An Alternative Version

By Tommy Airey

A year ago, police responded to a call from a convenience store employee who accused George Floyd of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Before every single one of us witnessed this Black man forty days younger than me face down on the street pavement calling for his mother while a white man in uniform with his left hand in his pocket took his life by kneeling on his neck, the Minneapolis Police Department issued a press release describing what happened:

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later. At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident.

This ordering of facts was the official account.  

The 911 calls that came flooding in from the scene offered an alternative version. The first caller told the operator that the police officer “pretty much just killed this guy that wasn’t resisting arrest.” He added: “He had his knee on the dude’s neck the whole time.” Then this: “Dude was not responsive when the ambulance came and got him, and the officer that was just out here left, the one that actually just murdered the kid in front of everybody.” The caller agreed to speak with a sergeant when the operator offered, saying: “Yeah, like that was bogus what they just did.”

Another caller who described himself as a first responder reported in, “Hello, I am on the block of 38th and Chicago and I literally watched police officers not take a pulse and not do anything to save a man.” He added, “They fucking killed him.” Though this caller was also willing to speak with a supervisor, the call was disconnected and further attempts to reach the caller were unsuccessful.

Donald Williams called 911 too. He left his home in South Minneapolis to grab an energy drink at the same store George Floyd bought cigs at before he was cuffed and slammed to the ground. On the sidewalk, in front of the store, Williams observed the situation and yelled at the officers, “That’s a blood choke.” Williams knew because he wrestled in high school and college and then started competing professionally in mixed martial arts.  

The knee on the neck was a hold he knew well. In fact, it was a move he specialized in on the mat. The point of the position was to block blood from flowing to the brain so that the target passes out. The crucial difference is that in MMA the target can tap out. George Floyd attempted to tap out many times, but the deputy just doubled down. When Floyd laid lifeless on the pavement and the ambulance whisked him away to the hospital, Williams called the cops on the cops. He was reporting a murder.

Williams left the house for five minutes. He got back two hours later. His girlfriend and kids were worried sick. He tried to explain to them the gravity of what happened. He struggled to find words. In frustration and despair, he retreated to the basement for a while. And then, Darnella Frazier posted her cell phone video to social media. As soon as it went viral, the basement door creaked open. “You can come up now,” a family member called out to Donald Williams, “We believe you.”

*          *          *

Five years before George Floyd got murdered, Flint, Michigan got poisoned. Black women from Flint drove down to a march for clean and affordable water in Detroit, where Lindsay and I were living. The citizen-activists they call “Flintstones,” Claire McClinton (photo above), Nakiya Wakes and others, brought with them bottles of brownish-yellow water from taps in their homes. They were not bearing witness to isolated incidents. It was a full-blown epidemic. It was all true: residents of Black-majority Flint were drinking water from their taps tainted with lead and other deadly bacteria. Complaints and cries for help were legion. An epidemic of Legionnaires disease erupted.

True to form, local, state and federal officials—most of them white men—poured on denials, distractions, distortions, rebukes and justifications. One spokesman for Michigan Department of Environmental Quality proclaimed, “Let me start here — anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” A couple months later, the same spokesman dismissed the results from a team from Virginia Tech testing hundreds of homes: “I don’t know how they’re getting the results they’re getting.” A couple months after that, the same spokesman resigned in disgrace.

The counterfeit official reports on George Floyd and Flint Michigan are not outliers. The bullshit is bubbling up everywhere. In the local school district. Down at city council. At the police department. On cable news channels and their corporate commercials. But also: in the stories we tell in our own family systems and on Facebook. And dare I say: during our church services. There are official press releases and social media posts—but there are also eyewitness accounts and firsthand testimonies from bystanders and whistleblowers who are telling a different story. It’s like we are all members of Donald Williams’ family, just trying to figure out who to trust. Constantly.

