TW: violence, sexual assault, sexual violence, racism, police brutality
Violent events always provoke opposition presumption. This presumption holds that “there is always another side to the story,” especially when receiving the story of a victim. Few are subject to more opposition presumption than sexual abuse survivors and black people hurt in interactions with the police.
Fortunately, opposition presumption has decreased significantly in the realm of sexual violence, in large part due to the #MeToo movement and secular reporting on Catholicism’s clergy abuse crisis. You do see opposition presumption lingering in some communities (usually, but not exclusively, conservative). Such communities frame the presumption with discrediting questions such as, “What was she wearing?” and, “Maybe he’s remembering incorrectly?”
When it comes to black people, opposition presumption continues in full force. When an act of violence occurs, the presumption holds that black people involved or nearby must have done something to cause or deserve it. When a black man is on the ground, unable to breathe, with a police officer kneeling on his neck, the gut reaction of many is, “He must have done something to incite it.” When black people gather in public and buildings are aflame, the gut reaction of many is, “Those black people must have done something to incite it.”
As an aside, I should note the asymmetrical expectations for violence by victims with regards to opposition presumption. If women don’t fight back against assault perpetrators, many are less inclined to believe or support them. As a sexual assault victim, you’re less likely to be considered innocent if you just close your eyes and take it. If you don’t fight, some believe, you probably wanted it. On the other hand, if black persons do fight back against brutal police, many are less inclined to believe or support them. As a black person, you’re more likely to be considered innocent if you just close your eyes and take it. If you fight back, some believe, you probably wanted it. Black women suffer from both inclinations, in a situation where much of the public has condemned them from the start, where they are doomed to lose, whatever they do.
The Twin Cities are struggling with the horrific death of George Floyd. The general consensus of the black community and many others, however, is that the only reason the public objects to his death is because it was caught on film. For every George Floyd on film, there are countless other black men who have suffered violence at the hands of law enforcement officers. Such officers thought (like Derek Chauvin did) that they could get away with it, perhaps because they saw other officers get away with it or they had gotten away with it before or both. Not only this, but the culture of acceptance of violence towards black people is so deep that three officers will stand by and do nothing to intervene on behalf of a helpless black civilian. (Perhaps because they knew the chief of the Minneapolis police union would defend their inaction.) What has galvanized many (like myself) is the realization that, without a film, our presumption would have tipped against George Floyd in this situation. With only a police report of the incident, I would have thought, “Mr. Floyd probably acted in a way that incited the violence.” You might have, too. That’s racism.
If we were so horribly wrong in that presumption against Floyd and violence, why would we accept the same presumption against black protestors and violence? When we blame the present violence in the Twin Cities on black protestors (who we sometimes call rioters because someone set fires while they are protesting), we destroy a lesson which the death of George Floyd is supposed to ingrain on the American psyche. When faced with conflicting accounts and minimal evidence, “Those black protestors must have incited the violence,” is another form of, “George Floyd must have incited the violence.” This places additional weight on that scale which is already tipped against the black community. You claim to throw off the knee of a police officer while putting down your own foot.
Anti-protestor responses to the present situation in the Twin Cities have often been accelerants in a cycle of trauma. A presumption against black protestors in the face of violence is one way of repeating the social violence against the unfilmed George Floyd’s in America. If we know that Chauvin and the other officers believed they could get away with escalating violence against a black man, why wouldn’t other officers now believe this? Shouldn’t we be concerned that those allegedly combatting erupted violences are members of the community which started them? Do we really expect law enforcement to change its entire culture overnight? Why would we just assume protestors–and not the police or other agitators–are the cause of violence, are the ones inciting it? It’s the presumption we have not overcome.
That presumption is one act of violence which continues the cycle that killed George Floyd. Another act of violence is silence.
When I worked with clergy abuse victims in the past, one thing they consistently wanted the Church to do to begin making amends and promoting healing was to talk about it. People who pushed for and insisted on (at times demanded) conversations about clergy abuse often helped to make survivors feel seen and wanted. By contrast, a failure to discuss the issue furthered the cycle of trauma and violence against victims. No one could say or do everything to facilitate healing. But everyone needed to do something. Many did nothing.
As part of my personal efforts to raise awareness and accountability in my ecclesial community with regards to racism, I have been reviewing homilies given by priests in my diocese over the last weekend. (Another interesting aside: all critiques I have gotten for doing this have come from white persons, while all reactions from persons of color have been extremely supportive). I have not been surprised to find that the parishes which did not discuss racism after the death of George Floyd are often also the parishes which did not discuss the horror of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report after its release.
We can’t think of this silence as a small thing. The silence is an action. It is a position, whether decided by habit or by deliberation. Churches beget new trauma on survivors of racism and abuse when the survivors see their churches have already taken a position with their silence.
I have to ask: In the face of all this, why would black people or clergy abuse survivors want to be Catholic? Why would the suffering join a Church that does not name suffering? I suppose I can only go to them for an answer.
And why do we overlook those suffering? Why don’t we say “racism”? I will offer one possibility: Because to name the thing for what it is requires that we will be different. It requires that we are different. Our presumptions must change. It is easier to be silent and pretend as if the world is the same today as yesterday, before someone told me about this problem. In adopting this easier position, we ask for the world not to change. Our Sunday prayer is that these realities will be pushed below the surface again.
Catholics who care about our black neighbors and those abused in our Churches see this. We see everything happening in our community, and we know: that is the violence, and we have incited it. We are responsible for the first steps towards peace.
Some resources, if you’re interested:
Other related writings:
- A Conservative Consideration of #BlackLivesMatter
- Why objections to defunding the police are racist
- Your Kids will Aid Bullies
- Catholic Misrepresentation of Pope Francis Today Shows the Subtle Silencing of Black Voices
- If you blame protestors, you likely would have blamed George Floyd
- Why I Left the Law Firm Life: A Letter to My Former Boss
- Last Night Was Different: More on the Fires in my Cities
- My Racist Exchange Today
- Do I Support Looting
- Reflections on a Second Night of Fires
- Trauma and Setting Fires
- More of my writings on race here
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.