Three priests reflect on horror of George Floyd’s death and meaning of the protests that followed
Jun 7, 2020
The ministries of the three priests vary – one is the pastor of an historic African American Catholic parish in the nation’s capital, one is the longtime chaplain for the Metropolitan Police Department, and the other formerly served for many years as a Catholic chaplain at the D.C. Jail. They all had a reaction of horror at seeing the video of the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American man who died while under police custody in Minneapolis, after an officer pressed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. And in interviews with the Catholic Standard, they each reflected on Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice that it has sparked.
‘This has been the norm’
St. Augustine Parish, known as the mother church for African American Catholics in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, including some who formerly had been enslaved. Over the years, its parishioners have witnessed and made history, including hosting and then joining marchers at the 1963 March on Washington, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In 2015, members of the St. Augustine Gospel Choir walked to the White House and sang for Pope Francis and President Barack Obama during the pontiff’s visit to Washington.
Father Patrick Smith, St. Augustine’s pastor since 2004, walked and sang with his parish choir that day. But this past month, he saw another historic moment that for him has become all too familiar – the killing of George Floyd by police.
“I got physically sick, and I’m not a squeamish person,” said Father Smith, who is African American. “After watching something so horrific, I went to bed early that night.”
Adding to the horror of that incident, he said, was “this is not something new.”
The priest noted the 2014 death of Eric Garner, another African American man, who died after a New York police officer put a chokehold on him. Like Floyd, Garner said, “I can’t breathe.”
A grand jury did not indict the officer involved in the killing of Eric Garner.
“In that case, there was no justice,” said Father Smith, adding that when he saw video of Floyd’s death, he thought, “That cannot happen again. A person’s life has been taken from him in a horrible, brutal way… This time, justice has to be done. Police have to suffer the consequences of this horrible miscarriage of justice.”
The priest said the history of the treatment of African American people by law enforcement and the legal system raises doubts about whether justice will be done in the case of Floyd’s murder.
“Just as black people are never given a presumption of innocence even if they are, African Americans don’t give law enforcement or the courts a presumption they will do justice or act justly,” he said. “We can’t assume the law will be fairly or equally applied… unless there is pressure to do so.”
That’s the context that the protest rallies have to be seen in, Father Smith said, adding that fringe elements reacting with violence “shouldn’t define the meaning of the protest or the legitimacy of the protest.”
He noted that people of color have been impacted by societal racism that manifests itself not only in police brutality, but also in inequality that can be seen in high rates of poverty and unemployment among minorities, and also in issues like mass incarceration. And minority communities, which lack equal access to health care, have been hard hit by the coronavirus.
Those issues, the priest said, are “where the rubber hits the road.”
“Part of the anger you see in society today, especially among African Americans, comes down to feeling our lives don’t matter as much, our lives aren’t valued,” Father Smith said.
In his homily at the 2017 opening Mass for the 2017 National Black Catholic Congress, the priest spoke about the dangers that people of color face, not only from police.
“So, even today as in the past the phrase: ‘I feared for my life’ is the universal and almost guaranteed way of receiving absolution and acquittal when it comes to justifying blatant acts that unmistakenly and often tragically demonstrate that the lives and value of Black people matter far less than other groups. But I am not just talking about law enforcement. No, this fear is the justification for every act of discrimination and injustice,” he said.
In a June 1 interview, he cited the recent videotaped incident in Central Park, where a white woman called police, falsely saying that a black man was threatening her and she was afraid. The man was bird watching and had asked her to leash her dog, as park rules require.
“I’m a Catholic priest. I’m also a black man. I have four brothers. I have nephews and cousins. We all have stories. We all have encounters,” Father Smith said. He added, “This has been the norm.”
St. Augustine’s pastor noted the Catholic Church has its own history of racism, including slaveholding, and later in times of segregation, black Catholics had to sit in the back of church and had to wait until the end of the Communion line. But he also noted how then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, after becoming the new archbishop of Washington in 1948, immediately worked to integrate local Catholic parishes and schools. Father Smith said that even though racism remains a polarizing subject within the country and the Church, it must be confronted.
“Part of it starts with acknowledging it and listening to the people affected,” he said.
In his 2017 homily to the National Black Catholic Congress, the priest emphasized why the Church must address racism, saying, “I believe that racism and our unwillingness to seriously and fearlessly address it or even acknowledging its existence is the single greatest obstacle to the fulfillment of our primary mandate from Christ himself: Evangelizing effectively and credibly in the Black American community. Lives are at stake; the eternal life of souls is at stake, so we cannot afford to not confront and overcome this obstacle...”
On May 31, Pentecost Sunday, the first Sunday after Floyd’s murder, Father Smith said he emphasized in his homily that “the Holy Spirit empowers us with the gift of courage. We need not to be afraid to speak out against injustice.”
Father Smith added, “Like never before, we need to be the voice that’s not afraid to call out injustice when it’s there. We believe in law enforcement. We support them, but when they do wrong, we need to call out wrong.”
The African American pastor said that for him, “The center of my faith is the redemptive power of the cross. Look at the cross. First and foremost, it is an innocent man put to death, brutally. I refer to the cross as the greatest injustice perpetrated in history. (But) God brought the greatest good out of it.”
After Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests that followed, Father Smith said, “I believe there’s hope… Will this man’s death be the catalyst?”
‘It was horrific’
Since 1986, Msgr. Salvatore A. Criscuolo has served as chaplain to the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. In that role, he presides at the annual Blue Mass for law enforcement officials and other first responders. He ministers to the police and their families, performing baptisms and marriages. And he sometimes has to notify and comfort families when their loved one has died in the line of duty, and he presides at that officer’s Funeral Mass.
