Vickie and I do not watch a lot of television, but we were glued to our set, hands tightly intertwined, while waiting for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial.
The trial was unique.
Millions of people were eyewitnesses. There was not a sudden burst of activity that one could either miss or misinterpret. The world watched in horror as Derek Chauvin choked the life out of George Floyd for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds.
When the judge announced that the jury had found Derek Chauvin guilty on all three charges, we breathed a sigh of relief.
Much credit must go to Darnella Frazier, the seventeen-year-old woman who filmed the entire episode for the world to see. Her courage enabled us to reach a turning point in American history.
I am proud to have been present on that historic day in 1987 when the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion honored Rosa Parks. The citation for the Roger E. Joseph Prize presented to Mrs. Parks reads: “who …with total conviction and courage, launched a boycott, changed a law, and helped reform a nation. Her indomitable spirit was the life force and catalyst for what has become the civil rights movement of this country.”
My hope is that it will not take HUC-JIR 32 years to honor Darnella Frazier in a similar manner. Her courage has sent a message across the cities, towns, and villages of the United States that people of color suspected of misdemeanor crimes are not subject to summary execution by the police.
Make no mistake! The overwhelming majority of police officers are dedicated professionals, who risk their lives daily to truly protect and serve all the citizens of our country.
Growing up, I was always proud of my cousin, Stanley Ferber, and his distinguished career as a member of the New York City Police Department.
Recently, I read the account of LaVonte Dell a black man pulled over by a white officer, Joshua Scaglione. When the officer asked why, Mr. Dell’s daughter was not in a car seat, he replied that it had been a tough year, money was tight, and he could not afford one. Officer Scaglione took Mr. Dell to Walmart where he purchased a car seat for him with his own money.
When asked why, the officer said: “I’m just doing my job. What good would giving you a ticket do besides putting you further in the hole?”
Yes, Officer Scaglione felt he was just doing his job. In a similar way, so did Darnella Frazier.
In each of the five years preceding the pandemic, my wife Vickie and I spent between five and ten weeks each year in Germany teaching high school students about the Shoah. In our lessons we stress that the Holocaust did not happen only because of the unspeakable evil of Hitler and his lieutenants. It happened because too many everyday people were willing to look the other way.
So, we emphasize, when you see evil — let’s say a group of students bullying another — you can do one of three things. You can join in and be popular. You can pretend it’s not your problem and walk away. Or you can have the courage of Darnella Frazier and call out the evil you are witnessing.
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 19:16) demands that we “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” In other words, in Jewish thinking there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.
Clearly Darnella Frazier understood the importance of this vital principle of Torah. The world will be a better place if all of us do as well.