The shocking death last week of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests in towns and cities across the country. Initially, the protests expressed outrage that the police officer involved was still free. Following his arrest for murder, the protests escalated in intensity and, in some places, turned into riots.
The city of Wilmington was caught up in this explosion of anger. I watched the video of the local protest last Saturday: a livestream event provided by a reporter from the radio station WDEL. A large group of people made their way from 6th and Market Street to 9th and Market. Some people were arguing and there were scuffles. As the crowd moved towards 9th Street, shops were looted. Someone threw a bicycle at the T-Mobile shop window, but this had no effect. Then a brick or stone was thrown and the window smashed, and some people entered the shop to help themselves to what was inside.
The police were present in full riot gear but were outnumbered. They remained calm throughout and held a line at Market and 9th Street. The protestors shouted slogans and one or two confronted the police verbally. The protests continued into the night. A friend who lives in Trolley Square, where the crowd assembled later, was awake at 1 am worried about what was happening outside.
It would be naïve to assume that this was a peaceful protest which simply got out of hand. One of the protesters who was interviewed commented “Violence is the only way to solve the problem, it’s sad to say.” Later the WDEL reporter was punched and robbed of his phone. Some other protestors came to him and made sure he was OK, offering him some water. The reporter was angry at the police for doing nothing, but their job was not to escalate matters by arresting someone.
Governor Carney said that “we all need to commit ourselves to healing the racial discord and addressing the systemic inequality that gives rise to it.” It was that word “systemic” which caught my eye. If the system is at fault, do you replace it with another system? And if so, which one? While much good work has been done to change attitudes since the Civil Rights era, and brave men and women have fought for equality, I doubt that systemic change in itself is enough. Governments, both Democrat and Republican, have had opportunities to change the system, yet inequalities and injustices persist.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, responding to the riots, said in his sermon last Sunday,
“There is a part of us that just wants to throw up our hands, and in the words of the Psalmist cry, how long? How long, oh Lord? How long? And yet, we are not victims of fate. We are people of faith. We are not doomed and condemned to continue our past into our present and future…Jesus taught us that love will make a way out of no way…we must not give in to fate. We must dare to follow Jesus in the way of love that can save us all.”
Bishop Curry is saying that we should resist the temptation to be defined by the past, and I think that is because we sometimes use the past as an excuse for our failures today. Or we blame the “system”, which lets us off the hook personally, but there is no system on earth which eradicates inequality or racism. How do we move forward? Not by violence, which harms others and the cause of those seeking genuine reform. When there is mob violence, the individual is lost, and outcomes are often the opposite to those intended.
After Saturday’s fracas, Wilmington returned to normal. Other towns and cities were not so lucky: the destruction caused in those places is a disaster for the local communities. The experience of Detroit, where riots occurred in 1967, is instructive. After the destruction, many parts of the city were not rebuilt. Businesses moved elsewhere, and the people with them.
Attitudes have changed since the 1960s, yet we still have a long way to go. It’s easy to become depressed about current events, but Bishop Curry asks us to look with hope to the future. We have an alternative to despair, violence and destruction, which is grounded in the non-violent teaching of the Galilean prophet and healer, Jesus Christ. Every time we call upon his name we are appealing to the better natures within ourselves. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, it is our work now to be healers of the nation, not to stoke the divisions which already plague us. Jesus had a vision of one community of faith, serving the world, and so we look to build unity in his name.