*          *          *

In this imperial context of clashing accounts, daily bible study is helping me discern who to believe. Because the bible is a collection of stories written by and for oppressed people like George Floyd and Flint Michigan. And get this: the bible has official accounts—and minority reports too. There are texts of terror that support supremacy stories, but there are also episodes and epiphanies that subversively break rank with these oppressive official accounts.

From cover to cover, the sacred text offers readers a contest of convictions around every corner. Either an authoritarian faith that demands obedience or an abolitionist faith that sets the captives free. Either a hierarchy or beloved community. Either Solomon or Sabbath. Two different perspectives. Two different postures. Two radically different spiritual paths.

Studying the bible, especially in community, can curate spiritual sensibilities that teach us who to trust. It also cultivates the courage to call out even what is considered most sacred. Both inside and outside the text. Take, for instance, the famous story of David and Goliath. Every reader even remotely familiar with the bible knows who killed Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath. Right? The official account in I Samuel 17 is well-known. The shaft of Goliath’s spear was like a weaver’s beam (17:7), but David took out his slingshot and hit Goliath in the forehead and he fell face down on the ground (17:49).

Most Christians, however, do not know about the alternative version at the end of II Samuel:

Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam (II Sam 21:19).

The bible offers two different perspectives on who kills the giant toting a spear that had a shaft like a weaver’s beam. Was it David the shepherd boy who would later become king or was it some random dude from the street named Elhanan? Perhaps David doesn’t deserve all the credit he gets. Perhaps our leaders don’t either. Perhaps all our received histories and legacies must be interrogated too.

The same is true for the biblical story of Sodom. The flag-waving faithful have taken the condemned city of Sodom from Genesis 19 and turned it into a socially shunned sexual act. For the past three centuries, “sodomy” has been officially defined by every state as a sexual act between members of the same gender. In fact, back in the day, so-called sodomizers could be given the death sentence in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson attempted to downgrade the maximum penalty to castration, but he was overturned by the legislature. Some of these sodomy laws are still on the books even though the U.S. Supreme Court overturned them in 2003.  

All of America’s official policies, postures and perspectives around sodomy are called into question by the bible itself. The alternative version of events exposes its true nature:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

This text second-guesses why, according to the official report in Genesis, “the outcry against the people had become great in Sodom and why angels were sent to condemn and destroy it. It had nothing to do with sexuality. According to the alternative version, the real sodomizers are those who are prosperous and could care less about poor people. The real sodomizers are those who make a killing by excluding “unwanted” others, exploiting “unskilled” labor and extracting “unlimited” resources. The real sodomizers rape land and labor alike. The read sodomizers cover up the real crimes by obsessing over sex.

How could America be so wrong for so long? Because Americans are obsessed with the uniforms and credentials that cloak whiteness, patriarchy and profit. Bible believers, however, should always second-guess accounts from those in power. After all, did the disciples steal the body of Jesus, as the armed soldiers reported, or did crucified Love really come back to life and beckon the disciples back to Galilee, as the women proclaimed? I believe the women—not just about Easter, but about everything else too. Not just because the bible tells me so, but because history, reason and experience compel me to trust the accounts of those who bear the weight of oppression. The unhoused, unemployed, ill, imprisoned and immigrating. Those disproportionately Black and Brown—like George Floyd and Flint Michigan—who can barely breathe.

I am slowly learning that the God of crucified Love does not normally speak through what is centered, but instead proclaims the Word through those incessantly pushed to the corners of our culture. I do believe that God was speaking through the mouth of George Floyd from a corner of the country called Minneapolis. The message was clear. He said it twenty-seven times in the final nine minutes of his life: I can’t breathe. He was bearing witness on behalf of fifty percent of the country. “We who are dark,” W.E.B. Dubois once wrote, “can see America in ways that white Americans cannot.” It is from the perspective of the corners that we will come to understand just how counterfeit our context is, but also just how subversive the Sabbath God is. An alternative version is always available—but only for those who have ears to hear it.

Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and coach from Southern California now committed to a ministry of migration. He is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).

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