My Dad, George Floyd, Rodney King, and Some Posts to Come


Fifteen years ago today, my father died.

He grew up in Washington, D.C., a fifth-generation native of the city. He became a lawyer and dedicated his whole career to urban land-use law. That is: the orderly growth and prosperity of his city.

When my father was working as a young lawyer, not long before I was born, Washington, D.C. erupted in riots. After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, the city burned.

This had a big impact on our family life. Some of my earliest memories involve driving around the damaged neighborhoods, my father explaining to my brother and me what had happened.

By my late teens, I knew the streets of Washington better than any cabbie. My seminary classmates at Catholic University had a game: They would look at a map of town and randomly name an intersection. I would then describe all the buildings located there, from memory.

dad3I could do it because of love. My dad taught me that love.

I was a young man myself when Los Angeles, California, burned at the end of April and the beginning of May, 1992. My dad was still with us then. He had not yet suffered the debilitating stroke that would render him an invalid for the last decade of his life.

The LA riots were more brutal than the riots of the 60’s. On tv sets all over the world, people saw senseless beatings take place live.

In our home, we were stupefied with deep, crushing sadness. I have never been as profoundly upset as I was during those four or five days. We hardly slept; we spent most of the nights watching the news. The devil was dancing on the face of the earth.

The innocent blood of the dead in the streets stained my young, idealistic dreams. My dad had taught me to cultivate hope for American urban life and peace among races. The things that he stood for, the things for which he had dedicated his whole life–they lay broken in front of our eyes, like a shattered window on the asphalt.

LA Times Rodney King verdict front page

One week ago today, on the other hand, things went differently. Like the jurors in People v. Powell et al. in 1992, the jurors in State v. Chauvin had seen a video. (In fact, in Minnesota, they had seen several videos.)

This time, the jurors believed their own eyes. They had seen a murder committed on video, so they reasonably proceeded to convict the murderer of the crime.

The prosecutors in State v. Chauvin had calmly and diligently made their case. They presented several credible eye-witnesses to the murder. They presented experts on the use of force by police. They testified that what Derek Chauvin had done was certainly wrong and criminal. The prosecutors presented medical experts who explained the cause of death; their testimony successfully removed any reasonable doubt that George Floyd died by homicide.

At the Chauvin trial, black witnesses and white witnesses spoke about Floyd as a human being. They spoke to a jury of Floyd’s peers, themselves willing to see Floyd as the human being that he was.

In other words, the prosecution in the Chauvin trial had a slam-dunk case, and they held the ball firmly in both hands and sprang towards the basket with the steady self-control of a well-trained athlete. They dunked the ball.

Chauvin is in jail, awaiting sentencing, and the world recognizes that justice has been done.

What happened thirty years ago was altogether different. I have reflected on this extensively, and I think I have identified one particular aspect of what happened in Los Angeles that we should try to understand now. This will take a few days, and a few posts, to get through, so bear with me as I try to lay out my thoughts.

Here comes Part I:

Cellphones existed in March of 1991, but they most certainly did not have cameras, and they were the size of a loaf of bread. The only person I knew with a cellphone then was my business-executive aunt. She kept the thing in her car, in a large leatherette pouch.

People did have camcorders in 1991. Portable hand-held video cameras that recorded on magnetic tapes.

Mr. George Holliday, who lived in the Monte Vista apartments on Foothill Boulevard, near the San Fernando Freeway, in Los Angeles, owned a new camcorder.

The sound of sirens and a helicopter awoke Holliday from his Saturday-night slumber at 12:45am on Sunday, March 3, 1991. He looked out his window and saw an arrest unfolding across the street. A large number of police officers had converged.

Holliday thought of his new video camera sitting by the tv in the living room, went to get it, and stepped out on his balcony to film what he saw. His 81-second videotape captured three LAPD officers–under the direction of a fourth–brutally beating a defenseless man.

