By Greg Darr
Special to The Witness
Late in April 1992, as I made my way home after dark in a West Philadelphia neighborhood, I was set upon by a small group of youths carrying bats and boards. Hours earlier, a largely white jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers of the brutal beating, captured on video, of Rodney King, an African-American man detained after a high speed car chase. Los Angeles exploded into riot and arson. Across the country, Philadelphia hunkered down in fear. Even the homeless men with whom I worked as a Mercy Corp volunteer were unusually subdued.
As I walked the final blocks home that evening, the group of youths caught sight of me. They laughed and jostled each other as they crossed the street to trap me. I had no time to think or even experience much fear before one of them struck me over the head and shoulders with a board. After I fell to the pavement, he leaned over and explained, “Tonight, we’re white and you get to be black.” And, with that, it was over. He leaned back up and, together with his friends, ambled away in laughter leaving me sprawled alone on the sidewalk.
As I lay in shock, I soon felt an arm reach down and hook itself under mine. It belonged to one of the youths. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look at me. He just lifted me up and, when I was steady, let go and walked away just as silently to rejoin his friends.
This memory returned to me on the corner of 38th and Chicago a few days after George Floyd, an African-American man, had been tortuously killed there by Minneapolis police officers. My family and I had come to lay flowers at an improvised but rapidly growing memorial for him and other victims of police brutality. A few blocks to the north, a commercial neighborhood I know well lay in smoldering ruins. Later that night, the riots and fires would return.
At 38th and Chicago, however, my family and I experienced a surprising sense of peace. People of all colors and all walks of life – many of them together as families — came to share their grief, their stories, their fears and their hopes. In a frightened and besieged city, this intersection emerged as a singular place of personal and spiritual refuge. People did their best to maintain social distancing but, with that crowd size, it was nearly impossible.
It wasn’t hard for me, a white man standing there, to recognize that there’s not much systemically stacked against me. Even as a Maryknoll missionary in East Africa, I lived and worked in a bubble of racial privilege conferred upon me at birth. I can’t change my skin color. But I can broaden my awareness and do my part, in solidarity with others, to lift unjust burdens that people of color carry on my behalf. It won’t be easy, certainly for me. It’s going to take patience, perseverance and, most of all, grace.
Watching the bouquets, signs and written condolences pile higher in memory of George Floyd, I felt that grace move my heart. It was then I recalled that long-ago Philadelphia night and remembered, with gratitude, the youths who ambushed me and then helped me to my feet again. I gave thanks for the lessons they taught me. In a moment of violence and then compassion, they mocked my privileged innocence to a point where I could see it. They lifted me out of my lethargy and indifference in matters of race. And, they helped me to understand how racism stunts the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health of everyone touched by it, including those privileged enough to believe it’s not their problem. Most of all, considering the violence and poverty these youths faced daily, I experienced an extraordinary degree of mercy from them. I walked home a few bruises wiser and my wallet still in pocket. These young men, on the other hand, walked from the scene down a far harder road. I wondered where it had taken them. Or, for someone like George Floyd, how far.
As I asked myself these questions, I watched a young man walk solemnly up to a mural painted in memory of George Floyd and other victims of police violence. He knelt, made the Sign of the Cross and prayed for a few moments. He made the Sign of the Cross again as he stood up and walked quietly away. Nearby, a little girl apparently took note of the young man’s prayer. She stepped from her caregivers, returned to the mural where I had seen her wandering earlier, and knelt alone in her own sacred way of stillness.
Prayer brings us to our knees. But, in matters of racism, justice and peace, it also hooks its arm under ours, lifts us up and sets us walking together on that hard uncertain road ahead. I stepped anew from the corner of 38th and Chicago and, in memory of George Floyd and countless others, resolved to continue, with my brothers and sisters of color, on our way to the Promised Land.
Greg Darr is a Minnesota native and U.S. Army veteran. As a Maryknoll lay missioner in Kenya, Darr worked with a church-sponsored program assisting displaced and refugee communities toward developing local initiatives in reconciliation and peacemaking. Darr now serves on the Vocation Ministries Team of the Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers and is a member of the Dubuque Area Vocation Association (DAVA). He resides in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area.
Cover Image: A young man kneels to pray in front of a memorial set up at the intersection of 38th Street and South Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the site of George Floyd’s death. After Floyd, a black man, was killed by a white police officer there May 25, protests and riots have been taking place in cities across the nation. (Photo by Greg Darr)