by Fedwa Wazwaz
“Please, I can’t breathe.” -George Floyd
Ramadan doesn’t turn any of us into angels nor make problems go away. We still need to face them and try our best to act on the lessons we learned during Ramadan.
During the month of Ramadan, we reflected much on justice and how God loves justice.
Indeed, we all love justice, fairness, and being heard—except when we are the oppressor. Then it is hard for us to recognize when we have violated the boundaries of others, especially if we are blessed with privilege and power.
We look for ways to bend the truth, take the discussions on a tangent, or blame the victim.
Imagine if a video of George Floyd’s murder was not available. How would we respond?
First: What went wrong?
Essentially, it was a transgression of boundaries.
The police were called, and they are responsible for enforcing the law. They are not judge, jury, and executioner. They are not medical personnel.
Once an individual is unable to resist arrest, they cannot take it upon themselves to dispute his cries that he cannot breathe. Yet, they did; they engaged in disputation. They acted as judge and jury and disputed his cries for help and his inability to breathe. It is not their job to determine whether he had health problems or not, or if he could breathe. It was their job to determine whether he was handcuffed and thus unable to resist arrest.
Then arrest him.
It was clear to all that he was unable to resist arrest. He was handcuffed. They could not claim they feared him. He was down. All they had to do was help him up and put him in the car.
We have a judge to play judge, a jury to play the role of jury, and a court of law for due process to run its course. This was all bypassed and undermined.
The other problem is generalization.
I don’t think it helps us to generalize the actions of these police officers against all police officers, any more than it is helpful for police officers to generalize the actions of one Black person resisting arrest on all Black people.
Generalizations and violations of boundaries harm us all.
The African-American community has a right to be angry and to express their anger. We need to listen.
1. If you were the White police officer who had his knee on this man’s neck, are you certain you would have removed your knee? In your own life, do you listen to people with less power than you, when they point out to you how your behavior is harming another human being?
2. If you were the Hmong police officer, would you have said “stop” to the other police officer? How often in your life do you tell your friends and partners what they are doing is harming another human being? It could be an Arab, Somali, or another ethnic group.
3. When someone is under arrest or declared the “bad villain,” how often do you see their human and civil rights, and where your boundaries begin and end when calling them to account? Or do you justify all sorts of transgressions and abuse of power?
Spend some time and reflect on these points.
“…Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
…Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?”
— Bob Dylan, Blowin In The Wind
Some good reflections to consider:
The protests in the media
It’s also important to reflect on how US media are covering the protests. Are they giving the full picture? At times, the media wants the freedom to cover events, but not the responsibility to be just in their coverage. They malign the character of unprotected people by amplifying their worst moments, or digging for dirt in the life of the victim when it has nothing to do with the current situation. For Palestinians the emphasis on the ‘looting’ is like throwing the Hamas card in our face.
As an example, when journalists cover Palestine, they usually look at the last few days, divorcing those days from the years of suffering under Israeli police brutality. In a cut-n-paste, twist-n-distort, spin-n-project manner, they cut out the non-violent protests and calls for help from people who are hurting.
They also cut the outrage of Israelis who try to silence the voices of Palestinians seeking help at the International Criminal Court or United Nations, who are vetoing their voices. They cut out the dominating anger, the message of: How dare you not be submissive to us.
‘We teach life, sir’
They twist the deaths of innocents, such as Muhammad Durrah, asking why he was there, and also the response of Ahed Tamimi, who slapped a police officer after her teenaged cousin was shot and soldiers illegally entered their village and home.
They spin the anger of pain and grief into hatred and violence.
In an act of projection, they malign the character of Palestinian protesters, and they demand Palestinians subject themselves to this frame.
It is the same story here in the US. The story of power and oppression.
As a Palestinian, I do not welcome people taking our struggle and hijacking it. Over the last seven decades, many groups have undermined the Palestinian struggle. I am not an African American leader, and thus I cannot speak about African-American struggles. But I would caution leaders not to allow others to hijack it as well.
An independent investigator is needed, as well as a mechanism that allows African-Americans more power-sharing, particularly over decisions that impact the lives of African Americans. Voting is not enough. There must be a process that grants African Americans more decision-making power. It is important that they feel like they have a share in power, and are not dominated by White people moving forward.
Finally, we need a conversation on when police step out of line, who do you call? Police members are human beings, and it is important to accept that there will be abuse of power regardless how hard we try to stamp it out. What process exists when citizens watch something similar to the death of George Floyd and they are not able to talk sense to the officers? How can citizens in a difficult situation receive help and intervention?
