PORTLAND, Ore. — Like many Americans nationwide, Oregon Catholics received the April 20 conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with mixed feelings: consolation, skepticism, resolve.
Portland has been the site of some of the most persistent and destructive protests since Chauvin killed George Floyd in May 2020. By contrast, reaction to the verdict was subdued on the streets and Catholic leaders were reflective.
Chauvin, who is white, was found guilty by a jury that deliberated for more than 10 hours over two days of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Floyd, an African American.
Tony Jones, chairman of the African American Catholic Community of Oregon, said the verdict came as a relief. “Not a dancing in the street kind of relief, but a relief as in, ‘Wow, it could have been worse,’“ he told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper.
The verdict does not change the views he shared with Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample this past February during a meeting with the archbishop and fellow members of the community Jones chairs.
Prior to the meeting, Jones reflected on what Archbishop Sample has shared in his Friday “Chapel Chats” and other talks — that racism is a sin.
“I thought deeply about why it’s a sin,” said Jones. His conclusion was the sin is “the lie people tell themselves.”
“The biggest challenge of racism is that Blacks but mostly whites have been lying to themselves about this system — that it is positive and productive and if you follow the system, it works,” he said, adding that even in the Catholic Church this lie is embraced. “Whites and Blacks both are lying to themselves, but whites particularly because they’ve not been under the anguish of racism.”
Jones believes those who see the actions of Chauvin as those of a “bad apple” in an otherwise just and fair system should do some soul-searching.
He added that though he’s not opposed to peaceful protests, a different verdict would have meant massive protests, instead of people focusing energy on “the hard work that needs to be done.”
“We have to do the policy work, the tough negotiations, and build new systems and infrastructure to bring about the change we claim we want to see,” said Jones.
The jury finding of Chauvin guilty on all counts took Bobbie Foster by surprise.
“So many police officers have killed Black men and usually get away with it,” said Foster, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Portland and founding publisher of The Skanner newspaper, which focuses on the Black community. “I was surprised and happy that justice was done, at least in this case. And while I celebrate this decision, the image of George Floyd on the ground, with Chauvin’s (knee) on his neck, while he pleaded for his life, will never leave me.”
Foster hopes everyone will support the police accountability bill now before Congress.Father Chrispine Otieno, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Portland, is originally from Kenya. He said people there also hoped for a verdict that would render justice to Floyd’s family.
Father Otieno believes both police and citizens need to be respectful and accountable to one another. “Our biases cannot make us disrespectful,” he said. “That is the Catholic teaching. We are all here at the service of humanity.”
Father Otieno has lived in Oregon 10 years, with several encounters with police. He says that he knows there are police who are racist, but that he personally has had very good experiences with law enforcement. “The police deserve our respect and support,” he said.
Father Dave Zegar, pastor of St. Andrew Parish, thinks his community is relieved and grateful that the jury returned a guilty verdict, especially because juries almost never find a law officer guilty.
“But it’s not enough,” he said. “The guilty verdict is a sign that things have to change — training and tactics. And police need to be held accountable.”
Father Zegar has a unique perspective on policing gained from more than a decade on a policing task force when he was a pastor in Cornelius, Oregon. He had told his mostly Hispanic parishioners at St. Alexander that they should share with him their interactions with police. He saw which officers on the various forces were abusive, and he shared the information with the police chiefs and sheriffs with whom he met every month.
Father Zegar came to believe there is a deep-seated problem with racism and attitude on the part of some officers, but also that most police chiefs do want to serve all the people in their communities.
“The police are really unskilled in defusing situations,” he said. “This has been a problem for years and we can’t drop this issue. We have to keep it at the front of our thoughts and make sure we find solutions.”
Chris Davis, acting chief of the Portland Police Bureau, the city’s law enforcement agency, agreed with the Minneapolis chief of police, who had testified that Chauvin’s actions — kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes — were beyond the bounds of the law.
“The encounter with George Floyd that resulted in his death spurred a critical mass across the country demanding police reform and accountability,” said Davis. “All community members should be treated with fairness, equity, dignity and professionalism no matter their race.”
Davis encouraged demonstrators to lawfully exercise their first amendment rights but to not participate in violence and destruction. Violence does not further the cause for change, said the chief, but rather set back the community by tearing it apart.
“While the Portland Police Bureau has been working for many years on reforms in our pursuit for fair and equitable police service to our training, accountability system, and our practices, our work is not done,” said Davis. “It remains a priority for us to continue this work with our community.”
The Catholic Sentinel is the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.