The image will forever break our hearts: a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck with fellow officers standing by doing nothing — slowly, slowly extinguishing the breath of Mr. Floyd.
Compare that horrific scene of the ending of life to the image of God, breathing life into Adam, the first person. God does so to teach all of humankind the mandate to uplift and give life to others.
The murder of George Floyd was a desecration of this mandate. Forcing breath out when we should be breathing breath in.
The murder of a person is the murder of a person, but the murder of a person because of his or her skin color is much bigger. It is an affront to us all — the murder of the world. Had George Floyd been white, he’d be alive today. In his murder, we have all been diminished, we have all been murdered.
And now, there is anger everywhere directed at the police. In my long history of activism, I’ve met good officers, like at 9/11, when, as a clergy first responder, I witnessed first-hand our police at their best.
When speaking to these women and men about police bias against Blacks, they have often told me, “Look Rabbi, in every group, there are bad people” — good cops and bad cops. And in my life’s work as a rabbi-activist, I have seen both kinds.
But here it must be clearly said: when your job involves life and death, there is no room for the bad cop. And the bad cops are still here.
They are still here because Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant who was killed when shot by police 41 times, as they mistook his wallet for a gun — never got justice.
They are still here because Eric Garner, choked to death by a policeman — never got justice.
In each of these cases, and in countless others, the bar to convict the police was too high. This sent a message — you can commit this type of crime with impunity. It is imperative to put into place more oversight structures to assure police accountability.
But now there is hope. Seeing a rainbow of hundreds of thousands around the world — white, black, brown, yellow march for justice — there is hope. It is hope coupled with a responsibility. It is a responsibility for demonstrators to categorically reject those in their midst resorting to violence.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi taught: using violence as a means of social action erodes the moral high ground of one’s cause, and, hence, the loss of public support. Inevitably and tragically, it leads to victimizing others the way one has been victimized.
The slogan “Black Lives Matter” at first alarmed me because it is associated with an organization that espouses anti-Israel sentiments that I categorically reject. But I have now come to understand that for the vast, vast majority of demonstrators – the slogan “Black Lives Matter” (much like our clarion call of “Never Again”) stands apart from any particular affiliation and goes beyond organizational boundaries.
With our Black brothers and sisters vulnerable to attack, we too call out “Black Lives Matter” — we are one with you in your pain, and will never be silent.
As George Floyd is buried, we ought all remember the Jobian cry: “Earth, do not cover my blood; continue to cry out for justice.”
That’s our task. Mr. Floyd’s blood cries out from the ground. It cannot be covered. Blood will continue to cry out until justice is done.
The ultimate biblical symbol of freedom, redemption and renewal is the shofar whose voice comes from the deep inner breath of the person blowing it.
In the spirit of the Divine mandate to give breath we should recall the last gasps of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe,” and resolve, in his name, to live one of the most basic messages of the shofar — to usher in an era of justice, peace and life for all of humankind.