There was no way to “upload” the video since a. it wasn’t digital and b. there was no internet to speak of at the time. Instead, Holliday took the tape to a local television station the following day. The station broadcast it on the evening news. By midnight Tuesday, every station in the Western world had broadcast the video.

People who saw the video spontaneously thought of the beating and scourging of the Lord Jesus by the Roman soldiers. In fact, when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, I wondered if he had staged the scourging scene to look like the Rodney King tape, because there are so many similarities in body movement by Jesus in the movie and King in the video.

In many communities, tv stations had to apologize for airing the Rodney King tape at times when children could have been watching. It caused nightmares. Watching the nine minutes of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd is sickening, but the brutality of the Rodney King beating is actually a great deal harder to endure, even though King did survive. That King survived was a miracle in and of itself, as was clear to everyone who watched Holliday’s video.

Passion of the Christ scourging my heart is ready

So, significant difference #1 between State v. Chauvin in 2021 and California v. Powell et al. in 1992:

In 1992, there was only one videotape. Over the course of the last month, the jury in Minnesota saw over twenty different videos, shot from different cameras. Over a dozen bystander cellphones, street security cameras, police body-cams.

When Rodney King got beaten, there was only the word of the people involved, the police reports which manifestly did not recount what had happened, and George Holliday’s video. (During the thirty hours between the incident and the public airing of the video, the officers did everything they could to cover up the beating.)

I don’t pretend to understand all the events that unfolded in the short-term aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year. I shared some thoughts at the time, but I don’t claim to have a comprehensive view.

On the other hand, I do have a pretty good understanding of what happened after the Holliday video became public in early March 1991.

The video presented compelling evidence of criminal police brutality. As a police-commission report put it, the following July: “All segments of society condemn the Rodney King beating.”


But the political situation in Los Angeles was far, far from stable. What was then known as “south-central” was a largely lawless world of gangland violence. The white police chief and black mayor were at odds. Chief Darryl Gates nonetheless acknowledged after seeing the Holliday tape that the officers should face prosecution for criminal assault with a deadly weapon.

Warren Christopher was a widely respected elder-statesman California lawyer. (He went on to become President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State.) He chaired a joint commission formed out of the two separate commissions that the feuding mayor and police chief formed. The joint commission became the “Christopher Commission.”

LAPD patrol cars in 1991 had a rudimentary form of text messaging called Mobile Digital Terminal communications, or MDTs. The Christopher Commission studied all the MDTs of the previous six months, as well as thousands of other records, and conducted interviews with hundreds of officers and citizens. The commission concluded:

There is a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repetitively use excessive force… Our computerized study of complaints filed in recent years shows a strong concentration of allegations against a problem group of officers. Graphic confirmation of improper attitudes and practices is provided by the brazen and extensive references to beatings in the MDTs. The problem is aggravated by racism…

The LAPD’s failure to analyze and act upon these revealing data evidences a significant breakdown in the management and leadership of the Department… The Department not only failed to deal with this problem group of officers but it often rewarded them with positive evaluations and promotions.

As Christopher put it, it was a “blunt” report. It clearly identified a serious problem of organizational racism. The report took for granted that the Rodney King beating involved a heinous crime.

Meanwhile, however, other wheels started turning in the exact opposite direction. The four charged officers began to mount their legal defense.

The officers would never acknowledge any personal wrongdoing. In the summer of ’91, the officers’ lawyers successfully impeached the impartiality of the first judge assigned to the case. He had refused a “change of venue” petition. The replacement judge then agreed to move the trial to a suburb. The criminal case would be tried in Simi Valley, Ventura County, a bedroom community for many LAPD officers. Meanwhile, all this legal wrangling consumed months of time.

In Simi Valley, the jury pool for the Rodney-King-beating trial consisted of predominantly white suburbanites. They finally reported for voir dire, to a brand-new county courthouse, in January 1992. The parking lot hadn’t even been fully paved. After the whittling down of candidates, the final jury panel did not include a single black person.