Over the years as chaplain to first responders in the city, he has also served members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Park Police, the United States Capitol Police, and the FBI.
Asked his reaction to the video showing Floyd’s last moments, the veteran police chaplain said, “To keep a knee on somebody’s neck, knowing the damage you’re causing… This was over a counterfeit $20 bill!”
Msgr. Criscuolo said the officers involved deserved to be arrested. All four were fired from the Minneapolis police, and were later arrested. Former officer Derek Chauvin, who had his knee on Floyd’s neck, was eventually charged with second-degree murder, and the other three officers who participated in the arrest and didn’t intervene were charged with aiding and abetting murder.
“It was horrific to view that video,” the priest said.
The chaplain said the officers he served with are very upset at that former officer’s deadly misconduct, and now are facing taunts from some demonstrators and trying to control rioting that has happened at night in the city.
“These officers are totally upset with what’s happening in their own city where they live and work, because one officer was trained better than this and did what he did,” Msgr. Criscuolo said.
Interviewed on June 1, the chaplain said he had been with the police that weekend, trying to be supportive, and he praised the peaceful protesters demonstrating during the day. He said most of the protesters were wearing facemasks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.
“Throughout the day, the protesters are friendly,” he said, noting that some were even thanking police officers for their service. But he added, “At night, all hell breaks loose. At night it seems like a whole bunch of different groups get in the city... (when) it starts to get a little dark, the whole atmosphere changes.”
Msgr. Criscuolo said, “There’s a difference between protesting, which everyone has a right to do, and rioting, which nobody has a right to do, destroying other people’s property.”
On June 8, a front page article in the Washington Post had the headline, “Tensions de-escalate as protests continue,” with the article noting “the demonstrations, which were initially marked by confrontations and violence, have become more peaceful even as several cities saw their largest ever crowds.”
The priest has served as a pastor in the city of Washington for much of his priesthood, including at St. Patrick’s downtown from 2004 until last year, when he retired as a parish priest and moved to St. Mary, Mother of God, while continuing as a police chaplain.
“It’s not easy to be a black man or a person of color,” Msgr. Criscuolo said, acknowledging the racism in society, but he noted how over the years, he has witnessed police officers selflessly serving people of different backgrounds, putting their lives on the line each day.
The priest said he’s seen officers risk their lives running into burning buildings or cars, adding, “They see a human being in need, and they’re not thinking of color. They don’t see color. They see a human being in need of assistance.”
Msgr. Criscuolo noted how on that previous Saturday night, an officer on duty in Washington was hit by a rock that fractured his leg. “That officer was out there to protect protesters’ right to protest,” he said.
Asked about how healing can come about in the wake of Floyd’s death, the priest said, “Justice and healing come with the fact that you have to speak the truth. Police officers and leaders need to say that this officer was wrong.” The chaplain added that former Minneapolis police officer “should have been arrested, and he was.”
‘An ongoing reality’
On May 30, about a half-dozen Catholic priests and a deacon protested near the White House, offering a public witness against the police brutality that caused the death of George Floyd, and the ongoing racism that fuels inequality for people of color in the United States.
Among those Catholic clergy was Father Michael Bryant, who last year marked his 50th anniversary as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. He has devoted more than four decades of his priesthood to helping the incarcerated rebuild their lives and to advocating for reforming the nation’s criminal justice system, which he believes is broken because the nation’s prisons and correctional facilities are mostly filled with poor people of color.
From 1980 until 2005, Father Bryant served as the Catholic chaplain at the D.C. Jail, and he continued volunteering there until the coronavirus shutdown prevented his ministering to the men and women at the city’s correctional facilities.
The priest, who turns 80 on June 21, said he protested because he believes the death of George Floyd reflects “an ongoing reality in our society” – systematic racism and injustices against people of color that began with the institution of slavery 400 years ago and continues today.
“The whole history of race relations in our nation is an abysmal issue,” said the priest.
He noted that he was a seminarian when riots swept through the city of Washington following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
The future priest said that racial unrest was an epiphany for him, showing the importance of working for social justice. “I thought that would be a watershed moment where we would work together for equality,” he said.
But he said in his work serving imprisoned men and women, he saw how across the country, “65 percent of people in correctional institutions are black or brown,” and that figure approaches 90 percent for those incarcerated in the nation’s capital.
Reflecting on what happened to George Floyd and the protests it has sparked, Father Bryant said he believes that nearly all of police and law enforcement officers “are good and decent people,” but he added, “There’s simply a regular unfolding of police shootings of unarmed black men in our country,” and many of those incidents are now caught on camera, for all to see.
Father Bryant noted that as a matter of faith, Christians are called to believe that all people are made in God’s image.
“Bigotry and racism are simply not in God’s vernacular,” he said, adding, “As religious leaders, we should be speaking prophetically from the pulpit on these issues… The Church needs to do more, much more, in terms of standing up and speaking truth to power.”
The priest’s ministry also included founding the Welcome Home Reentry Program in 2005 that is now administered by Catholic Charities. In that program, volunteer mentors work with men and women returning to their communities after incarceration, to help them get a new start in life.
When the COVID-19 outbreak swept through the country, Father Bryant – knowing of the overcrowded conditions in local jails and correctional facilities and the risk that posed to inmates and staff -- assisted a successful archdiocesan effort in which Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory wrote to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, seeking early release for nonviolent offenders.
And over the years, the priest’s ministry has also included occasional protests, against the nation’s criminal justice system and the death penalty, and now the issues underlying George Floyd’s death.
“It’s our responsibility as citizens to bring about change,” Father Bryant said.
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