About 100 people stood in the cold evening sun on April 21 to mark a sliver of justice in the prior day’s conviction of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd. Reverend Dr. Michael Nabors, pastor of Second Baptist Church, convened the gathering, which he named “One Battle Won in the War on Racism.”
‘One Battle Won’
“We decided yesterday [to hold a vigil],” Pastor Nabors told the RoundTable, “and we didn’t know whether or not we were going to do a vigil yesterday at 5:30. If the verdict had been ‘not guilty,’ we would have met yesterday. Because it was ‘guilty,’ as we hoped and suspected it would be, we decided that we would do it tonight – not knowing that it would be snowing and winter-like conditions.”
News of the gathering, to be held next to the Maple Avenue garage, where the downtown Farmers’ Market is held on Saturdays, spread by email, social media, and word-of-mouth, Rev. Nabors said. “We did several email blasts to houses of worship everywhere. We sent messages to the folks at the City – the aldermen, the Mayor, the Mayor-elect and all of that. Then we did social media as well.”
Of the name of the gathering he said, “We’re very intentional about those words. We want to celebrate, but at the same time, be couched in the reality that there’s so much more work that needs to be done.”
Those at the lectern and those in the crowd appeared to reflect that mood, somber but hopeful, as speaker after speaker acknowledged the verdict was a step and possibly a turning point but certainly not the final victory against violence and racism.
Messages to Love Others, Care for the Community
Rabbi Rachel Weiss of Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue said, “This week all over the world, Jews in synagogues will read from the Torah, from the book of Leviticus, one of the most holy lines in all of our scriptures, ‘You shall love your fellow human being as love yourself.’ That is the charge that we celebrate. We are obligated to love one another. We gathered today realizing that we can feel many feelings, sometimes opposites all at once. We can be relieved of the accountability that we saw yesterday and we can have anger and grief and outrage that [George Floyd] was killed in the first place…. We take that commandment to protect one another’s lives with all of our hearts as we love our neighbors as ourselves. May we continue to sustain and nourish every single member of our community.”
Pastor Rosalind Henderson of Bethel A.M.E. Church said, “Today we stand elated that history has made has been made; justice prevailed. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.’ As we move forward in America, my prayer is that the walls containing division, racism, bitterness, and hatred will be crumbled about the flood waters of unity, peace, and love for all mankind. … I close with two thoughts, one from John Lewis: ‘When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something, you have to do something.’ And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ Therefore, let us all do what is right and embrace building a better world based on love, equality, and social justice.”
Collective witness and combined voices can bend the moral arc of the universe, said Reverend Eileen Wiviott, Senior Minister at the Unitarian Church of Evanston. “Theodore Parker, 19th century Unitarian minister and anti-slavery activist, said, ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. And from what I see, I am sure that it bends towards justice. One hundred years later, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made these words a lasting imprint on the souls of those who understand that the journey is long and hard, but that we are called to stay on it. And to co-create the world, not as we fear it will always be, but as we know it should be and can be.
“Yesterday the arc was bent, and it did not bend on its own. It was bent by the millions who have marched to demand it across the country and the world. … It was bent by the witnesses who were there that day on May 25 last year, who will carry the scars of that trauma for the rest of their lives – as they watched the end of George Floyd’s life. … The arc of the moral universe was bent by those who took the stand to speak the truth, and the arc will be bent by all of us who stay in the struggle for justice. We know that the arc has not been bent far enough; we know that there is more to do. … We know that we must commit ourselves today and every day to dismantling white supremacy, systemic racism, and criminal injustice in every form, so that we can all be free, none of us are free, until every single one of us is free. May we make it so together. Let us pray and commit ourselves to making it so.”
Reverend Kathryn Banakis of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church said, “What we have experienced in the historically white church over the course of the past year is a reality and an opening of our eyes of just what a particular and perhaps distorted experience of life in the United States it is to be white. … If we have the presence and the love within us to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open, perhaps we may be part of moving forward together within the love of God.”
Should one be grateful for the “bare minimum” of justice, when even that has been denied so many times, Reverend Michael Kirby of Northminster Presbyterian Church said he posed to himself. The answer was a qualified yes, Rev. Kirby said, adding he hoped the fact of the verdict does not lull people into thinking that Officer Chauvin’s act was “an outlier.” Noting that too many people live in a “gilded prison of whiteness,” he said, “We are called to nothing less than the Beloved Community.”
