Ever since Rodney King in 1991 was mercilessly beaten by several Los Angeles police officers, the world has known that police who brutalize or kill unarmed Black people in the US are unlikely to be found guilty of their crimes. The fact that the nation for thirty years has watched visual and audio documentation of police perpetrating violence with impunity most certainly emboldened the cops who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. What else in our culture could explain an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, in broad daylight, surrounded by many witnesses with cameras pleading with the officer to release Floyd as he struggled to breathe?
Floyd’s death and the response to it—peaceful and destructive protests calling for the officers involved to be arrested and charged—were predictable.
It seems to be an endless cycle, but I believe we can do better.
That’s why my colleagues and I have created the Buddhist Justice Reporter: The George Floyd Trials, an engaged dharma practice project that may offer a constructive interruption and inject a fierce and wise compassion into all of this. We see an opportunity to bear witness to the existential plight of the policing of Black people, equip Buddhist activists with insights into criminal law and the Constitution, and constructively engage in society—all guided by compassion for our collective suffering. And we intend to do this by writing about the trial of the police officer charged with Floyd’s murder.
This project began with Floyd’s death, which happened as Cheryl A. Giles and I were putting the finishing touches on our anthology, Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom. We asked our publisher to delay the book’s production while we wrote something in honor of his life. About a month later, I wrote an open letter to BIPOC Buddhist communities in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area where George Floyd was killed and where I was living at the time. I wrote that I had been changed by this attack, and that I felt we needed a different kind of sangha to address BIPOC Buddhist practitioners’ wholesome desire to live and work for justice. I suggested that there were some principles we might consider including being committed to collective wisdom, collective action, freedom, and justice, as well as choosing or creating our own bodhisattva archetypes for inspiration.
Others expressed interest, too, and we eventually became a group of ten people who call themselves the Order of Freedom. We’re multicultural, multiracial, and come from the Insight Meditation and Zen traditions. As we got to know one another, we learned that we shared a passion for and experience in writing and critical analysis in addition to our concerns about racism, injustice, and healing. We come from different fields—law, academia, psychotherapy, art, fundraising—but all of us are advocates.
We found that Buddhist practitioners, by and large, have an ambivalence toward engaging in justice-making endeavors, yet they tend to support bearing witness to suffering. We felt we needed to be a different kind of engaged Buddhist group, trusting in our own experiences as people of color irrespective of whether Buddhist texts or practices address our specific existential concerns.
We have invited Buddhist practitioners who are writers and lawyers to help us be more fully resourced for watching, reporting, and offering legal and Buddhist analysis regarding the trials. And we’ve partnered with Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, to publish our writing. We’ve also received support from Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis, a place that miraculously (or mysteriously) was left untouched amid the property damage that resulted after Floyd was killed, as well as the Kataly Foundation.
Recently, while I was sitting with the deaths of Floyd and all those stricken by COVID-19, Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, came to me in the image of Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As a journalist, Wells made it her mission to write and publish about the lynchings of Black people by white mobs. She wrote:
In some of these cases the mob affects to believe in the Negro’s guilt. The world is told that the white woman in the case identities him or the prisoner “confesses.” But in the lynching which took place in Barnwell County, South Carolina, April 24, 1893, the mob’s victim, John Peterson, escaped and placed himself under Governor [Benjamin] Tillman’s protection; not only did he declare his innocence, but offered to prove an alibi, by white witnesses. Before his witnesses could be brought, the mob arrived at the Governor’s mansion and demanded the prisoner. He was given up, and although the white woman in the case said he was not the man, he was hanged 24 hours after, and over a thousand bullets fired into his body, on the declaration that “a crime had been committed and someone had to hang for it.” (from Ida: In Her Own Words).
This is our legacy. Wells was a bodhisattva, in the sense that she refused to turn away from the brutality of white supremacy. She chose to tell the truth in its gory detail, and she worked to create an organization that would advance human rights and dignity of Black people.
We’re calling this project Buddhist Justice Reporter: The George Floyd Trials not because Floyd himself is on trial, for he now resides with the saints, but because the trials are really about whether Black people should continue to be treated by the state as they have been for centuries. When a police officer kills an unarmed person, that officer has essentially put them on trial, convicted them of being guilty without due process of law, and has meted out a cruel and unusual public punishment of a death penalty. We choose to use Floyd’s name, rather than the police officers’ names, to bring attention to him and how he represents the plight of Black and Brown people in the US.
We hope you will join us during these trials.
You can learn more about Buddhist Justice Reporter: The George Floyd Trials on our website, www.buddhistjustice.com, and see our writing on Trike Daily. You can offer dana to our project through Common Ground Meditation Center. Starting on March 29, we’ll be holding Truth and Justice Vigils for Bearing Witness, Cultivating Courage, and Healing Our Collective Trauma, led by Stacy McClendon, and fellow African-descended Buddhist teachers and scholars. You can learn more about the vigils on the Buddhist Justice Reporter website.