For many Americans, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was a turning point. Soon after his death, the video – where he was held in a chokehold for 8 minutes and 46 seconds by a white police officer – was posted on the Internet.
What did we see? We saw a man who didn’t have to die just because he was suspected of committing a nonviolent crime. We saw three police officers watching a fellow officer pin his knee to the neck of a man for over 8 minutes. We saw those same police officers standing around and watching Floyd die and not taking action and intervening.
As graphic and horrifying as Floyd’s death was, similar deaths at the hands of law enforcement have been prevalent in American cities over the years. Those deaths, and the scenes of police acting like bystanders and doing nothing while a man in their custody died face down in the street, was enough to light a nation and push people into the streets where they mostly held peaceful protests. Those peaceful protests were widely supported by Americans, and in a recent Monmouth University poll, 76 percent of Americans – including 71 percent of white people – called racism and discrimination “a big problem” in the United States.
And those protests were not held just in big American cities, but across Greater Boston in communities such as Amesbury, Andover, Beverly, Billerica, Brookline, Essex, Gloucester, Haverhill, Ipswich, Lexington, Lynn, Lynnfield, Malden, Marblehead, Medford, Newton, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott.
Amid a pandemic, many Americans realized they could no longer stand by and witness systemic racism in this country. Our society needs to be compassionate and kind. And, as Jews, this is a clarion call to be part of a progressive movement. We cannot just stand by when our fellow Americans suffer discrimination.
The late Sonia Weitz, who survived numerous Nazi death camps and lost nearly all of her family in the Holocaust, spent much of her life in Peabody trying to explain that all people are equal and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. “Don’t be a bystander, be an upstander,” she’d often say when speaking to students.
At this moment, it is appropriate for us to listen to her wise counsel. It is time to take action, and not be a bystander.