The two City officials, Police Chief Demitrous Cook and Mayor-elect Daniel Biss, emphasized the need for love and care of the community to solve its underlying problems.
The April 20 verdict, said Chief Cook, “shows that the American justice system is still viable because of the tenacity of the public. It’s time to take a holistic approach to the problems we face.
“My vision is to have a community and a Police Department where we could get to know each other, understand our values. So with your community we have to look at the sanctity of life from a holistic perspective. We have to look at what’s going on in America, especially from a law enforcement perspective. … We need to stand up for the sanctity of life and have a holistic approach to solving the problems in America that affect Black and brown people’s situation. We must push for better healthcare; we must push for better education; we must push for fair housing. If you want to be part of the solution, you have to show up.”
Mr. Biss noted that what differentiated Mr. Floyd’s death at the hands of the police from the deaths of other unarmed Black persons killed by police were the videos and the time it took Officer Chauvin to kill him. Had Mr. Floyd been shot, “that would not have been more fair, that would not have been more just, that would have not have been more right and, most importantly, he would not have been more alive today. But we might not have had this kind of national outcry or change.
“And what I say to you is that that gives us a unique moment of opportunity, which is in fact a sacred responsibility – not only to come together and mourn … but to come together and start to change these systems that create the obligation for us to be here in the first place.”
Mr. Biss noted that Mr. Floyd’s death and Mr. Chauvin’s imprisonment were both “crimes of state violence. … When the state put somebody in a cage for years, that’s another act of violence. We ought to ask ourselves the question of why it is the goal – why the one thing we’re able to get right is another act of violence.”
The underlying oppression, brutality, systemic racism and injustice – which exist in this community as well as this country, he said – will ultimately be solved “by changing the way we think about what it means to solve these problems. By, yes, loving one another. By, yes, finding humanistic approaches to solutions by realizing the need to change the underlying systems and fill one another with love and support if we want to create a world where these kinds of gatherings will no longer be necessary.
“As we sadly and somberly celebrate this one small step for justice, let us come together with an understanding of the mutual support and love that we need to bring to every question if we are going to build the society that we can dream of. And 2021 gives us that opportunity, and that opportunity is a sacred responsibility. Let us seize that moment together.”
‘Justice Went Missing’
Rev. Nabors closed the ceremony.
“It’s been on so many occasions we have assembled together in these community vigils here in Evanston and our nation,” he said.
“We got it together to get the nine men and women at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. We remembered over 50 people who lost their lives in Orlando. We gathered together again to remember 50 more people who are going down at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas. Just last fall, we gathered on this very spot on behalf of the Blake family, whose roots are dug deeply into this very Evanston soil upon which we stand.
“We have seen justice denied. Trayvon Martin was killed, and justice went missing. Tamir Rice was killed, and justice went missing. Eric Garner was killed, and justice went missing. Sandra Bland was killed, and justice went missing. Breonna Taylor was killed, and justice went missing.”
He added, “Yet, before we can become caught up in a sweet moment with the simple word ‘justice’ seen as a flickering glow across the canopy of our nation’s landscape, the sin of racism continues to evolve in law enforcement in our judicial system. … Since George Floyd died last summer, 181 Black people have been killed by police, according to the research group Mapping Police Violence.
Rev. Nabors said he believes the “occasional breaks and moments of justice” are meant to “keep the very wheels of ‘anti-Black power’ moving.
“What we must do, friends and neighbors, is we must be very diligent in balancing every celebration with the continued and vigorous demand for change.
“What we must do is target racism everywhere and supplant it with a fierce and loving spirit of anti-racism.
“What we must do is be ever realistic that this one party in hundreds may not be the first wave in a tsunami of justice rolling across our land. But it may simply be a decision of necessity, seeking to lull us back into conformity and unguarded ease.
“With every step forward comes a more glaring display of white supremacy. As we break the barriers, as we tear down walls, as we overcome obstacles, the struggle will not end. But keep in mind, we know what the end will be.
“Right always wins. Love is always greater than hatred. Evil cannot withstand good.”
He quoted from James Russell Lowell’s poem “The Present Crisis.”
“Truth forever on the scaffold.
Wrong forever on the throne. …
Yet, the scaffold sways the future
And in the dim unknown
Stands God within the shadows
Keeping watch over his own.“
Looking at the solemn gathering, Rev. Nabors said, “When you leave this place tonight, celebrate. But in the morning, get prepared to continue the work. That must be done. Thank you all very much for coming.”