Sunday, May 31, 2020

My Police Chief’s Statement

The death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis has sparked deep rooted outrage across the country. The videos which have emerged depict a gross negligence of lawful authority and need to be denounced by all police agencies in the strongest of terms. The incident has understandably unleashed an aftermath of escalating tensions nationwide but due process must not be replaced by the consequences of inflammatory rhetoric. 

West Orange is a community with cultural roots spread across the spectrum of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Our town has a proud history of respect and acceptance for all people. This is best exemplified in the reputation of our police department for upholding and enforcing the law with a professionally trained police force.

Town residents should be assured that the men and woman of the West Orange Police Department are committed to the highest standards of law enforcement. The WOPD is the only nationally accredited law enforcement entity in all of Essex County and one of about only 12 in the entire state. All WOPD personnel attend semi-annual training regarding our use of force policy. It specifically focuses on circumstances when there is a necessity to intervene in excessive use of force situations.  Failure to adhere to our established polices by officers may subject them to departmental charges and criminal charges if warranted.  In-custody deaths within our jurisdiction always would be investigated by the New Jersey State Attorney General.

Mayor Robert Parisi, West Orange Township Council President Michelle Casalino, Councilman Jerry Guarino, Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown, Councilwoman Susan McCartney, Councilman Joseph Krakoviak, West Orange Police Chief James Abbott, and the West Orange Human Relations Commission join the countless voices across the country offering support to the family of George Floyd for their profound loss. As a caring community with a committed police agency in a lawful nation we must continually all work together in the shared hope that our combined efforts achieve our common goals of justice and equality for all.

James P. Abbott
Chief of Police
West Orange

COVID trumps protests for now

I write you as your rabbi in a time of racial turmoil.  If we were able to gather physically, I would call on us to gather in our building to hold a community meeting and plan our involvement as a force for good at this time.  I would join with others to stand up and support in person all peaceful voices for racial justice in America.  I would lead any who would follow to gather with others in our area in common cause. I am frustrated that this is not possible at this time.  

I will not join public protests, and I will not participate in large unorganized gatherings at this time.  I reject the voices who say COVID is not as important as Justice, as if they were unrelated.  COVID has decimated every dense population center in New Jersey and NY, and has been especially horrific in disadvantaged neighborhoods. COVID’s impact, in unemployment and illness amplifies the world of injustice that is the background for the current strife.  Gathering large groupings of those same communities in those same places will surely be a death sentence for some. It is short-sighted to demand the protest, and roll the dice. 

I call on each of you to look at the systemic inequality experienced in America.  Regardless of your political and social views, accept that a broad and deep percentage of the nation is crying out clearly for intervention and for change based on their lived experience.  That voice is a voice of prophecy.  It is the cry of the Hebrew prophets of old, and it echoes in the streets of Minneapolis today.  

No cry of “Justice” can be ignored by a Jew.  In every way you can, get involved. Learn. Listen. Support. Demand the just society that we all believe in. And find your way to make it happen.  Whatever your piece of this is that you believe, focus on that - nurture it and make it grow.

I recognize that many say this is "too little." Please know, this is not all I do.  This is not all you should do.  This note is just about this note: I will not attend a rally right now, and I hear the cry of prophecy in the wind.

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Police Murder of George Floyd

We are all, I sincerely hope, appalled and angered at the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man - lying in the street in handcuffs as a white, seasoned Minneapolis police officer slowly choked the life out of him with his knee on his neck.

Bystanders did what we would hope: clearly spoke up in a non-violent way, asking the officer to stop, labelling the officer’s actions as deadly, recording the event, even as Mr. Floyd begged for air and bled from the nose. The officer ignored the pleas, clearly and methodically applied the pressure of his knee to the front/side of the neck where it should cut blood to the brain and cause Mr. Floyd to pass out.  The maneuver was absolutely clear: cause the man to lose consciousness before finishing the arrest, even though the man was cuffed and on the ground immobile. 

