Sister Helen Prejean (center) with executive vice president and Provost Anita Thomas, PhD (left) and Professor Nancy Heitzeg PhD, Endowed Chair in the Sciences (right).
Photo credit: By Rebecca Studios
Sister Helen Prejean’s clarion call issued at St. Catherine University carries new weight with public demand for criminal justice reform.
“There is a need for the road of forgiveness. Not to meet death for death and violence for violence. We have got to find justice.”
Sister Helen Prejean, known across the nation for her social justice work around incarceration and abolishing the death penalty, spoke those words on campus when she delivered a speech back in February. Today more than ever, we feel called to amplify her message: We need to find justice.
Months before the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, before the protests and rioting began all over the United States, Sister Helen reminded the audience seated in the Rauenhorst Ballroom at St. Catherine University that “People, particularly those within college communities, have the potential to drastically re-shape the world by using their voice.”
It was a call for change echoed in a tweet Sister Helen posted on May 30, 2020, reacting to George Floyd’s murder. “Racism continues to permeate every aspect of American life: inequities in income, employment, housing, health care, education, and racism’s most blatant manifestation: repeated, constant, never-ending, pervasive police brutality against Black people.”
We need to find justice.
Nancy Heitzeg, PhD, professor of sociology and critical studies of race and ethnicity at St. Catherine University, was instrumental in bringing Sister Helen to campus. As the Endowed Chair in the Sciences, she used her three-year project Challenging Criminalization: Beyond Policing and Punishment as the context to welcome Sister Helen. Heitzeg sees the connections between Sister Helen’s speech and the movements happening today. She argues that “people get killed by our legal systems every day, the obvious being the death penalty that Sister Helen has devoted her life’s work to stopping, but there is even more killing done on the front end of the system by the very people who are meant to keep us safe. Sister Helen highlights the racial dimensions of the death penalty. Every stage of the system exemplifies the injustice in the system.” Heitzeg, as well as Sister Helen, wants to reveal the racist history of the United States to remind people that lack of justice within our legal systems stems from generations of racism and hate. This desperately needs to change.
We need to find justice.
“Certainly the murder of George Floyd is a tragedy, but how people are responding to it really creates an opportunity for real and fundamental changes in the ways that we think about policing and punishment. It's not a death in vain,” said Heitzeg, “The injustice within American legal systems has a deep history, and today the pain and suffering of generations of people is spilling over.”
Evidence of the historical racism that Heitzeg says is embedded into our society is showcased in various news reports today. National Public Radio (NPR News) aired a story titled A Decade Of Watching Black People Die, highlighting the deaths of Black people in the United States starting with the murder of Eric Garner in 2014 to George Floyd in 2020. NPR News found that Black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be killed by a police officer. U.S News & World Report shared data from Mapping Police Violence, which found that in 2019, 54% of those killed by harm done to them by a police officer were people of color (Black, Asian, Native American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander). Furthermore, 17% of Black Americans who died from police brutality were unarmed, which is higher than the national average of unarmed death across all races. A BBC News story, "George Floyd: Timeline of Black Deaths Caused by Police," examined nine Black people’s deaths by police (Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd) were killed by officers, the majority of whom were never charged in these deaths.
This matters. The fact that Black Americans are disproportionately targeted and killed by the very system that vows to protect them is a form of injustice that Sister Helen and Heitzeg are working hard to bring to light. The deaths of these individuals are sparking movements to change the system and bring justice to all marginalized populations within the United States.
However, there is hope. As Sister Helen said in her speech at St. Catherine University, “The gift of St. Kate’s, the gift of education, the gift of unleashing our potential.” As a University community we not only have the opportunity, but the responsibility to speak out against injustice and unite against the inequality in the world.
Today, more than ever, students need to know that their voices make a difference and the gift of education provides a platform to start the journey of advocacy and justice. View Sister Helen’s full speech here.