By Swee Ann Koh
“Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man.”
By now you would have watched the video of a white American police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man named George Floyd. The video, shot by bystanders, showed George pleading for help as the white officer pressed his knee on George’s neck. George later died in the hospital.
“Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man,” the man is heard telling the officer.
But his plea was ignored. The video shows the officer kneeling on his neck for a period of five minutes. He eventually stops moving, but the officer leaves his knee on his neck for several minutes more.
All the four Minneapolis police officers who were present at the scene have since been fired. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the decision to sack the officers involved was “the right call” and apologised to the black community.
I was upset, disgusted and in tears while watching the helpless black man being pinned down by the white officer. He cried out for help several times, but was ignored. I know this happened in America and I can’t do much about it, but I still felt sad.
As I watched the video, I became aware there was an officer standing close by who did not intervene. He must have known his colleague was using excessive force and I am sure he would have heard George pleading. Maybe if he intervened, George Floyd might have lived.
And of course, there were bystanders who were present. In the video footage, witnesses can be heard shouting at officers to get off Floyd’s neck. One yells: “Bro, he’s not even f—ing moving!” Another asks if “you’re going to just sit there with your knee on his neck?”
Why are some of us reluctant to be involved? We all know the saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
As I watched the video, the story of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37) kept flashing into my mind. In the story, we are told that two guys, one a priest and one a Levite, saw an injured man and they both passed by on the other side.
They chose not to be involved. Not to stop and help. Not to intervene. In short, they walked away from the scene. We all can speculate as to the reasons why these two religious men chose to pass by on the other side. We will never truly know. Just like the nearby cop who didn’t stop his colleague. Why didn’t he?
The day before Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, he delivered a speech to a crowd of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
The address is known as the “I’ve been to the mountain top” speech, and like many of his speeches and sermons, it illustrates his skill for taking famous Bible stories and brushing off the dust of over-familiarity that has settled on them. In this speech, he looks to the well-known story of the “Good Samaritan”.
King asked why didn’t the priest and the Levite—both devout religious men — stop to help the seriously injured man? Maybe they didn’t stop was because they each asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” However, when the Good Samaritan came by, he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
And I have asked myself again and again if I was there would I have intervened or simply videotaped the scene and later posted it to my Facebook and felt righteous about it? Of course, if I did that George Floyd would still have died.
The theme for National Reconciliation Week is In This Together. It reminds us that, whether we are in a crisis or in reconciliation, we all #in this together. To be in solidarity with the First Peoples and to be committed to reconciliation means we can’t pass by on the other side. We can’t be bystanders. We can’t be deaf to the cries of the oppressed. Neutrality is not an option.
To say you are not racist is not sufficient. To be “in this together” you need to be anti-racist. And according to author Ibram X Kendi to be anti-racist is “like fighting an addiction, being antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination”. Living this way is hard work.
It is sad but true, 232 years after invasion, institutionalised and systemic racism remains central to Australian capitalism, ensuring that Indigenous people remain the most socio-economically disadvantaged group in Australia.
Our First Peoples are still under the “heavy knees” of racism, discrimination, oppression and colonisation. And it’s because no one intervenes, no one asks the question, “If I don’t stop the colonial establishment (as represented by police officer Derek Chauvin) and help the oppressed (such as George Floyd), what will happen to them?”
We know what happened to George Floyd. Whether a person (or even a people) continues to breathe or not sometimes depends on how us.
Let me conclude with the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.
Rev Swee Ann Koh is Synod’s Intercultural Community Development Advocate.