On June 3, on his satellite radio show Conversation with Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York addressed the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the May 26 death of George Floyd. He said the violence that had broken out in some cities left him at a loss. “It just seems mindless and destructive,” he told his co-host, Fr. Dave Dwyer, CSP. “But there are certain things we can say. First of all, the action against Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis was vicious. It needs to be condemned. It needs to be investigated. It needs to be tagged for what it is: a miscarriage of justice. Secondly, we need to say that our police officers are tremendous people.” Dolan heaped praise on police officers for their commitment to defending human life and dignity, insisting, “They cannot be caricatured because of the action of one member.”
Dolan went on to characterize protestors in similarly glowing terms, even reporting that New York City police officers have told him, “Most of the demonstrators are thoughtful, they love this country, they’re calling us back to everything that is good and decent and just and honorable.” The cardinal was plainly trying not to take sides, or to portray what was happening as a conflict that required taking sides. Minimizing tension and emphasizing common ground is a decent impulse, and often an effective path to compromise. But it falls far short of promoting justice.
It’s easy to see why bishops and pastors would focus on the hurt feelings of police officers. Cops are a highly visible part of the Catholic population, especially in places like New York City and its suburbs. Dolan undoubtedly knows many police he considers worthy of respect. But as a spiritual leader, he owes more to cops than comforting words. “Don’t let it get you down” is not what they most need to hear. Meanwhile, black people and their allies are taking to the streets to protest police brutality and lack of accountability for abusing the rights of people of color. It is accurate to say that George Floyd’s murder is a “miscarriage of justice,” but justice cannot be served by pretending that what happened to Floyd was due only to the personal depravity of the man who killed him. That man was a law enforcement officer in good standing despite a string of complaints against him, actively training younger officers when the killing took place. He acted out of well-founded confidence that he was entitled to use as much force as he pleased to subdue a black man, regardless of the consequences for that man. The injustice laid bare in that footage of an officer crushing the life out of George Floyd while his colleagues stand by is not resolved simply by punishing that one officer. And when people are rising up to demand greater accountability, mounting a defense of the good guys—hashtag-not-all-cops—is just changing the subject.