Just so, we cannot expect every member of the Arab community or African American community to be a saint. We all have times when we violate the boundaries of others, and reasons why we do so. We need citizen accountability, but just as we do not allow someone to take it upon themselves and kill a police officer, we cannot allow enforcement of laws to turn into a green light for murder.
Human life is sacred, and we must honor that.
Term Limits for Police
In a 2009 blog in the Star Tribune, I wrote, “Peace in Islam is not utopia. Peace means a commitment to a process of reconciliation and healing to challenges, trials, and tribulations that God places before us.”
If we want peace now, we must show serious resolve and a serious desire to repair the harms of the past, peacefully. To do so, we must allow people who have gone unheard some power-sharing and decision-making in how prosecution of the police officers who killed George Floyd will move forward.
Floyd’s family, for instance, has called for Attorney General Keith Ellison to handle the prosecution of the police officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck Monday, instead of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, a White man who has lost the trust of the public.
One of the signs of Muhammad’s great love was that he listened to everyone around him before judging their situation. He listened so much that he was mocked for his listening skills.
“Among them are men who abuse the Prophet and say, ‘He is (all) ear.’ Say, ‘He listens to what is best for you: he believes in Allah, has faith in the Believers, and is a Mercy to those of you who believe.’ But those who abuse the Messenger will have a grievous penalty.”
Muhammad was called “all ear” because he was listening to everyone, including the poor, those of low status, and those considered of no account. Although his detractors saw this as a negative, it points to his loving and accepting nature. When he was in power, he continued to listen to the orphans, the sick, and the powerless.
One lesson we learn from the Prophet’s life, upon him peace and blessings, is the importance of having an investigator who will understand the pain and suffering of victims.
We can all agree that George Floyd died unjustly and inhumanely. Most of us have heard the aphorism, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Whether the officer had good intentions or not is irrelevant. A man was handcuffed and cried for medical help repeatedly. Witnesses amplified those cries to the officers and brought his deteriorating condition to their attention. Those cries should have been heard and responded to. They clearly were not.
As the Atlanta Chief of Police said, “they failed as cops and human beings.”
We grant limited terms to the President of the United States. Perhaps one way to solve the problem of a violent police culture is to limit the number of years a person can be a police officer, to give officers a break and time to reflect on what it feels like to be a civilian. Power corrupts, and this is something to consider.
We also need to rebuild trust, right now, to help people be heard and heal.
Many people feel as if they are not being heard. We all agree that anger is a manifestation of the pain and suffering of not being heard. As Muslims, we are advised that, when we feel this way, we should turn to God with our prayers, as He is the All-Hearing and All-Knowing.
While we everyone wants to be safe, and we can appreciate the saying that “an eye for an eye makes the world blind,” it is out of touch with human reality. Pain and suffering lead to bottled-up anger, and an explosion, as well as the desire to burn things down, as we saw when 9/11 happened, and as we’re seeing now.
It is human nature to want to burn things down after excessive pain and suffering.
We can judge the African American community, the way people in power judged Arabs, Palestinians, or Muslims, or we can come to our senses and recall how those in power responded when they experienced pain and suffering. They literally burned cities—not one, but many of them.
A case in point is, Gilad Sharon, Son Of Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wrote in an Op-Ed for the Jerusalem Post: “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza.” Flattening entire neighborhoods is Israeli policy to any act of rebellion.
God created us and knows how we function and malfunction. An “eye for an eye” literally means, don’t transgress the bounds.
An “eye for an eye” also means that we must bring our pain to the solution, and that these police officers must be charged. It is hard in the midst of pain and suffering to see that. But we must remind ourselves that justice is hard and complex work, and this is why judging unprotected people in pain is not a solution.
Instead, we must center them and demand justice. We welcome Keith Ellison as an independent investigator who understands the pain and suffering of Africans Americans to lead the prosecution. We welcome the results of an independent autopsy which confirmed what people witnessed that George Floyd was suffocated to death.
Pres. Donald Trump is openly saying, “if they loot, we shoot,” yet, is having a hard time comprehending, if police officers murder and violate members of our community, we want those responsible brought to justice. It is not law and order the President seeks; it is domination. Law and order is bringing those who murdered George Floyd to justice.
The people in Minneapolis also must rediscover one of the real strengths of their community: vulnerability.
From Dr. Richard Grossman:
“What could possibly be the benefits of acknowledging and sharing our vulnerability? By pretending the opposite–to be invulnerable– we put up walls to intimacy, empathy, and compassion…
“But the vulnerability this tragedy has engendered in the rest of us is nothing to be ashamed of. It has given us the opportunity to be closer to one another—to not pretend, to be humble, to be generous, empathic, and compassionate. We have rediscovered one of the real strengths of our country.”
To rebuild Minneapolis, we must commit to building trust.