Updated 6-1-20

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”

— Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Stanford University, 1967

We must condemn the violence following the death of George Floyd of Minneapolis. The fires, broken windows and thefts are salt in the coronavirus-inflicted economic wounds of Portland businesses. These riots are scary and heartbreaking.

But the conditions in our society that allow for the death of Floyd under the knee of a police officer, of Breonna Taylor by bullets in her Kentucky home and of Ahmaud Arbery while on a run in Georgia should be condemned more emphatically and relentlessly than the riots. As King said in his talk at Stanford, riots will continue “as long as America postpones justice.”

For a story on grandparents raising grandchildren a couple years ago, I spoke with a woman in North Portland about the challenges of caring for her grandson. I asked what the hardest moment was, and she said, “Having the talk.” My own thoughts quickly went to the birds and the bees. But the grandmother was not referring to a talk about life but about death.

When her black grandson was 10, she insisted he memorize a script of what to say if stopped by police. He was to hold his hands up and give the officer his grandmother’s address.

Not every encounter between police and people of color ends in brutality or a fatality, far from it. Most officers are good. However, the black community is telling us that the possibility of death is common enough that it’s always on their minds in a way most white people cannot or will not understand.

If we want justice we must try to understand. To understand we must listen.

In their 2018 pastoral letter on racism the U.S. bishops write: “By listening to one another’s experiences, we can come to understand and to empathize,” which in turn eventually leads “to those right relationships that unite us.”