by Guest Contributor, Cody Benjamin
(The following speech was given at the Rally for Racial Justice in Mankato, MN on June 26.)
My name is Cody Benjamin, and my wife, Brooke, and I have lived in Mankato for just over three years. I’m originally from Pennsylvania, and I grew up in a town that’s 90 to 95 percent white. And so at my high school, growing up, the Black kids that I saw and interacted with were the Black kids. In college, obviously, there was much more diversity, and all of a sudden, many of my closest friends were Black — the groomsmen, the best man at our wedding.
And still, even in many of those relationships, especially early on, I didn’t grasp just how different we were — our backgrounds, our perception of life. I didn’t realize how much less I had to worry about certain things because I have lighter skin — the way I talk, dress, act around certain crowds, and so on and so forth.
The truth is, when we say “racial justice,” when we say, “Rally for racial justice,” all we’re advocating for is what’s fair. It’s about standing up for what’s reasonable. And for various reasons, some systemic and overwhelming, some small and personal, far too many generations of Black, brown, African-American men, women and children have not received even reasonable treatment. I do not speak for the Black community, but I care for it, and one look at history — or today’s news cycle — will tell you something is wrong.
If you were in Mankato a few weeks ago, after the death of George Floyd, hundreds of people marched. Hundreds did the same in St. Peter. There’ve been cries, over and over, for reasonable treatment.
Last week, the attorney for Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in the back in Atlanta, said this after the arresting officer was charged with murder: “Nobody is celebrating. Because this never should have happened. We shouldn’t have to celebrate, as African Americans, when we get a piece of justice … We shouldn’t have to celebrate and parade when an officer is held accountable.”
We gathered Friday in Mankato in part because George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor all lost their lives because of unreasonable treatment, but we also gathered because they are not isolated examples; they are, unfortunately, just the latest in a 400-year history of mistreatment.
I’ve been reading one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s books, and I can’t help but notice that so much of his reasoning for protest and civil disobedience wasn’t to be anti-this or -that, but more so to be pro-people. He hated injustice more than those twisted by it. He wanted his movement to love the “other side,” the oppressors, so much, even when they didn’t deserve it, so that the moral burden would be on them. So that maybe, after enough of their cruelty, they’d finally see their shame and their own insecurities. They’d see that these Black people they despised were full of dignity and value, even as they endured foul treatment and stood up to it.
You can agree or disagree with Dr. King’s philosophy, but I can tell you my heart, personally, is in a similar place: I didn’t want to do the Rally For Racial Justice, be a part of this, because I think we all need to hate white people or we all need to hate police, but rather so that Black people can be elevated and respected by those groups. So that we, as a community, can say together that Black people are people. It’s 2020; that shouldn’t have to be said! But here we are. That’s what needs to be said, so we’re here to say it.
I happen to share Dr. King’s Christian faith, and I understand we probably have every walk of life and religion represented in today’s movement for civil rights, but the Bible that I follow says Jesus chose to elevate and care for those in need, regardless of status, background or appearance. The Church has done some good things for this movement (Dr. King’s Civil Rights), but it’s also done some very bad, staying silent or distorting Scripture to justify racist behaviors. The Bible tells us to “seek justice,” “correct oppression” and presents a God who makes himself lowly, who identifies with all the broken and afflicted and belittled and mistreated. Who sees value and personhood in all who walk the Earth. I believe we can all do that, regardless of faith or background or skin color.
Part of the process, and specifically what we wanted to do at the Rally For Racial Justice, was grieve. We want to remember. Reflect. Pay tribute to the victims of injustice — the victims we know about. Dave Chapelle, in a recent commentary on what’s going on, was telling a story of how some people have said, “George Floyd wasn’t a hero. Look at his track record. Why would you choose him to be the face of this movement?” And I think Dave Chappelle’s response was perfect: We didn’t choose him; the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds chose him. And it’s also beside the point: George Floyd was still someone’s brother, fiancee, father, friend.
Why are we still in the business of using a Black person’s resume or upbringing or past mistakes to somehow suggest they are less human? For crying out loud, a man lost his life — and we’ve got people who want to dig up his criminal record, as if cooperating with the officer who laid on his neck was justification for his death?
Our No. 1 goal isn’t to demonize the victims or even those who made them victims, but humanize those who’ve been hurt. To remember that they were people before they were victims…
George Floyd was 46. He used to work for the Salvation Army, help with church barbecues and baptisms in Houston, and moved to Minneapolis as part of a Christian work program…
Breonna Taylor was 26. She was a certified EMT who worked two jobs in Kentucky, with dreams of becoming a full-time nurse…
Ahmaud Arbery was 25, born 29 days after me. He looked up to his brother Marcus, planned to become an electrician and gave his girlfriend a Build-A-Bear on their first Valentine’s Day…
Philando Castile was 32. He started working for St. Paul Public Schools at 19 and served elementary and high schoolers working for nutrition services…
Walter Scott was 50 and a veteran of the Coast Guard. Tamir Rice was 12, a sixth-grader who liked playing football and ping pong.
WE. REMEMBER. THEM.
And we affirm that they were people, like you and me, taken too soon in the current of racism.
The point of marching and gathering and protesting isn’t to end it there, either. Because we don’t do those things to feel good about ourselves. Bukata Hayes, executive director of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, I spoke with him shortly after George Floyd’s death, and he put it perfectly to me: Everyone wants to show up when there’s momentum, when the movement is on the offensive, when the cameras are out and people are marching. But what about when there’s a local organization that fights this kind of stuff? Who’s showing up to their 8 o’clock meeting on a random night in February? It’s good to gather and stand together, but if racial justice is truly what we seek, it’s not enough to just say, “I’m not racist,” or “Black lives matter,” and then proceed as usual. And I say that more directly to the people who look like me, because it shouldn’t be entirely the Black community’s burden to fix our ignorance.
This is a fight that will take endurance. It will take commitment. It will take effort. We can start in our homes, with our friends and family. We can start right here in Mankato. I’m certainly not perfect, and I don’t claim to speak for the Black community, but I do know that there are men and women who have already been putting in work to make Mankato, and beyond, a more equitable and loving community. Let’s get involved.
Cody Benjamin is an author/writer who lives in Mankato with his wife, Brooke, and their two children. Originally from Pennsylvania, Cody currently covers the NFL for CBS Sports and has also served as a pastoral intern at Two Rivers Vineyard Church in Mankato.