In response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police officers, and the widespread uprising of protesters demanding an end to police brutality, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) released a video over the weekend offering his reflections on racism in America.
In the video, Schiff endorsed the broad legislative package in the House of Representatives to begin addressing a discriminatory system that continues to victimize Black Americans, with bills conceptualized and drafted by the Congressional Black Caucus. That legislation was introduced today, and Schiff is an original co-sponsor.
This is a most painful and difficult time in the life of our nation.
For months, in cities and towns across America, a virus – COVID-19 – has literally robbed us of our breath. When infected, we may be brought low, made feverish and struggle to fill our lungs with air. Without the help of a ventilator, and sometimes even with its assistance, we are robbed of our ability to breathe.
And although this virus can strike anyone and has infected the young and old alike, the powerful and the powerless, it is proving most devastating to communities of color and those in disadvantaged communities, and particularly black Americans.
This makes sense. A shocking, grim sense. Because while the virus itself does not discriminate, our system certainly does.
Doctors speak of co-morbidities, and for black Americans, COVID-19 has been made exceptionally lethal by the presence of another virus that long proceeded it. Only this second pathogen does not inhabit the patient, but sometimes his or her doctor or nurse, his neighbor or her employer, the local emergency department — or the local police department.
I speak, of course, of the virus of racism.
Racism is the original sin of our nation. Our ancestors brought it with them to the new world, where settlers stripped the native inhabitants of their land and a new government wiped out whole populations.
Racism fueled our drive to send ships to the West African coast and other destinations, turning precious human lives into cargo and making slaves of fellow human beings.
Throughout the course of our history, we have fought the virus of racism through a bloody civil war, a civil rights movement, generations of peaceful protest and progressive legislation. We have made progress, but only haltingly and at great cost.
For racism is always with us. Sometimes out in the open, sometimes not. But always present, changing and mutating, occasionally seeming to lay dormant only to recur with a frightful intensity.
And in Minneapolis on May 25, when a police officer put his knee on the neck of George Floyd and kept it there for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, racism was at the heart of that murderous depravity.
For almost six years, and before I entered politics, I served as a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. As I entered the courtroom each day, I was proud to introduce myself as appearing on behalf of the United States. And although I helped to prosecute crooked cops and other corrupt officials, I believed most of law enforcement to be good, well-intentioned, and courageous people. I still do. It is heartening to see many law enforcement officers marching today, arm in arm with protestors, or taking a knee to express their solidarity with those calling for an end to racial injustice.
As President Obama recently said, these police officers are an important part of the conversation, and it is heartening, to quote the former President, that “so many young people have been galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized.” That should make us all hopeful. We are witnessing a truly historic moment in which a diverse array of people from all walks of life are standing up, speaking out, and peacefully protesting for a desperately needed change in this country.
And yet, we have so far to travel. As a prosecutor, I was not naïve enough to believe that there wasn’t racism in our criminal justice system. But I believed that we were making real progress combatting discrimination. It is difficult for me to have that confidence now. Not today. There is so much work to be done.
The crushing and suffocating reality of police brutality against black Americans is, tragically, everywhere. On country roads and city streets, in the dead of night and in broad daylight. Cities across America have become synonymous with unspeakable violence against people of color and all genders, but predominately black men and boys. Cities like Ferguson, Decatur, Chicago, Memphis, Baltimore, Oakland, Miami, Dallas, Durham, Cincinnati, Tulsa, Los Angeles. And now Minneapolis.
It should not have been a revelation to me. I should not have needed to see it with my own two eyes, these terrible images from cell phones and body cams over more than a decade, of men like Ahmaud Arbery, shot while jogging, women like Rekia Boyd gunned down in a park or like Breonna Taylor in her own home, or men like Eric Garner and George Floyd, struggling to breathe until choked to death by bigotry in a uniform. And so, so many more.
The virus of racism persists in part because we can never fully understand what it is like to stand in someone else’s shoes. I can never fully understand what it means to be stopped while walking down the street, or while driving, just because of the color of my skin. I can never fully understand what it means to have a talk with my child about how to survive a police encounter. We see each other but dimly, even with both eyes open.
And yet, we must try. We must not turn away. We must acknowledge our own implicit biases. We must join together, not stand apart or stay silent. And use our voices to lift up, rather than divide.
For more than two decades I have been a legislator. I believe in the power of corrective action through collective action, in the ability of the law to address injustice, and the courts to effectuate it. I believe in the power of oversight in Congress, in our state legislatures, through police commissions and through public inquiry and protest.
Many Americans, including those who cannot breathe and live in fear of the police, do not see these levers of power as protecting them, or even representing them. And rightfully so. The same offices that can be used for good, can and have been used to oppress. That must change.
We can and must do better for those suffocating on our city streets whether under the knee of a racist cop or from a system of justice that has perpetuated inequality and injustice.
And we must do so with a sense of urgency. Because Black Lives Matter. It shouldn’t be difficult for white Americans to say so, such a fundamental truth. Black Lives Matter. Period.
What can Congress do to help, and not hurt? To lift up, and to combat systemic bias and racism?
Soon, we will be introducing a broad legislative package in the House to begin to address a discriminatory system that continues to victimize black Americans, with bills conceptualized and drafted by the Congressional Black Caucus.
But changes in the law are not enough. Changes in procedure and training alone will not do. Changes in how we address each other will not suffice.
We must dig deeper if we are to understand and combat this plague. Last week, we witnessed a miracle of human achievement as America once again launched its astronauts into space with a massive and controlled explosion. At times it seems we can conquer the heavens, and yet there is still so much on the ground that we are incapable of achieving or even understanding. For these answers, we cannot look to the unfathomable distances between the stars, but to the uncomfortable truths within and the sometimes unbridgeable distances between each of us here on earth.
I believe in America. I believe in its ideals and its future. Even at times like this. If black Americans who have had to endure so much, have never given up hope, if they believe that America can be a more perfect union and are willing to fight for that future, as they have shown time and time again as they take to the streets, then who am I to lose faith? And for those who have lost hope, how can we, together, restore it?
My job now is to lift up, and do what I can to help heal. In times like these, we often turn to those who have led our nation in the past, to those who have spoken to our better angels and to our highest ideals.
At the time of another unfathomable act of hatred and death, the bombing death of four little children in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr. imagined what those four angels might have to say to a divided and grieving nation:
“They say to each of us,” he said “black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”
Amen. And let us do so, with the fierce urgency of now.