in the last several blog entries I have been outlining the nature and process of systemic racism. I have sought to make clear that systemic racism is different than what most people think of as racism. We tend to think of racism as a discriminatory or oppressive act of one person in a position of power against another person, whereas systemic racism occurs when the policies, practices and laws of institutions and systems governing society act in ways that discriminate against People of Color as matter of course, while the individual involved is just “doing their job” or following the rules. I want to illustrate how this process of systemic racism works by examining a recent incident between Philadelphia police officers and a 27-year-old Puerto Rican man named Eddie Irrizarry

The Incident and the Attempted Cover-Up

On August 14, Eddie Irizarry, who just a few years ago had migrated from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia, was driving home from his job at a car repair shop. Philadelphia police officers Mark Dial and his partner (whose name has not been released) noticed Irizarry was driving erratically and so began to follow him but did not stop him. Eventually, Irrizarry turned the wrong way onto the 100 block of East Willard Street near his home in North Philadelphia. The police stopped their car in the middle of the street, stepped out of the car and immediately drew their guns as Irrizarry sat in his car. Within six seconds of getting out of his cruiser, Officer Dial fired several shots at the unarmed Irizarry, who was taken by ambulance to Temple Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

However, in their official report, the officers wrote an entirely different story. They reported that Irizarry got out of his car armed with a knife and lunged at the officers before Dial shot Irizarry several times, thereby killing him. When the media first reported the incident, this was the story they told. However, a security camera at a nearby home caught the whole incident on video and clearly showed that Irizarry never left his car, never pulled a knife and never lunged at the officers. Only after he had been shot, the officers dragged him from his car, saw he had two knives in the car (which was perfectly legal), and concocted the story that they sold to their superiors.

When the ruse was revealed Officer Dial was fired for insubordination, namely refusing to obey orders and failure to cooperate with the investigation. Meanwhile, the police union, The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), released a memo that Officer Dial “has the full support of the FOP.” When asked if Dial would be arrested for the murder, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw had no comment. Nothing was said about the other unnamed officer.

Why This Is Systemic Racism

Now one might be inclined to think this was simply an unfortunate altercation involving interpersonal racism between two people, Office Dial who is white and Eddie Irizarry, a Latino. In that case Officer Dial should have been arrested on the spot, perhaps by his partner, for his egregious act. But that did not happen. Instead, the two officers staged a scene that would verify their fraudulent report, and for several days the narrative in the media made the incident appear to be Irizarry’s fault. And even when the ruse was revealed, the union backed Dial, who walked away free, even though he lost his job.

What makes this a case of systemic racism are two salient realities: (1) How the system, in this case the Philadelphia Police Department, worked to hide one officer’s identity and only gave Officer Dial a slap on the hand, and (2) how Eddie Irizarry’s murder is another incident in a long line of murders by police of Black and Brown individuals in Philadelphia and across the country. Say their names: Walter Wallace Jr. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and the list goes on.

When we are seeking to identify an incident of systemic racism, we have to ask ourselves why these things keep happening. What is it in the recruitment, training, deployment and evaluation of police officers that the same pattern of violence against Persons of Color keeps happening? When a killing like that of Eddie Irizarry happens again and again, it is not enough to say the officer was a “bad apple”– there is something wrong with the Police Department itself. We don’t know why Officer Dial acted as he did, nor do we know why he and his partner tried to make up another story. Moreover, we don’t know why neither of them have been arrested. Perhaps they will be arrested eventually and maybe convicted, but that is not a certainty. Because the system known as the Philadelphia Police Department is designed to protect its officers from any community accountability.

Meanwhile, Eddie Irizarry’s family is left to mourn and wonder why he was the victim of such a soulless crime and why the perpetrators are still free. People of Color across the city and the country are left to wonder what they need to do to stay alive when confronted by police. Sadly and tragically, events like the shooting of Eddie Irizarry are all too frequent when the target of the violence is a person of color. Though I don’t know Eddie Irizarry or his family, as a member of the wider Philadelphia community, I am deeply disturbed, angered and saddened by this incident and others like it. In the words of Christian mystic and writer Barbara Holmes, Eddie, his grieving and mourning family and I are part of the same “village.”

Meditating on this Tragic Event

In reflecting on and meditating on this incident as part of my practice of antiracism as spiritual formation, my heart and prayers go out to the friends and family of Mr. Irizarry and to all the people in that neighborhood who witnessed this cruel event. Additionally, I see clearly this is not just about the bad behavior of one bad cop, but part of a system that not only allows such behavior but then turns around and shields them from accountability. I also see I am indirectly connected in a contrasting manner to what happened to Eddie. Had I been driving that car and not Eddie, this would not have happened. I might have been given a citation for my behavior, but I would not be dead. My white skin, maleness and middle-class demeanor would protect me, no matter what was going with Officer Dial. Moreover, I realize that I benefit indirectly from the policies and practices of the police department in a way Persons of Color do not. If I am to respond, I must support efforts to transform our current law enforcement system into one that is more compassionate, inclusive, less fearful and more accountable. In fact in my charitable giving as well as my activism I seek to do such things.

You see, caring about the atrocity of Eddie Irizarry’s death, and reflecting on it, as part of prayer and meditation practices is the beginning of a call to action. If I care about the injustice of acts such as this, I must do what I can to resist and transform that system as it is. Yes, Officer Dial and his partner need to be held accountable for their actions, but that is only the beginning. We need to replace or radically transform the current system. This approach, I believe, is antiracism as spiritual formation in practice. It does not make me exemplary or honorable. In humility such acts only reveal my efforts to be faithful to stand with People of Color, who every day face the violence and threats that killed Eddie Irizarry


Barbara Holmes (2021). Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Wounded Village. CAC Publishing, Albuquerque, NM.

Various news articles about the Eddie Irrizarry case in the Philadelphia Inquirer between August 15 and August 25.