Saturday, May 30, 2020

Honoring the Inherent Worth and Dignity of All

George Floyd
George Floyd

We’ve been ordered to stay at home here in Oregon due to COVID-19 for about 10 weeks now.  On the one hand the time has been OK for me.  I’ve preached via video and on zoom, and taught Spiritual Practices for a Pandemic on zoom.  I keep up with my duties as President of Farm Worker Ministry Northwest via email and zoom, as well as my other board member duties.  I was even able to join the farm worker picket line at two fruit companies in the Yakima Valley, Washington.  As much as I might have provided them with support and hope by my presence and donation, they surely provided me with a much needed glimpse of good, hard-working people asking for justice and dignity, clearly in solidarity and community with one another.

What has been hard for me is the feeling that I lack safety and community in the physical spaces that I inhabit here in Portland.  Yesterday I left the house to go to the grocery store, and within the first half-mile from home, no less than three cars, sliding through intersections without stopping, made me slam on the brakes.  The freeways are less congested, but there are no lack of cars that go way over the speed limit, weaving in and out, and/or tailgating.  I don’t know why I thought that in the pandemic, people would be way slowed down and more generous in yielding the right of way.  Not so here in Portland.

And the grocery store experience!  I am 68, almost 69 years old, so once I came out of denial that I was in a “high risk group,” I started being vigilant about wearing a mask and staying 6 feet away.  Impossible to do!  Even during “senior shopping” times people will not stay away from me.  A few weeks ago Safeway put in one-way aisles, which I thought was a great idea, if people would comply.  Pointing out the one-way aisle to some customers coming at me was met by one woman instructing them that they could do whatever they wanted, “she’s just a bitch,” she said. Even the employees disregard the one-way, congregate in the doorway, and pass you within inches, all while the company signs say “Your and our employee’s safety is our top priority.”

I hate the feeling that I have to scan the aisles for safety and have an escape route planned.  I don’t say anything to anyone anymore as I just don’t feel up to the sort of confrontation that might ensue.  Instead, I have found a store that has little traffic and go in there at off times.  That was working good for me until in the 5 minutes that I was in there two employees came by me within 2 feet, one stopping to chat with me!  Really?  I guess I am a bitch!  I don’t want to chat with you up close and personal!

I have to think that the stress of the pandemic has helped ignite the ticking time bomb of police brutality against yet another black person, erupting into the protests and riots we have seen in the last few days.  What do people do when they live day in and day out, year in and year out, with the kind of systemic racism, inequality and poverty that is so intractable in this country?  Add to that the stress of the pandemic, and violence erupts.  I am not saying that violence is OK, but it is understandable. 

It reminds me of Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, in which a black man is choked to death by a police officer, and simmering racial tensions erupt on the hottest day of the year.  It is sad that so little has changed in over 30 years.  Since then there have been far too many deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement.  And the consequence is that we become deadened to the horror of it.

NPR reported today that they

“invited Jamil Smith, a senior writer at Rolling Stone, to read from an essay that he wrote at the New Republic more than five years ago, titled  "What Does Seeing Black Men Die Do For You?"

In it, he writes:

"It seems sickly fitting that those killed by police today are no longer transformed into the anointed or the condemned, but, thanks to more advanced and available technology, they become hashtags. With a flood of more videotaped killings, a hashtag seems a brutally meager epitaph, a mere declaration that a victim of police violence was once alive, human, and didn't merit having her or his life stolen.

Unfortunately, the increased visibility of trauma and death at the hands of cops isn't doing as much as it should. The legacy of our increased exposure to black death has merely been the deadening of our collective senses…

Since January 1, 2015, 1,252 black people have been shot and killed by police, according to the Washington Post's database tracking police shootings; that doesn't even include those who died in police custody or were killed using other methods."[1]

With so much death surrounding us in this pandemic and in our violent culture, we are in danger of not only being unable to feel empathy for the victims and their families, but also we are in danger of unconsciously taking out our feelings of rage and helplessness on others. 

Whether it takes the form of road rage, grocery store confrontations, or full-blown violence in the streets, let us take a moment to do two things for the good of ourselves and our neighbors:

1)  Spend some time in silence reflecting on how you are feeling right now.  Write some.  Reflect. 

What are you feeling right now?  Where do you have hope?  What seems hopeless at this time?  Feelings of sadness can be overwhelming at a time like this. 

Can you think of how you might offer up your sadness and/or hopelessness to a power greater than yourself?  Is there anything you can do that helps you feel more connected to others and/or nature?  Some examples:  call a friend, walk, hike, garden, take a drive to look at gardens, music, art, online spiritual/writing/art groups, reading, writing, etc.  What is your passion in life?  Do it in some form.

2)  Spend some time in a ritual or symbolic bell ringing for all the lives that have been lost.  Say their names and ring the bell.  You may know them or you may not.   We honor their inherent worth and dignity when we say their names.  We honor those who have died due to COVID-19.  We honor those who have died due to systemic racism, inequality and poverty.  We honor those who have died due to police brutality.

Here are the names of some of the black people who have been killed by the police since Eric Garner's death in 2014.[2]

Eric Garner had just broken up a fight, according to witness testimony.

Ezell Ford was walking in his neighborhood.

Michelle Cusseaux was changing the lock on her home's door when police arrived to take her to a mental health facility.

Tanisha Anderson was having a bad mental health episode, and her brother called 911.

Tamir Rice was playing in a park.

Natasha McKenna was having a schizophrenic episode when she was tazed in Fairfax, Va.

Walter Scott was going to an auto-parts store.

Bettie Jones answered the door to let Chicago police officers in to help her upstairs neighbor, who had called 911 in order to resolve a domestic dispute.

Philando Castile was driving home from dinner with his girlfriend.

Botham Jean was eating ice cream in his living room in Dallas, Tx.

Atatiana Jefferson was babysitting her nephew at home in Fort Worth, Tx.

Eric Reason was pulling into a parking spot at a local chicken and fish shop.

Dominique Clayton was sleeping in her bed.

Breona Taylor was also asleep in her bed.

And George Floyd was at the grocery store.

Take good care, friend.



Copyright 2020 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.