To be continued…

Call No Man Your Father

Call no man on earth your father, for you have but one Father in heaven. Matthew 23:9

I think if I had called my father ‘Kirk,’ instead of ‘dad,’ that would have bummed him out. And I don’t think us bum-rushing our earthly fathers is exactly what the Lord Jesus had in mind when He said this. Nor do I think that He intended just to wag His finger at Catholics who address priests as ‘Father.’

dad3My dad believed in God, and Christ, and the Church. So he would never have hesitated to acknowledge that, before God–before the heavenly Father–we were brothers.

When my brother and I were still kids, dad got to make the fatherly decisions. And he was not above corporal punishment, if and when we neglected to co-operate–which, in all honesty, was very infrequently. My mom wasn’t above corporal punishment, either. But, like I said, we were co-operative sons.

All that said, my dad knew perfectly well that we all had a horizon much higher than himself. He considered himself a child, also, when he turned the eyes of his soul to God.

So the irony is: Calling our priests ‘Father’ actually helps us to fulfill what the Lord Jesus said. Because calling the man who leads the church family ‘Father’ lifts our eyes to the higher horizon.

tabernacleYes, we owe our earthly fathers respect and obedience. We owe all earthly authority the co-operation to which it is entitled.

But if we want to get to the bottom of the question, Where do I come from? To whom do I owe my deepest loyalty? We can’t stop at ‘mom and dad,’ or ‘Virginia,’ or ‘America.’ We can’t stop anywhere on this earth.

We have to lift the eyes of our soul up to answer the question. We exist because of the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our first, fundamental, and absolute allegiance is to God our Father.

The priest is a father because he baptizes us and makes us children of God; he feeds us with the Body of Christ; he teaches and makes rules for the church family, according to the teachings and rules in the Word of God.

‘Mark’ is my name. But if you called me ‘Hey, Mark,’ as if my duty were to chitchat and play with you like just another semi-skilled basketball player–I think that would be a big bummer for everybody. Every family needs a father.

By the same token, though: in the Church, even the Fathers are children. At the holy altar, we stand together before our heavenly Father. He guides us, and feeds us, and loves us. And, together, we try to please Him and love Him back.

Father Poem

“The Cry”
(Reading Alana Newman* for the First Time during March for Life Week)

Down in the darkness of death
they have haunted me. But
the living and walking haunt me, too—

the smaller army, marching out
from technocracy’s cruel forges,
whose parade, behind the legions
risen from the abortuary trash-heaps,
will dazzle the eyes of so many
New York Times editors
on the Day of Glory:

The Donor Babies.

Grown now. YouTubing their honest agonies.
Alive. Well. Married. Mothers and fathers, too.
But: abandoned and cut-off in the
origin. O Father Where Art Thou?

I say haunts me because: This is The Cry.

The Cry of the fallen, mewling offspring
of Cain, walled-out by the weakness of man
from cloistral order and the smell of restful eventide.

O Father.

With every passing year, he dwells in me more.
His buttoned cuffs and his rides around town
are my inheritance.

But he is dead, and justly so, by the debt of Adam.
No Hamlet’s task impends upon me.
The turf of his grave grows peaceful grass.
So long, for now. You were tired anyway.

The song I sing him is my life,
and the duty I bear: to love my town and its people
like he did, smiling at black and white.
God, give me the strength to do the man proud,
for all his faults…

But father known yields
to Father unknown.
We know no veritable Patria
in this clay.

–Yes, I kiss my natal earth
and count the generations back;
known to me: my people.
A blessing, indeed, to know the tree, the roots, yes—

But the whole great tree of human flesh cannot bear
the weight of even one soul, unique and new.
Semen and ovum begetting cannot answer The Cry.

We all, one great army, with the Donor-Conceived
cry. The Cry, to the limpid sky.

Abba, Father!

* Her website. Her blog. Her twitter. Some YouTubes. Her recent article in Ethics and Medics. She is mesmerizingly great.

