Transforming Injustice: A Series of Watercolor Paintings

Narrative on the Watercolor Series: Transforming Injustice!

Kathy Manis Findley
June 7, 2020

To view the first watercolor in the Transforming Injustice! Series, click here:

Transforming Injustice! is a watercolor art series that began as a response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. It seeks to the depict the emotions surrounding these murders, as well as the resulting protests in cities across the nation. The art will not end there, for the anger, pain and grief of thousands of protesters may have been sparked by the image of George Floyd being asphyxiated by the knee of a law enforcement officer, but that spark is only small ember compared to the fires of racial injustice that have burned throughout our history.

Watercolor #1 in the Transforming Injustice! series is entitled, “I Can’t Breathe!”

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Watercolor #1 in the Transforming Injustice! series: “I Can’t Breathe!”

The art series will begin with the death of George Floyd, but each watercolor that follows will seek to evoke emotions around the racial injustice and systemic racism that has been the fabric of life for centuries. We cannot simply protest against racial injustice, or pray for its end, or demand that our systems change. The evil depth of the racial injustice in our world must be transformed, both within each individual heart and within the systems that have continually perpetuated racial division and hate.
May our God, and the Gods of all people, inspire us to discover the ways through which each of us might begin the transformation.

One of the ways I have committed to work for transformation is through watercolor art and narrative, in hopes that at least one person will have an emotional response to the art that inspires and calls out to the person, “Are you transforming injustice? Will you transform injustice?” 

The Inspiration Behind the Transforming Injustice! Series

My cousin Nick, who has forever been a modern mystic and a deep thinker, sent me the following words this morning. He pondered, as he often does, and found this buried deep in his spirit.

What I Was Thinking This Morning______________________nick talantis

Over 100,000 dead. And there’s one more.
Not the corona. A copper’s knee. 

I can’t breathe.

It’s happened too many times to count.
I can’t breathe.

It happens in the east.
I can’t breathe.

It happens in the west.
I can’t breathe.

It happens in the south.
I can’t breathe.

It happens in the north.
I can’t breathe.

The white man is keeping the black man down.
I can’t breathe.

A badge of pride gone to shame.
I can’t breathe.

Where is the hope we can overcome?
I can’t breathe.

Hope is lost in the fire of anger.
I can’t breathe.

How does sanity prevail?
I can’t breathe.

Eye for eye — no — it’s not the way.
I can’t breathe.

When the fire dies down.
Take a breath.

When you are face to face.
Take a breath.

When you sit together.
Take a breath.

Remember Martin’s way. Remember, when we sit in peace, breathing.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; 
only love can do that.

Martin said that.

A riot is the language of the unheard.

Martin said that.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin said that.

And I believe him.
I say we have to get back to non-violence. We have to kneel, in the face of adversity.

We have to have equality.
Equality for every man, every woman, every race, every one.

We are all the same.
We all have the right to breathe.

Amen, cousin! May the very breath of the Spirit make it so through us.

Again this morning, my family rose up in defiance of injustice. I received these words from my brother, Andrew.

How about we dispense with the “law and order” approach–which we’ve tried over and over–and try a little “liberty and justice for all”–especially for African Americans, who have endured four centuries of White Supremacy.

All of this, by the way, is again happening in what White Evangelicals call “Christian America.” But anyone who thinks we are a Christian nation simply hasn’t taken a long, hard look at our history and the legacy of the slave ship, the auction block, the overseer’s whip, and the lynching tree. In the late nineteenth century, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Reverdy Ransom wrote that, despite being faithful Christians and loyal Americans, blacks had never gotten much justice out of Christian America. Not even Jesus had been able to break the color line. Then he said: “If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he must have wept for America an ocean of tears.”

OK, White America, isn’t it high time we actually do something about the problem we created.  We built the structures of White Supremacy; it’s time we worked to dismantle those structures.

And since the edifice of White Supremacy was built with the blessing of white Christian churches, it is only right that white Christians get out there en masse and say, “Open Season on African Americans is hereby closed forever.” Civil rights activist Ella Baker’s famous slogan is just as powerful and true as they were in the 1960s:  “Those who believe in freedom can never rest until the death of a black mother’s son is as important as the death of a white mother’s son.”

