Like many people I was disheartened and sickened as I watched the media play and replay the scene of Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. This act, while George Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe,” was so brutal and inhumane.
I felt drawn to watch the trial of Derek Chauvin wondering whether the often prevailing powers that dominate our justice system would win out or if the voices and eye witnesses would be heard and true justice would prevail? It was on Tuesday, April 20 that the guilty verdict was announced. I must admit on hearing the jury’s decision I felt that justice had won the day. However, deep down I knew that true and restorative justice must not just win the day, it must become the daily motivation and desire that brings an end to the racism, bias and prejudice that often lay hidden and dormant until the next situation erupts. And erupt it will!
Not 24-hours after Chauvin’s guilty verdict was handed down, as many were celebrating a victory for justice and the black community, the news of yet another violent incident against a black man occurred. This time, for me, the news was a little too close to home. On the morning of Wednesday, April 21, Andrew Brown Jr. of Elizabeth City, N.C. was fatally shot as sheriff deputies of Pasquotank County attempted to serve an arrest warrant. The Office of the County Sheriff has yet to release the body cam footage or any further information. Like many other communities that have experienced police shootings, the tension and unrest is growing within the community of Elizabeth City because of the lack of transparency and accountability.
I feel compelled to write because Elizabeth City, N.C. is not just any small, generally peaceful southern town. It has been home to members of my family since the late 1970s. I’ve visited and vacationed there for close to 40 years after my sister and her husband were stationed there with the Coast Guard and my parents retired and moved from New York City. As happens with many families, other family members also moved to Elizabeth City. Many of my nieces and nephews have been born, raised and schooled within this community and it has been a good, healthy and safe environment for all.
I recall one early recollection, while on vacation with my parents, after they had moved. In a conversation with my mother she told me about the local Catholic churches in Elizabeth City, St. Elizabeth’s founded in 1915 and St. Catherine’s later founded in 1941 to serve the local black community. To my mother, members of my family and myself, experiencing two separate and somewhat still segregated churches was an eye-opening and jolting experience. It was not something we had experienced while living in the New York City area.
Both churches, St. Elizabeth and St. Catherine, at that time, were staffed by the Conventual Franciscan Friars who were diligently working to bring together the two communities into one parish family. Finally in 1978, the parish councils of both churches voted to merge into one combined parish of St. Elizabeth/St. Catherine's. Years later in 1989, both church buildings were closed and the Catholic community of Elizabeth City came together as one parish family in the appropriately named Holy Family Parish. Unity, true communion, justice and equity takes time, presence and attentiveness to grow and to achieve sustainability. It’s a goal that we can aspire to but should never blindly assume that it has been attained. True racial justice and equality must become a daily, conscious choice and a journey entered into together with people of all nationalities.
I had long ago forgotten that conversation with my mother and her sense of unrest with the racial segregation she discovered in the churches in Elizabeth City. The recent killing and unrest in Elizabeth City have reawakened that memory for me. Perhaps the real lesson here is to not allow our difficult and unsettling memories to be lulled into a forgetfulness and a passive acceptance that believes on the surface all is well. Let us wake up, actively work and speak out against racial injustice and for true healing in all our homes, our neighborhoods, our cities and in our country.