After George Floyd’s death, a groundswell of religious activism

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – George Floyd’s death has triggered a groundswell of outrage and activism by religious leaders and faith-based groups across the United States, reminiscent of what occurred during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Conservative and mainstream religious leaders are joining with Black churches, progressive Catholics and Protestants, Jewish synagogues and other faith groups in calling for police reforms and efforts to dismantle racism.

Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25. The officer has been fired and charged with second-degree murder, but protesters and activists around the world are pushing for deeper change.

“We’re seeing it at the grassroots level. We’re seeing rabbis walking alongside Muslim leaders, walking alongside Catholic priests and religious sisters,” said Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace and justice group. “We are seeing that race cuts across all religious denominations.”

More than 1,000 rabbis, pastors, imams and other religious leaders held an online conference last week to brainstorm ways to address systemic violence against African Americans.

There is a new “breadth and depth” in the faith-based response, said one participant, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, citing a great hunger for connection after months of social distancing and lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Folks are just so angry. They’re angry about enduring racism, they’re angry about the incompetent response to COVID, they’re angry about bigotry and racism, about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and white supremacy,” he said.

Progressive religious groups had an important role in shaping the emerging movement, much as they did in the civil rights movement, but today’s actions are attracting a more diverse set of participants, Pesner said.


Republican Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election with strong support from evangelical Christians and Catholics. But Floyd’s death and Trump’s criticism of protesters may be a factor when members of those religious groups go to the polls in November.

While federal tax rules prevent houses of worship from taking an overt partisan stance, clergy are not banned from expressing their personal opinions.

Trump was sharply criticized by mainstream Catholic and Episcopal leaders after protesters were forcibly cleared for a staged photo of him last week in front of Washington’s historic St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House.

Some right-leaning religious leaders have since called him out or joined protests, unlike in the 1960s when some white evangelical leaders, including the Rev. Billy Graham, did not take part in the civil rights movement.

Televangelist Pat Robertson chided the president last week for threatening to send in military troops if governors did not quell violent protests. “He spoke of them as being jerks. You just don’t do that, Mr. President. It isn’t cool!”

Joel Osteen, the senior pastor from Texas megachurch Lakewood, marched with protesters last week in Houston. “We need to stand against injustice and stand with our Black brothers and sisters,” said Osteen.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a Mormon, joined hundreds of Christian evangelicals at a march in Washington on Sunday, and tweeted out “Black Lives Matter.”

Some churches have also stepped up efforts to boost voter registration in recent weeks, much as churches did in the 1960s.

Data collected after Floyd’s death from the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute showed 37% of white Catholics held favorable views of Trump, down from 49% in 2019, and a drop from the 60% who voted for Trump in 2016.


Religious leaders held an online eulogy for Floyd and interfaith service on Sunday, staged a day of fasting on Monday, and observed eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence to mark the exact amount of time Floyd was held down as he pleaded: “Please, I can’t breathe.”

A June 20 online “assembly” including 16 religious denominations seeks to revive the “Poor People’s Campaign” launched after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Subtitled “A National Call for Moral Revival,” it will also focus on Floyd, organizers say.

“We are in a deep moral crisis,” said the Rev. William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, who is one of the key organizers.

“What we have to do at this moment is not only address what happened to George Floyd, but the interlocking problems of systemic racism, police brutality, the lack of healthcare, poverty and militarism,” he said.

Najuma Smith-Pollard, a Black pastor and community activist in Los Angeles, said the protests had already triggered action that once seemed impossible – the Los Angeles mayor yanked $150 million from the police department’s budget and diverted it to programs for youth jobs, healthcare and trauma recovery.

“I don’t think it’s a blip,” she said. “Too many things are at stake and too many people are engaged. This is no longer a local matter – it’s national, it’s global.”

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Cooney)

For U.S. veterans, pipeline protest promises to galvanize activism

Veterans join activists in a march to Backwater Bridge just outside of the Oceti Sakowin camp during a snow fall as "water protectors" continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S.

By Ernest Scheyder and Terray Sylvester

CANNON BALL/FORT YATES, N.D. (Reuters) – U.S. veterans, thousands of whom last week helped stop a contested oil pipeline running through North Dakota, could become important partners of activists on the environment, the economy, race and other issues that divide Americans.