Somebody Loves Me

st john paul ii

Alas, poor Kirkbecause our Holy Father Francis canonized my beloved spiritual father, Pope John Paul II, on the eighth anniversary of my own dear father’s death. (Which is also my nephew’s birthday!)

RIP, dad.

Ora pro nobis, Holy Father.

April can be the cruelest and the kindest month, all at once. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. Therefore we keep the feast.

Someday, may it please the Lord, I will kiss both of your hands again, fathers of my body and soul. And death will be swallowed up in victory.

Father and Teacher

St. John Bosco St. PetersFather and teacher of the young.

Struck me as so beautiful, the picture of Don Bosco, father and teacher of the young, in the Collect of today’s Holy Mass.

To remember being young means remembering needing a father and a teacher. Craving a father and a teacher more than anything.

My own father and first teacher had his faults, to be sure. But one thing he had was faith, faith regularly practiced—the kind of faith that makes church a second home for you and your family.

Looking back, I can see with perfect clarity that my dad’s very churchiness is what gave him the kind of solidity as a person that a boy needs to lean on as he grows up. And I thank God for it, because it gave me the church as a home. And what greater gift could a person have than to feel at home in church?

I wish I knew more about St. John Bosco. I read a book about him when I was in the seminary. But that is getting to be a long time ago now, and I forget most of the facts in it. But one thing about Don Bosco shines crystal clear in my mind’s eye: His faith was huge and manly and strong. And that naturally made young people feel calm and at home in his presence.

Don Bosco rested his whole soul on the solid rock of the love of the eternal Father. That made him into a rock on which young people could rest their souls, like the birds resting on the branches of the mustard tree in the parable.

And the amazing thing about the souls of young people is: If they have a solid foundation to rest themselves on, they will grow. They will grow almost of their own accord. All they need is a solid father and teacher who they know they can trust. Don Bosco was such a teacher, and I hope we can be such teachers, too.

Gatsby Sentences

Great Gatsby 2012 posterIn honor of this new Baz-Luhrmann music video coming out tonight, I present my four favorite sentences of The Great Gatsby:*

1. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

This refers to Gatsby on the afternoon he spent with Daisy, after Nick’s luncheon.

2. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.

(When Nick and Gatsby drive into town together.)

This sentence—to my mind—rings as true now as it did in the twenties. The West Side, for good or ill, still stews in a kind of shtetl boredom compared to the East Side.

3. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year.

The night Gatsby and Daisy first kissed, five years ago.

4. We possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

All the main characters in the novel hail from west of the Appalachians. I never understood the withering aptness of this sentence until I first spent some serious time in the region that Fitzgerald had in his blood: summer of 1999, Omaha, Nebraska. One of my confreres that summer referred to Chicago as “one of those big eastern cities.” An incisive student of character, a dear friend I met that summer, and an Iowan, referred to me as “a brooding Easterner.”

Nick Carraway hit the nail on the head with this sentence. The Eastern Seaboard and the Mid-West produce two different species of human being.

…Probably the most famous passage of the book (other than the last sentence, which I, for one, think is a little stupid) is:

He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

This is Nick meeting Gatsby for the first time. (A good third of the way through the novel, one should note!)

Now, I love Leo DiCaprio as much as the next guy loves him. I love him quite a bit. He had me at Romeo + Juliet. Loathe as I am to admit it publicly, I adore absolutely everything about Titanic; I could watch it over and over and over.

Alas, poor KirkBut I am afraid that Leo will not be able to pull this passage off. I will see the movie, one of these eons—maybe when the DVD lands in my local library. But I have no expectation that Leo will have it in him to bring this particular Gatsby smile to life.

Let me say this, and I do so with tears in my eyes:

There is, in fact, one man I have known who truly brought these sentences to life. A man who had the capacity to grasp a situation in full, exactly as it was, to accept it exactly as it was, and to take infinite delight in it. And his delight was because of you.

My father.

