For many it was shocking to see the video of George Floyd’s death, and to witness the last moments in the life of that unarmed African American man who was killed during a May 25 arrest after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for an extended period of time.

But for Ansel Augustine, the new executive director of Cultural Diversity and Outreach for the Archdiocese of Washington, seeing that image brought back painful memories of other incidents of police brutality or law enforcement mistreatment of people of color, and also ongoing societal racism and inequality that have sparked nationwide protests in the wake of Floyd’s murder.

“There was a sense of outrage and hurt,” Augustine said in an interview, adding that unfortunately, those feelings also were combined with “a sense of here we go again.”

Summarizing his reaction to Floyd’s death, Augustine – who has African American and Native American roots – described “the anger, the numbness, the feeling of what if that was me, or one of my family members or youth group kids? The devaluing of black life, of people of color, (it) was hurtful to see that again.”

Before beginning his work for the Archdiocese of Washington this spring, Augustine earlier served as the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and coordinated ministries there for black youth and young adults. Augustine, who has a doctorate in ministry, began his career more than two decades ago when he became the youth minister at his home parish of St. Peter Claver in the Treme area of New Orleans, which he helped to rebuild following Hurricane Katrina.

He recalled a time when, due to the hurricane’s devastation, he had a meeting for a youth board meeting with some of the city’s black Catholic youth at a suburban parish that was predominantly white, and a woman there saw them, thought they had broken in and threatened to call the police.

Moments later, a volunteer came and vouched for them, but he said that was a disillusioning experience for the high school youth who had gathered for the meeting.

“As a black male, sometimes I worry about myself, my family members, my youth group kids,” he said.

Reflecting on how law enforcement’s treatment of minorities has again gained national attention, Augustine said, “This is not to label all police officers as bad. Some of my family members and former youth group kids work for the New Orleans Police Department. Unfortunately, there is a broken system we see here in how policing is done in our inner city neighborhoods, where men of color are stereotyped, are automatically seen as up to no good, and seen as needing to be policed or controlled rather than being served or protected, as you would see for other communities.”

Addressing the unrest that followed Floyd’s killing, which in addition to peaceful protests, also included rioting, looting and fires being set, Augustine quoted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who championed nonviolence in his struggle for civil rights, but who also once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Augustine said, “You have these communities rising up, because they’re sick and tired of being unheard. I don’t advocate for destruction, because a lot of times it’s happening in our own neighborhoods, and the damage affects our communities long-term.”

But he added, “I do understand the pain and the rage.”

Augustine said “as someone who had to rebuild our community and our church after Hurricane Katrina,” he said the country is now seeing the ravages of “the storms of racism and indifference that have affected our community rising up now.”

People need to understand that communities are rising up because of these experiences, Augustine said. “The more these communities feel ignored or unheard, the tensions and frustrations build up, and we see that playing out in front of our eyes in the protests and riots occurring around our country right now.” 

“We need to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, even if we don’t understand their pain,” he added.

Demonstrators in Washington gather along the fence surrounding Lafayette Park outside the White House June 2, 2020, protesting the police brutality that caused the death of George Floyd and the ongoing racism that still plagues the country . (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

The executive director of Cultural Diversity and Outreach for the archdiocese encouraged people to study the issues of racism and racial injustice, including documents issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2018, the nation’s Catholic bishops approved a new pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” 

Augustine also noted the importance of reading contemporary authors who have written about racial justice issues and institutional and personal racism, and he recommended reading works by Dr. James Cone, Michelle Alexander, Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi.

Another step that people can take toward understanding these issues, is to listen to and collaborate with organizations and individuals working to oppose racism, he said, underscoring the importance of “listening to folks doing this work” and learning how to partner with them. Augustine said Catholics can “partner with our black Catholic parishes and institutions already doing that social justice work.”

The archdiocesan official also recommended for people “to look at our own lives, to see where we need to challenge those voices of bigotry, prejudice and racism that could be within our own families, friends, networks, coworkers, wherever that might be.”

Now is an important time to hear the voices of people who have been marginalized, he said. “Pope Francis calls us to go to the peripheries, and we’re seeing the peripheries wanting their voices to be heard. We see pain, hurt and anger being shown by people” on the outskirts of society.

Augustine pointed out how the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted communities of color, in terms of sicknesses, deaths and the loss of jobs.

“When we look at our Church that is pro-life, we need to understand the pro-life issues affecting our people of color,” he said, noting those health and economic impacts of the coronavirus on minorities, but also ongoing disparities affecting those communities, in issues like poverty and mass incarceration.

The Catholic official said now is the time to hear and act on people's cries about racial injustice.

“People want to know the wider Church and people in power care about these issues, to address them and systematically eradicate them, so we can truly form a just society,” he said.