Several academics said the effort to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others opposed to the pipeline project was likely the biggest gathering of its kind of former military personnel since the early 1970s when U.S. veterans marched against the Vietnam War.

That so many veterans mobilized in less than two weeks to rural North Dakota speaks to the power they may have on public opinion, because of their status as having put their lives on the line for their country, veterans and academics said.

“The sense that vets are distinctively American figures, regardless of political beliefs, always seems to have currency, even when they are working on different sides of an issue,” said Stephen Ortiz, a history professor at the State University of Binghamton in New York.

Many veterans who went to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to join the months-long protests by Native Americans and environmentalists against the 1,172-mile (1,885-km) Dakota Access Pipeline, said they were already looking for their next issue to support.

“Militarily-trained soldiers have now discerned, on their own, a genuine, just cause for which to promote and defend, and this time without being under orders to do so,” said Brian Willson, whose 2011 memoir “Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson”, described how after serving in the Vietnam War, he became a non-violent protester for social change in the United States.

Law enforcement tactics, particularly the use of water cannons, against the protesters had been considered extreme by some. Veterans said in interviews they felt galvanized to act as a human shield, providing a respite for those who had been at the protest camp for months.

The pipeline owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, is routed adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation. Protesters have said the $3.8 billion project could contaminate the water supply and damage sacred tribal lands.

The veterans at Standing Rock were led by former Marine Michael Wood Jr and Army veteran Wes Clark Jr, son of retired U.S. general Wesley Clark, former commander of NATO. The group raised $1.1 million through online crowdfunding to help transport, house and feed veterans at the camp.


On Sunday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it turned down a permit for the pipeline’s completion, handing a victory to the protesters.

But the saga will not end there. Republican President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants the pipeline built; his team said he would review the decision when he takes office.

Even though the fight is not over in North Dakota, some see this as a way forward on other issues.

“There’s a lot of these pipelines being built around the county. Flint (Michigan) has a water crisis. So we’re going to see if we can keep this movement going and really change some things in America,” said Matthew Crane, 32, from Buffalo, New York, who served in the U.S. Navy from 2002 to 2006.

Clark’s group, called Veterans Stand With Standing Rock (VSSR), asked for 2,000 volunteers but said twice as many arrived. Comments on the VSSR Facebook page criticized Clark for a lack of planning and for not having contingencies in place for North Dakota’s harsh winters.

As a blizzard blew in on Monday, many hunkered down at the main protest camp. Hundreds more slept in the pavilion of the Prairie Knights Casino in Fort Yates, roughly 10 miles away on the Standing Rock reservation.

Clark, who himself was snowed-in at the casino, said in a Facebook video posted Wednesday night that the response meant “a huge tax on the supply chain and on accommodations.”


As part of their journey to North Dakota, many veterans asked forgiveness in two ceremonies for what they considered crimes and mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government and military over the past 150 years.

One ceremony took place Monday on Backwater Bridge near the camp, the site of two heated confrontations with law enforcement earlier this fall. Thousands of veterans and tribal members prayed, emoting war cries on the bridge’s southern cusp.

One veteran, wearing a flak jacket and a Veterans for Peace flag, yelled to the crowd from atop a horse.

“We didn’t serve this country to see our brothers and sisters here persecuted,” said the man, whose name was inaudible in the fury of the arriving blizzard. “Are we not all human?”

Some veterans said they planned to remain in North Dakota, unwilling to trust that Energy Transfer Partners would abide by the federal government’s decision. Most had left by Wednesday, however, said Heather O’Malley, a U.S. Army veteran who monitored news for the group. She said it was unclear if they would return to the area in January if needed.

Clark and others said this was a way for veterans to address other efforts around the country.

“This is a small battleground in a larger war that is developing in our country that has to do with race, the economy and the powers that be taking advantage of those who really don’t have a voice,” said Anthony Murtha, 29, from Detroit, who served in the U.S. Navy from 2009 to 2013.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Terray Sylvester in Cannon Ball and Fort Yates, N.D.; additional reporting by Tim Mclaughlin and Andrew Cullen; writing by David Gaffen; editing by Grant McCool)