At his best, my dad brought this majestic Fitzgerald description of Gatsby to life. May the Lord reward him for it.

* I learned a decade or so ago that a person must re-read The Great Gatsby once every five years in order to remind himself what the English language can accomplish even now.

Happy 75th

Today Kirk White would have celebrated a big birthday.

(His brief candle went out at age 68. He sleeps now in his native sod, a mile from the US Capitol.)

Alas, poor KirkPearl Jam has the perfect song for this. Here’s the end of it:


And the road
The old man paved
The broken seams along the way
The rusted signs, left just for me

He was guiding me, love, his own way
Now the man of the hour
is taking his final bow
As the curtain comes down
I feel that this is just goodbye for now

(“Man of the Hour“)

Yorick and Praying for the Dead

Can we get a grip on death? Can we calmly face it?

Our invisible souls animate our visible bodies. Then they don’t.

The bodies that seemed so full of life, so vigorous, so truly beautiful—these bodies become lumpen deadweights.

My father had a large frame. During the last ten years of his life, he had a hard time moving that frame around.

Helping my dad the stroke victim get into or out of a car was a workout. But he was still alive then.

Such tasks seemed like nothing, compared to hefting the dead weight of his 260-pound corpse into the church.

Now his body has been in the ground for 6 ½ years. Hamlet’s dear old friend Yorick had lain buried just about that length of time when the prince came upon the grave-digger who happened to be moving Yorick’s remains. Hamlet took his old friend’s skull in his hand and spoke to him, like I might speak to my father’s skull now:

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

Death makes us nervous, so nervous that we say and do strange, nonsensical things. What purpose does it serve to release doves at someone’s grave-side? Or, if the dead man loved Snickers bars, what good will it do him to line his casket with them?

In his encyclical on Christian hope, our Holy Father recalls the custom of the ancient people to whom St. Paul wrote Ephesians. The ancients entombed their dead with the inscription, In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus. “How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing.”

Alas, poor Kirk
In a word, our bodies are doomed. And, as for the fate of our spiritual souls, how can we know? Without definitive information, given to us by a higher power, we have no way whatsoever to know what becomes of our souls after death. Hence the human propensity to make stuff up. Like that Michael Landon might have something to do with it. Or that you could come back in the next life as a cow. If we look death squarely in the face, we have to dismiss all such silly fables.

Praised be God, we have, in fact, received definitive information from a higher power about what happens. Although God allows our bodies to die as a just punishment for our sins, in His mercy He will not leave them in the dust forever. In the same way in which He formed them in the beginning, He will raise them up anew, and we will be able to share in the perfect justice and glory of the risen Christ.

Not only that. God has given us clear and decisive information about what to do for our departed loved ones in the meantime. Pray and offer sacrifice for the expiation of their sins.

All the dead will rise again. We will see them at a grand re-union. Only God knows the day and the hour. Only God knows what kind of decorations will adorn the moment, what kind of birds will be singing in the trees, what kind of foods and drinks will be on offer. That’s His business.

Our business is to pray and offer sacrifice while we can, so that, when that great day comes, we will be able to greet the ones who died before us with the peace of knowing that we loved them and did our best for them.

Vague vs. Consubstantial

The Lord proclaims to the people: “I am compassionate.”

How compassionate?

…In five weeks, we will start working the famous pew-cards with the revised translation of our Mass prayers. When we do, we will discover some different words in our beloved Nicene Creed.

The first question is: Why do we recite the Creed at Mass? Any thoughts?

Right. Because this is what we believe about God Almighty. We Catholics believe specific things.

Whenever I encounter someone who says something like “Who needs organized religion?” or “Don’t we all pray to the same god anyway?” or “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual,” I experience two simultaneous reactions.

1. Thank God, I intend first and foremost to sympathize, to extend a friendly hand, to put the best possible interpretation on the other person’s point of view. After all, God indeed does transcend all the words we use to focus our minds on Him.

