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Accountability is One Step Toward Justice: Response to a Verdict in the Murder of George Floyd

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On Tuesday, April 21, 2021, on the 23rd day of the Omer, a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd (zichrono livracha - may his memory be for a blessing).  Between 2013 and 2019, only 1% of killings by police in America have resulted in criminal charges. For far too long, impunity has been the norm for actors of state-sanctioned violence against Black and Brown people, a pillar of the American racial caste system that has its roots in slavery and the lynchings of the Jim Crow era. Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association applaud Tuesday’s verdict as an important step toward basic accountability for racial violence in America. We join our allies around the world in taking a moment to breathe - a basic human right denied to George Floyd and countless others. 

This moment allows many of us to exhale a breath we have held for too long. And as we breathe, we face the daunting truth that accountability in one police murder is not the same thing as justice. Since George Floyd’s death, 181 Black people have been killed by the police in the U.S, including 16-year old Ma’Khia Bryan, gunned down by police in Columbus, Ohio 30 minutes before the verdict in the Chauvin trial was read. We are still reeling from the deaths of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and we will not stop saying the names of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and so many others.  

As a society, we are long overdue for transformative changes in our criminal justice system, including prisons, jails, policing, courts, bonds, and discriminatory laws. We encourage our Reconstructionist communities to engage in brave conversations and action around the big issues that are at the center of the fight for racial justice in our day. Reconstructing Judaism created Evolve, our online journal for groundbreaking Jewish conversations, to foster such engagement. On Evolve readers can find essays rooted in Jewish texts, values, and tradition on subjects including defunding the police, reparations for slavery, environmental racism, radical inclusion, the intersections of racism and antisemitism, and Jews and white privilege. The time for these conversations is now.

As we renew our souls for the long fight for racial justice ahead, we offer you this powerful selection of voices from the movement’s Tikkun Olam Commission, reflecting on Tuesday’s verdict:

Lazora Jordan, Bnai Keshet, Montclair NJ, USA:

This is just the beginning. [Tuesday’s] verdict should not be cause for comfort because the threads of racial injustice still remain deeply interwoven into the fabric of our country. It may be tempting for people to feel a sense of celebration, perhaps even a sense of relief. We should remind ourselves that this is not a moment to pat ourselves on the back and say, “well done,” or say that the verdict is proof that this country is living up to ideals when we have so many counterexamples happening every day.

Sarah Waisvisz, Or Haneshamah, Ottawa Canada:

As a Canadian of African/Caribbean descent, I have much to say about the verdict … George Floyd could have been my cousin, my uncle, my brother, my future son … his calling out to his mother haunts me still … Despite this being an American event there has been an international outcry over George Floyd’s death, as you may know: your international neighbours were in the streets this summer too. The world is watching and for Black Americans, and African-descendant people everywhere, this is yet another moment in a long arc of deaths, injustices, horrors —- an arc heavy with what always feels like relentless grief. Non-Black Jewish people ALSO know about historical trauma and the weight of grief; so now I ask for their support, because Black-Jewish people often feel two legacies of sorrow at once; I know I do every day, including today.

Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Director of Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism 

I’m not in a place to be celebratory but I do feel some relief. We still have so much work to do. Yesterday was one step towards justice. But, we need accountability. Justice should be restorative. If Chauvin could accept responsibility and offer some remorse, that would go a long way (Teshuvah). And, this morning I learned that a police officer killed a girl in Ohio.  My feelings? I’m not sure where they are. I’m grateful it turned out the way it did, and we still have a lot of work to do. A lot of work. 

Craig Levine, Bnai Keshet, Montclair NJ, USA:

For George Floyd, there can never be justice. Derek Chauvin saw to that. For the Floyd family, we hope Tuesday’s verdict will provide a measure of solace in the face of unimaginable, tragic loss. For the rest of us — the community of Reconstructing Judaism, and the American public writ large — let this be a mirror moment, when we look ourselves, individually and collectively, squarely in the eye and say, in the phrase the Jewish People know all too well: Never again.

The only Jewish, the only human response is to accept this yoke of history and pledge ourselves to the long, hard work of change, to the work of creating an American society in which each and every person is treated, as our tradition teaches is the case, as if they were created directly in the image of God.

May God grant us all the courage and strength to take up this work, and grace us with the ability, if not to see it through, then at least to do our parts to the very best of our abilities. We owe George Floyd, and each other, nothing less.

Today is the 25th day of the Omer;  the 49-day period Jews count between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. This is a period that oscillates between joy and mourning in the Jewish calendar. As we make our way towards revelation, may we collectively continue the work of our biblical ancestors of enshrining a collective social order of liberation. May each of us know more joy than sorrow in the coming year, and may loving-kindness overcome all obstacles in our way. 

 

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