Finally, my friend and kidney donor, Greg Adams offers this insightful perspective on the murder of George Floyd:

Many of us have wondered what is different about this moment in our long history of racial injustice. The death of George Floyd is another terrible example of a death of an unarmed African-American brought about by those responsible for protecting all of us from violence. It is tragically not unique—we have heard and seen too many other terrible examples. So why has this death led to nationwide, and even worldwide, protests? 

I would offer this perspective to the mix as one of the many factors making this time different:

George Floyd’s death happened in slow-motion with witnesses and videotaping. He begged for his life, and public witnesses begged for his life. Meanwhile, the officer with the knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck acted with impunity and no concern for Mr. Floyd or the fact that his actions were being witnessed and recorded. He believed he could do as he pleased and showed no concern for the consequences. He acted as if Mr. Floyd’s life mattered little, if at all. While the officer continued his abuse of Mr. Floyd despite Mr. Floyd being handcuffed and on the ground, three other police officers stood by and offered no help to Mr. Floyd. They saw the knee on the neck, they heard the pleas for help from Mr. Floyd and the witnesses, and they did nothing to stop the violence. Their silence and inaction communicated a callous disregard for Mr. Floyd’s mistreatment, suffering, and ultimately his life. They were more loyal to their fellow officer and his cruelty than to the basic humanity of Mr. Floyd. 

The American people, and the people of the world, has seen this pattern at the highest levels for the last three and a half years during the Trump presidency. Repeatedly, Mr. Trump has acted with impunity as he words, actions, and policies have abused so many and so much: migrant children and their families, regular citizens, public servants, norms and values of decency and honor, respect for honesty and the rule of law. This is, tragically, just a partial list. While Mr. Trump has used his position of power and influence to abuse individuals, families, communities, states, organizations, and systems designed to protect good government, elected officials of his own party have almost universally done nothing to protect the targets of his abuse. Their silence and inaction have communicated a callous disregard for the mistreatment and suffering caused by Mr. Trump. They have been more loyal to Mr. Trump and his cruelty than to the basic humanity of anyone who finds themselves the recipient of Mr. Trump’s abuse. 

We know quite a bit about bullies. We know that they are ultimately only successful if bystanders offer their support, and this support can be in the form of silence. Without the active or silent consent of the bystanders, the bully-victim cycle falls apart and the bully is marginalized and disempowered. 

An increasing number and an increasing diversity of Americans are sick of it. We are sick of the impunity of those in power who abuse others and of those who stand by silently and watch the suffering, destruction, and deaths that follow.  More and more of us recognize that Mr. Trump’s abuses and the knee in the neck of Mr. Floyd are not just individual moral failures—they are the failures of the system. A failure of us. And if this is true, then when we change, we can change the system. 

It’s coming and it’s happening. And if we keep the faith, and keep working, and vote in November, we will thankfully have more to celebrate and less to protest against.

Thank you to my husband and my brother, to my other friends and family members, to my colleagues in ministry and to the sisters in my Sunday school class for your willingness to dialogue, to speak your minds and to add rich perspectives to mine. 

I must say before I say anything else that I am the mother of a black son. When he was a young child — precious, cute and full of mischief — he was dearly loved by all who knew him. We raised him in a modest house in a black neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. Racism’s ugly head did not take long to rise up in his protected world.

“Why do you look so blackish?”  — An elementary school teacher

“Why are your parents white?”  — A question he was asked numerous times

Just words. Not all that hurtful. But in his teenage years, the hurt began. We never knew about it until one day he told us in one of our rare conversations. This conversation actually went beyond, “Tell me about your day.”  “It was fine.” Period. That was it. End of conversation. But on this one day, we sat together and talked for quite a long time, and this is what our son told us.

The police stop me all the time. I’m not speeding or doing anything. They just stop me, especially when Andraé, Mark and Jarrett are with me. They pull us out of the car and push us to the ground head-first, with our legs and arms spread out on the hot concrete. Everybody who passes by can see us and they don’t know we weren’t doing anything wrong. While one of the police watch us so we don’t move, the other one searches the car. There’s never anything in the car except our basketball stuff.