2. Meanwhile, though, whenever I hear such vague shibboleths about religion, I cannot help but think to myself: “Gosh. Do you have a thought in your head? How can you be satisfied with nonsensical flim-flam about God? Shouldn’t you take yourself a little more seriously?”

Continue reading “Vague vs. Consubstantial”

Franciscan Principles

Can we beat Syracuse without Chris Wright? We have Hollis Thompson. What is there to worry about?

…Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?

…Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?

I think we would have to say that—after our Blessed Mother—the most beloved saint of all time is Francis of Assisi.

While he was on earth, St. Francis loved the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. He loved the Church and the sacraments. He loved music and poetry. He loved his fellow man. He loved the Word of God. He loved the world because God made it, and He loved God for being infinitely greater than anything in the world.

St. Francis had a deep, complicated, and maddeningly unpredictable personality. But we love him most of all because his fundamental principles were simple.

Has anyone ever known a Franciscan? Franciscans wear brown robes with white ropes as belts. Franciscans accomplish many different works: They pray, teach, help the poor, help parishes; they operate many different enterprises. But their fundamental principles are simple. ‘I don’t need money, because God provides. I don’t need a family, because I already have one.  God and everybody is my family.’

Well, looky here! Look at the words of the Sermon on the Mount that we just heard! Your heavenly Father knows that you need food and clothing. Your heavenly Father provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, who neither sew nor reap nor toil or spin.

God is our Father, and we are all brothers and sisters. These aren’t just the fundamental principles for Franciscans. They are the fundamental principles for Christians.

But here’s a question. It is the perennial question about the Sermon on the Mount and about St. Francis and his followers, whom everybody loves from a respectful distance. The question is this: It all sounds beautiful, but is it really practical? Can I live by these principles when I go to buy a car? Can I live by these principles when I need a paycheck, and it’s a hard, cold world out there?

How about if we put the question in another way: Would St. Francis be so lovable if he were a flighty, impractical, irresponsible dreamer? For that matter, could we revere our Lord Jesus as the ultimate law of every human life if He were just an ineffectual waif who painted castles in the sky?

To follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount does not make a person impractical. Quite the contrary. The Sermon on the Mount helps us to focus on the fundamental reality of life. And the fundamental reality is: God is our Father, and we are all brothers and sisters.

God is my Father. Fathers show their love by entrusting their children with limited responsibilities. When I was a child, I did not understand anything about the mortgage on our house that my father and mother were working to pay off. But I did know that when I came home from school, I had to sit down and do my homework, and that when dinner was over, I had to do the dishes.

Likewise now. I do not understand how it is that my Father in heaven makes the sun come up; I do not understand how He organizes things so that all I have to do to get food is go to Kroger’s. I do not understand how my car works, or the refrigerator in my kitchen, even though I couldn’t live without either of them. But I do understand that it is my responsibility to try to do my best and be a decent priest. My Father loves me enough to provide everything, including even a little area of responsibility for me to control.

Everyone is my brother or sister. We are all in this together. I owe everyone my love and respect. Meeting St. Francis changed people’s lives because he treated everyone he met as if he or she were a king or queen.

But St. Francis was never anyone’s doormat. He could respect others so gently because he respected himself for the child of God that he knew himself to be.

The Lord Jesus let Himself be spat on, crowned with thorns, and executed like a criminal for our salvation. But He never tolerated the slightest disrespect for His divine mission. He repeatedly castigated even His closest friends for insulting Him by trying to make Him out to be less than He is. They wanted a new petty despot for an obscure Roman province. But Christ is the divine King of the Universe, and everything He said and did and suffered bore witness to the indescribable grandeur of Who He is.

‘Everybody is my brother and sister’ does not mean that I let one of my brothers abuse me. If a brother tries to wrong me, it is my duty as a brother to stand up for myself honestly so that we can find our way together to what is true and just.

So let’s all try to be good Franciscans. Or rather, let’s all be good Christians. God is our Father. We are all brothers and sisters.