On August 28, thousands of people gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on the 57th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech to march for the cause of racial justice. Speakers included Martin Luther King III and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Letetra Widman, sister of victim of police shooting Jacob Blake, gave a stirring testimony in which she stated, “I don’t want pity, I want change.”
One of the groups participating in the March on Washington 2020 was Catholic Social Action. Its website describes the group as “a partnership organized to perform direct activism in faithful and orthodox support of Catholic Social Teaching.” In the lead-up to the march in July, Catholic Social Action released its “Open Letter to US Bishops on The March for Black Life.” After lamenting the fact that the Catholic civil rights activist Mathew Ahmann could not find a bishop willing to serve the cause of the original 1963 march, the letter appeals to current bishops to participate in the 2020 march, to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for sins committed against Black and Native Americans, and to use their spiritual influence “to heed the moral law and its duty to the common good” on behalf of vulnerable populations.
For their part, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) marked the events of August 28 with two hopeful responses: Bishop Shelton Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana, chair of the USCCB anti-racism committee, asked Catholics to observe a day of prayer and fasting for an end to racism; and Archbishop of Washington Wilton D. Gregory celebrated a Mass to mark the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech. In addition, the Archdiocese of Washington “worked together with parishes and other Catholic organizations to help provide overnight accommodations to marchers,” according to a post on the Archdiocese’s Facebook page.
While these actions may not have the visual import of a bishop on the front lines of the march, they demonstrate a deepening concern within the church for the sin of racism. Two of the concelebrants of the August 28 Mass, Washington auxiliary bishops Roy Campbell Jr. and Mario Dorsonville, participated in a prayerful protest for racial justice organized by Josephite Father Cornelius Ejiogu in June. Other members of the church hierarchy, such as Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso, have become steadfast allies in the work of dismantling racism.
If there was an urgency to this work already in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, it was only exacerbated in the days before the march with the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23. A video of the event shows Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, being followed by two police officers as he circles in front of his vehicle. When he opens the car door, one of the officers brutally fires seven shots into his back. Three of Blake’s children were in the car at the time. Blake survived but is paralyzed from the waist down.
The shooting sparked outrage from the Kenosha community and led to mass protests like those in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd. Counter-protesters, including many armed citizens, descended upon the city. One vigilante group dubbing itself the “Kenosha Guard” put out a call on social media on August 25 asking others to “take up arms and defend [our] City tonight from the evil thugs”. Among the counter-protesters was 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Illinois, a former police cadet.
Videos from the night of the 25th show armed citizens, including Rittenhouse, interacting with law enforcement. The police officers hand out bottled water, thank the citizens for their cooperation, and express their understanding and appreciation. It is clear from the videos that the officers do not see themselves as an impartial force to serve and protect all citizens, but align themselves with the vigilante groups.
A subsequent video taken that evening bears this out even more dramatically. The video shows Rittenhouse, brandishing an AR-15-style rifle and with his hands up, walking right past police after he allegedly shot a person in the head and then shot two other people who were apparently trying to disarm him. A witness off camera shouts, “Hey, he just shot them!” as Rittenhouse continues walking. It was later discovered that he fled across state lines. After being apprehended in Antioch, Illinois, on August 26, Rittenhouse was charged with two counts of first-degree homicide and one count of attempted homicide, as well as recklessly endangering the safety of others and possessing a weapon while underage.
The discrepancy between the way Blake and Rittenhouse were treated by police demonstrates how we have racialized policing. Officers claimed that Blake had a knife, though it is not visible in the video and only found later on the floor of his car, and he was shot at point-blank range; Rittenhouse was physically toting an assault weapon and allowed to roam free. Similarly, the discrepancy between the way armed citizens and protesters were treated by police demonstrates the inherent bias on the part of law enforcement. Though both armed citizens and protesters were in violation of the city-imposed curfew, the police chose to only go after one group while providing tacit support to the other. As Mark Joseph Stern wrote in Slate:
Rittenhouse ultimately proved to be a mass shooter, one in illegal possession of a firearm, a gun that police allowed him to carry even after he had apparently shot three people a block in front of their squad cars. The cops who ordered protesters to disperse for violating curfew did not order an obviously underage teen to put down his assault weapon. . . . [T]he question here is why anyone is shocked that protesters tried to disarm a vigilante when law enforcement refused.
The event is tragic on many levels. There are, of course, the lives lost—two young men, ages 26 and 36, both of whom left behind families. There is the fact that a 17-year-old was able to procure a deadly assault weapon and openly carry it in the streets of a city. (As Zack Beauchamp of Vox pointed out, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed for playing with a toy gun, while Rittenhouse, “a teenager with an actual rifle,” wasn’t so much as asked for proof of his age in encounters with the police.) And there is the underlying sadness that Rittenhouse still has much of his life to live, that it may be defined by one ill-formed decision and its awful aftermath, that an impressionable young man was formed by a culture of violence, grievance, and alienation that is the byproduct of our destabilized time.
When a young person like Rittenhouse hears the Kenosha sheriff David Beth say, as he did in 2018, that “some people aren’t worth saving,” that “We need to build warehouses to put these people into it [sic] and lock them away for the rest of their lives”, the message—a deeply anti-Christian one—is that certain lives are expendable and that we, and not God, decide who is worthy of salvation. Catholics who care about the dignity of all human life need to join together to condemn such a flawed and theologically untenable view of humankind, and to continue the work of repentance, the ministry of listening, and the witness to racial justice as exemplified by the efforts of Catholic Social Action and all those who walk with them in solidarity.
Michael Centore, Editor
Today’s American Catholic