I was furious. Beyond furious! Luckily it was night and offices were closed, but the next morning I gathered every ounce of my white privilege and headed first to see the Little Rock Chief chief of police and after that, the Mayor, both colleagues and friends. “Privilege” — white privilege and connection privilege — got me into their offices immediately. You see, I trained law enforcement and district attorneys from all over the counry including in our city. I chaired the Little Rock Commission on Domestic Violence and the Little Rock Commission on Children, Youth and Families. I served on the Little Rock Prevention, Intervention and Treatment Grant Committee, approving grants and dispensing funds to community programs. 

I taught classes every week to inmates incarcerated at the Pulaski County Detention Center and to young people at the Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Center. I was president of the board of the Arkansas Coalition against Sexual Assault, executive director of our Children’s Justice and Protection Center and I was involved in the courts as a certified child forensic interviewer. I served on the FBI’s Task Force on Sexual and Domestic Violence, on the Sixth Judicial District Sexual Abuse Management Team, on the Pulaski County Multidisciplinary Child Abuse Team and on the Arkansas Women’s Health Workgroup.

So I walked into those offices with a boatload of privilege, and it shames me and breaks my heart to say that, because even in my conversations with city officials that day, I knew my privilege spoke for me. I was the WHITE mother of a black son and I was totally connected in the criminal justice system system. So would a black mother of a black son have received such wide- open doors to the system?

I don’t think so is my honest answer and I say that with the most sincere regret and the shame of being a part of an oppressive system. Yes, it is true that my presence within that system may have made it less oppressive. Nonetheless, I was in there working, making it function, contributing to its survival and thus, condoning its oppressive acts by my  involvement and my tacit sanction.

This is a story about living with the sins of the past, about watching a shocking, scandalous, shameful video in which a black man cries out, “I can’t breathe!” and knowing that you have done nothing to end such blatant injustice. There are now so many names that we don’t even remember, and the more recent ones that we do remember, the ones that strike close to home for me:

Trayvon Martin

Philando Castille

Ahmaud Arbery

Breonna Taylor 

Tamir Rice 

Stephon Clark

Eric Garner

George Floyd

I can’t begin to say every name, but I want to end with this one:

Bradley Blackshire

Bradley’s mother, Kimberly Blackshire-Lee, was in my classes at the Pulaski County Detention Center. Over time, she became a dear friend and colleague. Kimberly works as a substance abuse counselor at Phoenix Recovery Centers of Arkansas.

Her son, Bradley, was killed on February 22, 2020 by a Little Rock police officer who fired his gun through Bradley’s windshield 16 times.

May they all, and the ones whose names are not here, rest in peace, and may their memories be eternal.

In July of 2014, a cellphone video captured some of Eric Garner’s final words as New York City police officers sat on his head and pinned him to the ground on a sidewalk: “I can’t breathe.” On May 25 of this year, the same words were spoken by George Floyd, who pleaded for release as an officer knelt on his neck and pinned him to the ground on a Minneapolis street until he died.

“I can’t breathe!” I can’t forget those words. I won’t forget those words. This morning, although I have already hundreds of words here, I can say in honesty , I have no words. At least I have no words that mean much in these horrific days.

I have tears. I have sadness. I even have some anger that the people I love whose skin is not “white” are living in grief, frustration, bewilderment, anger. Once again, the system has betrayed them. I say only that right now, injustice and oppression clings so closely to my friends, today and in centuries past.

One of my close Little Rock friends posted these words this week. I hear her. I hear my dear friend cry out for justice. I hear her using words to make sense of it all, and I hear her voice, and every voice, fall silent.

Silent, with just these words posted by my friend, “I’m tired.”

I want to see her face to face. I want to be together. I want to comfort her, hoping beyond hope that it is not too late for comfort.

After responding to her post, I happened to read this horrific headline:

Prosecutors in Hennepin County, Minnesota, say evidence shows Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was non-responsive.   — ABC News

“I’m tired!”  “I can’t breathe.”

“I Can’t Breathe!” — the title of  Transforming Injustice! — Watercolor #1 of a series.

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