GREAT FALLS — Great Falls pastors Marcus Collins, Andre Murphy, Robert Lewis, and Kelvin Steele were joined by Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly, Chief of Police Dave Bowen, City Manager Greg Doyon, and Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter to reflect on the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.
The event, organized by the pastors, was held to get the ball rolling on the conversation about police brutality against black men in America, and what can be done to avoid potentially similar incidents in Montana.
The night started with songs of worship, then was officially kicked off by a commentary from Greater Faith-Church of the Open Door Pastor Robert Lewis.
The panel answered five predetermined questions, before taking some questions from the audiences in-person and watching online on the Alexander Temple YouTube page.
The five topics were:
- What were, and are your personal feelings concerning the murder of George Floyd?
- Although becoming more frequent, what are some ways that confrontations like this (the death of George Floyd) can be avoided between police officers and men of color?
- What is the projected, and expected response of the African-American Church in this hour?
- Where do we go from here?
- What strategies and plans can be implemented to reduce the potential risk of this happening in Great Falls?
“Find in any lawbook, where a counterfeit check or a bogus 20 dollar bill is reason to be hung and killed on the street,” said Pastor Andre Murphy of Living Grace Church, expelling the pent up emotion of centuries of injustice towards African-Americans in the United States.
Great Falls Chief of Police Dave Bowen and Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter recalled the range of emotions they felt when they watched the footage of Floyd’s death for the first time.
Slaughter remembered, because he had already heard how the video ended, waiting for something that might have somewhat justified police officer Derek Chauvin’s actions. For a member of law enforcement to act in such a way, there must have been some violent act that provoked his response, he recalled. That “violent act” never came. Slaughter watched the video again, and then once more.
Chief Bowen shared his thoughts on the video; his sentiments echoed those of Sheriff Slaughter.
“When I saw that former police officer….what I saw in his eyes were contempt,” said Bowen.
Bowen, Slaughter, Mayor Bob Kelly, and City Manager Greg Doyon voiced their concern over not just the video, but the ever-growing issue of systemic racism against African-Americans by members of law enforcement in America, and offered their suggestions and advice for how the community should move forward and work to prevent such incidents in Montana, which Sheriff Slaughter and Chief Bowen both noted are fewer and farther between than the national average.
From the pastors on stage came a different message. Frustration.
“We’ve been marching for a long time,” said Alexander Temple Church of God in Christ Pastor Marcus Collins. “And this thing just keeps happening and happening and happening, and I’m frustrated with it.’
I had the benefit of speaking with Greater Faith Church of the Open Door Pastor Robert Lewis last week, before the forum, to get his perspective on these issues, and of the frustrations that African-Americans have been dealing with in America since before my parents’ parents were even born.
To Pastor Lewis, the sometimes violent protests that we have been seeing around the nation in recent weeks didn’t have to happen. It didn’t have to come to this. He used the same anecdote during our conversation that he did on stage Thursday night; a nod to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who many believe was blackballed by the National Football League after he knelt during the national anthem starting right before the 2016 regular season began.
Before we get to Pastor Lewis’ story, it’s important to remember – in the 49ers third preseason game of 2016, Kaepernick sat during the national anthem to protest police brutality and the oppression of African-Americans in America after Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott were both killed by police officers in September 2016. In the 49ers final preseason game, and the rest of their games that season, Kaepernick kneeled – inspired by U.S. Army veteran Nate Boyer, who told Colin that taking a knee during the anthem would be more respectful than sitting. How easily we forget.
“Relating to Colin (Kaepernick), his kneeling spoke to this same issue four years ago, and when nobody responded to it, in fact, we made it a flag issue, instead of a brutality issue,” said Pastor Lewis. “I’m not saying ‘we’, but I’m saying the government turned it around to make it something that it really wasn’t. I’m not surprised to see it escalate to the point that it did. This was a powder keg waiting to blow, and ever since Colin, there were several other incidents. There was a young lady that was killed in her home (Breonna Taylor, March 2020), same kind of issue, nothing was done. So, seeing the violence, seeing the response, seeing everything escalate to the point that it has...no, I’m not surprised. It was going to take something, I’ll put it that way, something was going to happen. This was the incident that did it.”
The spark that lights the fire that burns down the establishment – you know the saying.
More than one person watching Thursday night’s forum on YouTube expressed hope that this would be just the first of many such discussions to take place in the Great Falls community. As many protestors around the country have said over the past month, albeit in many different ways, marching and chanting and rallying is a start, but it won’t mean anything until real change is made.