 9 minutes, taking his breath away.

The aftermath of this modern American horror caused protests, marches, and demonstrations in over sixty countries, including Britain, Brazil, France, Germany, and Thailand. On the one hand, one could argue that the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that preceded and followed it (consequently giving a 'fierce urgency' and attention to the movement's demands), does not speak well of racial reconciliation and democracy in America, especially when the election of President Obama in 2008 appeared to indicate the decline of race in culture and society – the possibility and hope of the emergence of a 'post-racial' America.

But it certainly does put a spotlight on the role of white Evangelicals who put a libertine lacking the most basic knowledge of the Christian faith into the White House in 2016 (with around 81 per cent of their votes). How and why it happened is one of the questions posed by Kristin Kobes Du Mez in her recent book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

On the other hand, paradoxically, there may well be cause for keeping hope alive. Protesters in the demonstrations that took place in America and other countries around the world in the wake of George Floyd's death were not just African Americans and Black people; hundreds and thousands of white Americans, male and female, young and old, thronged the streets in solidarity against racism, injustice and police brutality against African Americans.

This week, people will be marking the anniversary of Mr Floyd's death. Many will remember him and his immediate family. Friends like Pastor Patrick Ngonwolo, who spoke at a recent Religion Media Centre briefing last Thursday entitled "One year since George Floyd's death", will continue to ask why his friend had to die. But there will also be the recognition that sometimes 'God uses the unlikeliest of people' to bring about change.

As we remember, reflect, and respond in our own way to the senseless and brutal murder of George Floyd a year ago on the streets of America we must do battle with the past, take courage from the present and work to create a shared future that is just and allows individuals to flourish.

Racism in America is a reality; it has dogged the republic from its inception and still pervades the nation's DNA. Carl Degler, in his Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America, reminds us of the status that was assigned to Black people in America and later informed and governed race relations: 'It was to be anticipated that from the beginning a special inferior position would be assigned to black people.' It is the history and legacy of this defective anthropology that perpetuates racism, discrimination, and ultimately imprisons in poverty and kills countless African Americans.

It would seem that the 'colour-line' presciently spoken of by the African American scholar at the beginning of the twentieth century was not only a phenomenon for the last century, but rather a reality that haunts the country today. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois argued:

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line –the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict."

But history and the past should not imprison us. The past should empower us; it should perform a didactic function, enabling us to learn from it, extract wisdom, and try not to make the same types of mistakes. For those in power and authority, there is an opportunity to understand how the past inscribes the present and how we can morally and politically redeem the past and heal painful memories of injustice. Where injustices have been perpetrated, there must be recognition, sympathy, humility to address them and to do what we can to right them.

Remembering and restitution are fundamental Christian virtues. Indeed, reconciliation is only possible when, as Muthuraj Swamy reminds us, there is 'just and proper restoration'. For many individuals and communities in the US, UK, and other countries, remembering and reflecting upon the death of George Floyd will be painful. His name will be memorialized and his pitiful cry of 'I can't breathe' will, undoubtedly, become what the writer Ben terms the 'mantra of oppression' globally.

But the future can be so much brighter for all if the global insurrection, solidarity, sympathy, and decency against racial and other forms of injustice that George Floyd's death inspired continues to burn in our hearts and minds. And this is not because Mr George Floyd was a paragon of virtue, but rather because he was a man who was extrajudicially murdered because he was Black. That is the scandal; that reality, that truth, should trouble our conscience and Christian sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic.

And if President Biden is right when he stated, after the court returned a 'Guilty' verdict against Derek Chauvin on 20 April, that George Floyd's murder 'in the full light of day' lifted the 'blinkers off the whole world' to see America's treatment of one of it citizens, then there is clearly urgent work that needs to done in church and society. 'I can't breathe.' 'We cannot', said President Biden, 'allow these words to die with him.'

African Americans for too long have had their dream of true equality deferred; it has often dried up, says Langston Hughes, like a 'raisin in the sun', to even 'explode'. Of course, America has had its poets and prophets of justice; it has its flood and its 'fire next time', but its future looks like Amanda Gorman, the Inaugural Poet, and the values and virtues she so eloquently invoked at President Biden's Inauguration. The President believes that America has 'a chance to change the trajectory' of racism and discrimination that has deformed the body polit for centuries.

Thank you Mr George Floyd for giving all of us another 'chance to change', to treat each other with dignity and respect, to pursue righteousness and justice, and help to create the 'beloved community'.

Dr R David Muir is Head of Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, and Senior Lecturer in Public Theology & Community Engagement. He currently convenes the Pentecostal Network, is an executive member of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR), and Co-Chair of the National Church Leaders' Forum (NCLF). In 2015, he co-authored the first Black Church political manifesto (2015).