‘We must undo racism’: Local racial justice groups speak out in light of George Floyd killing

  • Supporters of Racial Justice Rising have been holding signs in downtown Greenfield following the death of George Floyd. Contributed photo

  • Supporters of Racial Justice Rising have been holding signs in downtown Greenfield following the death of George Floyd. Contributed photo

  • Supporters of Racial Justice Rising have been holding signs in downtown Greenfield following the death of George Floyd. Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 6/5/2020 8:28:17 PM
Modified: 6/5/2020 8:28:05 PM

When Gloria Matlock first saw a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, she prayed he would get off. Then, when she realized something was very wrong, she burst into tears.

“Whenever someone’s neck is involved, I know there’s trouble,” Matlock said.

The Greenfield resident had woken up on the morning of May 25 with plans to head to her garden, but was interrupted when she saw Floyd’s death hit the news.

“I wanted to check the weather, but got more than I bargained for,” she said. “It actually stirred some old, bad memories.”

Matlock, the only black member of the six-member Racial Justice Rising, a Greenfield-based anti-racism group, said when her now 35-year-old son was 11, he experienced racism while out with a white friend.

“One of his friends came to visit us and the boys went to McDonald’s for a fish sandwich,” she started. “Then they went into a store and the owner came up, grabbed my son by the neck and pulled him to the back of the store, asking him to return what he had stolen — they had just entered the store. He never bothered his white friend.”

Matlock said her son’s neck was swollen from the incident, and when her family tried to bring the store owner to justice, his friend’s mother would not allow her son to testify in Matlock’s son’s defense, saying it was too “political.”

“That has happened so frequently to black children and adults,” she said. “We’ve gone unnoticed for so long, but George Floyd’s horrific death was caught on video from beginning to end. There’s no denying it.”

Floyd’s death has sparked protests across the country, some peaceful and others involving destruction and violence. Matlock said she hopes no one thinks Floyd’s death was “OK,” but fears that some people might not learn anything from it.

“I do love that people of all colors are coming out from all over the world to protest this,” she said. “I don’t like the destruction of the riots, but sometimes that’s what it takes. So much anger has built up over racism over the centuries.”

There are some people who really don’t want people of color in the United States, she said, and won’t be happy until they are all dead or gone.

“I hope people of all colors really start to listen,” Matlock said. “Protesting is a ray of hope.”

Matlock said she doesn’t blame all white people or all police officers for a few bad apples and racist acts.

“Greenfield/Franklin County, for instance, is a great place to live,” she said. “The people who live here stand up for injustices. They respect all people. It makes me feel like I’m not alone.”

Matlock said as a mother, she has spent years trying to keep her son safe, but not the way she imagines a white mother might.

“I have to do all of that and then some,” she said. “I’ve had to explain to him how to act in public, how to behave, I’ve had to be extra vigilant. I’ve had to explain that he can’t wear a hoodie. A lot of what I had to do, even now with a grown child, is be super honest about what can happen. It takes away a child’s innocence.”

Matlock said her son was once kicked by a classmate and was told he was “dirty.”

“I had to get rid of my Mercedes and buy a different car, because I kept getting stopped by police,” she said. “They see (a woman of color) driving an expensive car and automatically think drugs.”

Matlock said she wishes white people who are upset about their rights because they’ve had to wear masks amid the pandemic would understand that many black people feel like they’re wearing a mask their entire lives.

“That’s what it feels like for us all the time,” she said.

Emily Greene, another member of Racial Justice Rising, said the 10-year-old group works to end racism, injustice and reparations. It offers the public monthly programs — though not during the pandemic — as well as vigils.

“Vigils are our primary way of getting out into the community,” she said. “We have a core group of six, but many others who join us.”

Greene, who is also a board member of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice, said systemic changes must be made throughout the country, and now is the time.

“We’re going to push even harder for people to become more aware of white privilege,” she said. “We must undo racism.”

Racial Justice Rising is planning some events in the near future, she said, and, depending on the pandemic, will either hold them in person or virtually. Greene said the group is currently thinking they will be virtual, except for the vigils, through July.

The group gathers on Saturday mornings from 10 to 11 a.m. while it practices social distancing and wears masks.

“We’re working with other groups, including Greening Greenfield and local human rights commissions,” she said. “We’re planning a public forum on police brutality. This is so important.”

Greene said she believes it is important to effect “dramatic change” so that what happened to Floyd never happens again.

“We need to look at how to bring that change from the ground up and the top down,” she said.

Pat Hynes, director of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice, said there is no peace without justice. Like Matlock and Greene, she is appalled by Floyd’s death.

“The U.S. remains a country of predominantly white male political, corporate and personal power and wealth,” she said. “The police have been increasingly militarized, provided with used military tanks, arms and armor.”

Hynes said unarmed African-American women and men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites.

“Blacks are targeted by police and given harsher sentences in the courts than whites for identical crimes,” she said. “The legacy of black hatred and racism and the accompanying violence against black women and men began with the establishment of slavery in colonial America 400 years ago.”

She said it is unconscionable that black children and adults experience pay discrimination, de facto segregation in cities, poorer quality schools because of lower property taxes from poorer neighborhoods, unaffordable housing, deliberate elimination from voting lists and white ignorance of the history of slavery. And now, blacks are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“The protests throughout the country in big cities, small rural towns, blue and red states alike, are crucial for our broken democracy and long history of structural racism and black hatred,” Hynes said. “If we are to find our way toward a more just society, the protests must be followed by crucial understanding of our 400-year history of dominance by white male political power and wealth. And with this knowledge, we must employ the tools of radical reform to build a foundation based on the sexual, racial and economic equality and equal opportunity for all.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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