On June 4, New Brunswick resident Chantel Moore, originally from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation near Tofino, B.C., was shot to death by a police officer sent to her home to check on her well-being. On May 27, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an indigenous-black woman, fell 24 floors from her apartment during a police incident in Toronto.
In the United States, George Floyd died on May 25, after being pinned to the ground with a knee pressed into his neck for more than eight minutes by a police officer in Minneapolis. Breonna Taylor was killed March 13 in her bed in Louisville, Ky., in what amounts to a home invasion by police. Ahmaud Arbery was chased by three armed white neighbours and murdered on Feb. 23, while he was jogging in Georgia.
The challenge in compiling a list of names of black Americans and indigenous and racialized Canadians killed by police or lynched by vigilantes is choosing which from a horrifically long list of victims’ names to include. And the structural conditions that have led to this particular moment of upheaval are not new. Similar demonstrations have occurred after particularly egregious incidents, like the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014; Trayvon Martin, who was murdered in 2012 by a cop-wannabe; and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991. Again, the list of just the most familiar incidents could fill pages. And they are not limited to the United States.
Could this time be different? One thing that some Black Lives Matter proponents are noting is the apparently unprecedented engagement of non-black allies in this moment. Is this because we all have more time on our hands right now? Or have we reached a tipping point, when the lofty language of equality has finally penetrated deep into the mainstream of North American society?
There are parallel streams happening, from the issue of police violence to the broader matter of societal behaviour toward racialized people. These are exacerbated by the unpardonable conduct of the U.S. president. When Trayvon Martin was killed, then-president Barack Obama noted that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. The current president tweets threats of violence and has police forcibly clear peaceful demonstrators so he can have a photo taken in front of a church he has never entered. In a country aflame, the president’s comportment is incendiary and perilous.
This is a time for our community, the Jewish community, to consider our complacency and complicity in upholding racist systems. It is, as American historian and author Ibram X. Kendi implores, not enough to be not racist. We must be actively anti-racist. We must stand in solidarity with those who are suffering and recognize that the pain of racism is also the pain of antisemitism.
The solidarity and support we crave when we are threatened is the solidarity and support we must give other communities when they are in need. Give your time to an anti-racism organization. Donate your money to support black-owned businesses and organizations working to support the black community. Pray for the healing that is so badly needed in our society. March for equality and justice (in a safe manner). Stand up when you see injustice or hear a “casually” racist remark. Sign your name to a petition asking decision-makers to step up and rein in the militarization of policing and the funding that gets diverted from community into the over-policing of racialized communities.
Interrogate Canada’s colonial history and the lived realities of indigenous communities. Ask our educators to explore with their students global histories and the untold stories of millions, including richer views of Jewish history and the experiences and contributions of Jews who are not of European descent. Read a work of fiction by a black or indigenous author. Learn about how black culture forms the bedrock of North American culture and from where those art forms come. Explore the history of the black community here in Vancouver and how the early Jewish community, along with other minorities, together have called Strathcona home.
Absorb the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who referenced the calls of the Hebrew prophets in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for justice. If you’re already doing all of these things, share your knowledge and example with your family, your synagogue and the organizations and schools you support.
Some Jewish observers have expressed reservations about the Black Lives Matter movement, at least partly because the umbrella organization endorses the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. This is an unfortunate and misguided move on their part, especially since BDS harms Palestinians in addition to Israelis. But the issue of black people – and people of colour in Canada and elsewhere – being murdered by police or lynched by racists must take precedence now. We can argue over Israel and Palestine later.
If one feels the need to prioritize Jewish or Israeli concerns at this moment, then let’s prioritize the safety of black Jews and Jews of colour. The vast majority of Jews are morally affected by what is happening in our society and black Jews are immediately and personally impacted both by what is happening in the world and by what is happening in our community around this issue.
Let us not pretend that this is not a “Jewish issue.” Rather, let us live by what is referred to as one of the “eternal religious obligations” of Judaism: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”