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On the Killing of George Floyd

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

(NOTE: Since I wrote this post, some readers have inferred that a reference below blamed those protesting in memory of George Floyd and in favor of Black Lives Matter for the property damage and looting that stemmed from the demonstrations here, and possibly be extension around the nation. I do not believe this; this is not the case, and I regret that I was not more precise. I have, therefore, edited my original posting – written one day after the Madison demonstrations – to bring clarity to my words. I apologize for causing readers to misinterpret my intention.)

Judaism and Jewish textual tradition assert that all people on earth are equal, irrespective of any apparent or inherent differences. The Midrash explains that common descent from Adam and Eve means that no one’s ancestors are greater than any other: each person is precious in the eyes of God, and each person deserves the same dignity as anyone.

This is why the systemic racism in our nation is so disturbing. For yet again, our nation is reeling from the aftereffects of another death of a young African American at the hands of police. The deeply troubling, almost nine-minute recording depicting the killing of George Floyd should move each of us to reach out to our neighbors, friends, and relatives, and implore them to struggle against the systemic racism of our society.

As the mayor (Jewish, by the way) of Minneapolis said, “What we've seen over the last two days ... is the result of so much built-up anger and sadness, anger and sadness that has been ingrained in our black community, not just because of five minutes of horror, but 400 years [of systemic racism] … If you’re feeling that sadness and that anger, it’s not only understandable, it’s right.”

This past Friday morning, my wife Rabbi Bonnie Margulis and I sent this letter to the leaders of the Madison African American community. We have shared many moments of brotherhood in the last few years:

“Our words fail us, but our outrage and horror haunt us again when, at this terrible time, yet another African American has been killed at the hands of the police.  We cannot imagine the pain and anger, frustration and outrage you must be feeling.  The murder of George Floyd is abhorrent, as is the lack of accountability on the part of the police department and the city government. There is no adequate consolation that we can offer for the violence, the death, the manifestation of systemic racism blatantly at work here. Yet, we stand with you and pledge to act with you in protesting these outrageous acts of inhumanity. We are taught to love our fellow as we love ourselves, and we are completely distraught that many Americans have failed to learn this lesson…”

And like many cities in our nation, rioting has broken out in our downtown/State Street area, including property damage, looting, graffiti painting, and attacks against Madison’s Police Department and other law enforcement officers.

It has become evident that those who instigated this violence were not the peaceful protestors of Saturday afternoon. The identity of these perpetrators is not clear, but I suspect they were agitators from the extremes sides of the political spectrum: from the right, white supremacists who want to attach the stain of violence to the legitimate protestors, thereby hurting their justifiable protests; and from the left, anarchists and antifascists who feel that disruption of the social order is an effective and acceptable method of changing society.

Whoever they were, none of them seemed to have any connection to those calling for changes in the policing system and justice for all those young African Americans who have needlessly suffered or who have been killed at the hands of police.

As our mayor and other city officials said this past Saturday evening, the property damage and senseless rioting does nothing to help the cause of social justice or criminal justice reform. There is no reason to hurt others physically or psychologically because of our anger to the social issues that plague us.

We can’t predict the end result of the current wave of violent confrontations, but please remain current in knowing what’s going on, protect your friends and family, act sensibly, and continue to think of constructive ways to end the systemic racism that plagues our society.

July 9, 2020 17 Tammuz 5780