By Sister Judith Ann Zielinski, OSF
Are you “woke” yet?
“Woke” was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017 as an adjective signifying “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”
If you personally don’t feel “woke” or feel vaguely distant from the urgency of Black Lives Matter, here is a partial litany of recent African-American deaths that may disrupt your comfort level.
George Floyd, 46
Minneapolis police confronted Floyd over accusations that he used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. A white police officer pinned the handcuffed Floyd to the pavement and knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as the black man pleaded for air: “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man!” Three other officers helped restrain Floyd. When paramedics arrived, Floyd was pronounced dead.
Breonna Taylor, 26
Shortly after midnight, without any notice, three police officers used a battering ram to enter the Louisville home of Breonna Taylor, a black emergency room technician, as part of a narcotics investigation. Her boyfriend shot at the officers, striking one in the leg. Police fired more than 20 shots, striking Taylor at least eight times, killing her.
Philando Castile, 32
Police officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled over Philando Castile, a school cafeteria manager, in a Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb. Yanez thought Castile fit the description of a robbery suspect, and approached the car window. Castile told the officer he had a firearm; Yanez told him not to pull out the gun but claimed that Castile did. Yanez fired seven shots at Castile, killing him.
Freddie Gray, 25
Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore Police officers, charged with possessing a knife. While being transported in a police van, Gray “sustained injuries.” He died a week later from severe spinal injuries that a medical examiner said were inflicted during the trip to the police station. The six officers involved were suspended without pay. Eventually, all six returned to work.
Samuel DuBose, 43
Ray Tensing, a University of Cincinnati police officer, pulled over Samuel DuBose for driving without a front license plate. As Tensing approached, DuBose started the car and Tensing yelled for DuBose to stop. The officer pushed his gun through the open car window and shot DuBose in the head. Tensing told investigators he was forced to shoot because he was being dragged by the car and “feared for his life.” Prosecutors tried Tensing twice, but juries deadlocked in both cases.
Tamir Rice, 12
On Nov. 22, 2014, someone called 911 in Cleveland reporting “someone near a recreation center playing with a gun and scaring people.” Police responded, and within seconds of arriving, Officer Timothy Loehmann opened fire, killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been playing with a pellet gun. A grand jury declined to indict the two officers who responded.
Eric Garner, 43
Police caught Eric Garner illegally selling loose cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island and gave him a warning. Two weeks later, police arrested Garner, unarmed, for the same violation. Officer Daniel Pantaleo gripped Garner around the neck as he gasped, “I can’t breathe” 11 times. Garner lost consciousness and lay on the sidewalk for seven minutes until an ambulance arrived. He was pronounced dead at an area hospital approximately one hour later. No charges were filed against Pantaleo.
These deaths have thrown into sharp focus the United States’ long history of police brutality and the systemic racism so engrained in our country’s psyche. Yet many people of faith remain ambivalent, detached and even unmoved.
Father Bryan Massingale, an African-American priest and professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University, challenges Catholic complacency in the face of these events:
“I’m at a loss for words. I’m struggling to contain my anger and disgust with the pathetic, anemic Catholic response to the blatant disregard for Black life — for human life… This is the consistent pattern with Catholic engagement with racism. When it is acknowledged, it is only with bland sentiments of concern that are calculated to not disturb white Catholics. Church leaders rarely have the courage to address how central white racial resentment and fragility are… They are more concerned with the comfort of white people than the terror that racism forces people of color to live with.”
As messengers of peace, do we have any choice other than to become “woke?”