The officer was 100% wrong. He knowingly and deliberately applied potentially lethal force to an incapacitated man, who then died. In a word: murder. Everyone has a right to a rigorous defense in America, and this officer is no different. But I also have a right to judge and form an opinion, and I believe that this was clearly murder.  

Not only that, I know that it is the silent bystander that empowers evil. The police chief in Minneapolis has said publicly that he fired all four officers involved in the incident because silence is being "complicit."  All four ex-officers must be arrested, charged and tried just like any other accomplices in a murder would be.  As long as the other 3 walk free, the criminal justice system in Minneapolis has not done what it must to prove that it is not also complicit.  This is why the protests grow, and frustration turns too often towards violence.  It is the accusation that there is a culture of police complicity that empowers these acts against the black community.  Prove it wrong. Arrest and charge all 4 officers.

Having lived in L.A. around the time of O.J. and Rodney King, I know that anti-police protests quickly turning into riots should surprise no one.  Civic violence and mob thuggery are predictable, and inexcusable.  Yet we must know this:  Black experience of America and White experience of America are not equal. Black experience of city policing and White experience of city policing are not equal. You do not lose your moral high ground when some people smash and grab in the middle of a protest. The issue is real.

When I try to judge racial prejudice, I reverse the skin colors in the story and ask: what would happen?  I firmly believe that if I, a white Jewish male, had the police sent after me for faking a check in a store that I would never be pinned to the ground and killed by a police officer.  I am roughly similar in age and size to Mr. Floyd.  It simply would not happen, even if all other circumstances were identical. Do you disagree?

I have prejudice born of racial advantage: I believe in the good in America’s police force.  I believe when a police officer arrives, the situation improves.  I believe in the inherent good of the criminal justice system, and that everyone has a fair opportunity under law when accused.  These beliefs, I know, are not shared completely or broadly among Black Americans that I know and listen to.  The system works for me, so I believe in it.

We have seen 3 racially driven news stories in just a few weeks:  the belated prosecution of white men who pursued and killed an unarmed black man, Ahmaud Arbery, in Brunswick GA; the “central park dog walker,” a white woman who threatened a black man that she would call the police and say “an African American” man is harassing her; and the murder of George Floyd. 

The narrative draws a line:  when white police are involved in the killing (Ahmaud Arbery), justice will not occur; when white privilege is challenged (central park), anti-black labelling will call the police to their side of the conflict; when black men are detained (Floyd), they are presumed violent and too often put down with force like animals. 

The fear and anger of Black citizens in America is earned honestly by a country that was built on the back of the largest slavery system in human history - by a country whose civil war produced not liberty but institutional prejudice and disadvantage for blacks in America. Ours is a country that deliberately concentrated poverty and racial groupings in dysfunctional cities, with government resources for schools, housing, health, vocational training and more being held back by gerrymandering voter districts to disempower minority voting.  And it is earned by the persistent policing, sometimes as the culture of a department and sometimes as the action of rogue cops, that treats the black man as a threat in all circumstances in a way it does not treat the white man.

I write this because I am white.  I am listening. I think I get it. I know I won’t ever understand how it “feels.” But I do believe that I completely understand what it is.  So what can I do?  What will I do?

This is what I can and will do:

  1. I will WRITE for you and everyone who will read it. Please pass it along.
  2. I will VOTE, with this in mind.  I will tell every elected official on my ballot that this matters to me more than anything else facing America today.
  3. I will SHUT UP, when someone is trying to tell me what this means and what this is from their experience and point of view.
  4. I will SPEAK UP when I hear or see this insipid cultural prejudice against black men, and against any racial, religious, or gender victims in my community and in my country.
  5. I will try to FORM GENUINE RELATIONSHIPS with people who are different than me, racially, religiously and in every way - to be there when it matters.

I will WRITE.  I will VOTE.  I will SHUT UP. I will SPEAK UP. I will RELATE.

Will you?