During these difficult times, many of us have turned to our families and loved ones to grieve and gain support. The brutal cases of racial injustice that have continued to occur and be relived in the media remind us that the work to create a just society is urgent and critical to our humanity.
On July 5, Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, La., by police while selling CDs. Less than 48 hours later, Philando Castile was killed in Falcon Heights, Minn., near St. Paul, after reaching for the ID that police instructed him to retrieve.
Then, on July 8, five police officers—Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa—lost their lives while protecting peaceful protesters in Dallas. While there was dramatic media coverage surrounding Sterling’s and Castile’s deaths, there were five more killings of Black and Latino men in police shootings over the past two weeks: Anthony Nuñez, Jasen Scott Ramirez, Delrawn Small, Alva Braziel and Pedro Villanueva.
Many of us within the SEIU family are working together to make sense of this and trying to use our voices to create change—as we continue to come together to find solutions to the challenges we face. Some reflections and thoughts are below
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Mary Kay Henry
International President, SEIU
The last week of unspeakable violence toward two Black men—and really all of Black America—says something is terribly wrong in our country and it has to end, not just in criminal justice but in all the ways that our Black brothers and sisters are treated "as less than," "not as good as" in our culture.
I personally can’t get the shaking white hands of the police officers (from Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge) and their (fear-filled? hate-filled?) voices out of my head. I don't believe their actions are their responsibility alone; white America is responsible for the deaths of unarmed Black brothers and sisters in our streets. Our silence; our lack of understanding; our frozen complacency to get rid of the individual hurts we have experienced; the unconscious bias we act from: these perpetuate a system that we have to root out on a personal level, in our families and communities, in our union and the nation.
I mourn the police deaths in Dallas. They were fathers, sons, brothers, husbands. So were Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Why has the coverage of the Dallas police been uniformly respectful and compassionate—as it should be—but Philando and Alton haven't been afforded the same treatment?
How come the first question on Alton was whether he had a criminal record, instead of questioning why he was treated so brutally after we all witnessed his respect for the police and his intention to surrender? How come Philando's fiancé was handcuffed? Why was she criminalized and not allowed to hug her 4-year-old? Why couldn't Philando's mom be allowed to hold her son's head in her arms one last time as life drained from his body?
We, the American people need to see what is happening as an American problem. We need to stand as a multiracial common front against the genocide of Black America. As a white woman, I take to heart that there are white leaders across the country that understand our own humanity is inextricably linked to the members of our family who are "being hunted," as Philando's mother said the morning after her son's death. (She was still not allowed to pay her respects.) I need to show up, and other white leaders need to show up, as forcefully as our leaders of color do each and every time—we must stand together in this fight. We can do this. I have hope because our union allows us to form relationships that cut across the racial segregation that we see in our schools, churches and neighborhoods. SEIU is America. SEIU can be a catalyst for change in America.
Together, we will figure out how. Our connection and love for each other has to fuel our commitment to change.
Secretary-Treasurer, 32BJ SEIU
My heart remains heavy, and I can't seem to relieve feelings of anger and hopelessness.
Regardless of technology that allows us now to witness firsthand the constant unnecessary murdering of Black men, it continues unabated! The recent murders have reinforced the fact that it remains open season on Black men, and there is no regard for the sanctity of Black lives. I need to be clear about my next statement, in no way do I accept or condone as justified the killing of the police officers in Dallas; it saddens me and was a terrible act of cowardice, just like the killings of those Black men were. But I've never heard of police using a robot to blow up a human being. They acted as judge, jury and executioner. To me it represented another disregard for a Black life.
I remain in amazement as I watch video after video of police encounters with white men and the extreme efforts they go to in order to spare a white life in the most dangerous of encounters. They always seemed determined to find a way to preserve life when it's not a Black life. Then, you have former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh saying: "This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out Black Lives Matter punks. Real America is coming after you." This racist threatens the president of the United States, and all Black people, encouraging violence against them. Where are all those righteous folks who would or should be calling for a full retraction, apology and his dismissal from his radio program, as they have called for the dismissal of actor Jesse Williams from Grey's Anatomy for his comments defending Black Lives Matter?
Many of our members are not safe in their communities, and what's most shameful is the threat is from those charged with their protection. Joe Walsh should be denounced and there must be a call to prosecute these officers to the fullest extent of the law for murder; demanding the harshest punishment allowable by law. If police continue to murder Black men without consequence, these murders will never cease.
What has happened recently, and I'm sure will continue to happen in America, means I, and anyone who has pigment in their skin, our lives aren't worth anything. The justice system is tainted against equality for people of color. I'm at a loss for next steps.
Provisional Officer, SEIU Local 2015
Watching Alton Sterling and Philando Castile lose their lives because of their Blackness has left me drained. My emotions have fluctuated between full-blown rage, inconsolable sorrow, profound pain and hollow numbness. Add these two names to those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice and the countless others whose names we will never know. They have all lost their lives to state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies. I will always hold their memories in my heart, and I pray for grace and mercy for their families and all that loved them.
I have spent a lot of time these last few days trying to challenge myself to get beyond my grief. “Be a leader,” I’ve said to myself. I have felt responsible for coming up with the right words to inspire the members and staff of Local 2015. Words to transform their emotions into fuel. Fuel that will ignite the flames of a movement that will once and for all burn down the ugly, insidious anti-Black racist structures that keep us all, regardless of our color, from knowing true freedom and justice. I have decided today is not the day for that. Instead I have chosen to let myself feel the emotions that are there, to reflect on them, and on what they are teaching me.
If the events of last week have you feeling some kind of way, please do yourself a favor and feel whatever it is you are feeling. There is no right or wrong way to do it, just be sure to look for the lesson on the other side. I believe it is in those lessons that we find our humanity. It is our own humanity that allows us to connect with the humanity in others. It is in those connections that barriers come down and transformation happens.
I am also aware that many of us want or need to process these recent events together. This is an open invitation to all of you that SEIU Local 2015 members and I share community. Let us make the space to come together in this moment to work through our emotions, reflect on them, and make our way to healing as a community. Let us also begin the dialogue needed to forge the path to true freedom and justice for all of us. Local 2015’s doors are open.
Secretary-Treasurer, 1199SEIU United Health Care Workers East
President, SEIU Asian Pacific Islander Caucus
It was a tough week for the United States of America.
No words can express my anger after what I saw happen again with the two Black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota. It breaks my heart to see the son of Alton Sterling crying and saying: "I want my daddy! I want my daddy!”
Then, the shooting of white police officers in Dallas. Their lives matter too.
I am angry that we have not dismantled racism. But I know just being angry will not help. As we say: “Don't Mourn! Organize!” A real people's movement and not just a moment movement.
As an Asian American, I am committed to being a part of our movement to dismantle all the layers of structural racism, discrimination and injustice for a better society where love, respect and unity prevail.
President, SEIU Healthcare 1199NE
The killings of this last week show me again and again that as long as Black, brown and other people of color are viewed and treated as the "other," as less than human, these horrific tragedies will continue. The foundations of our social, economic, cultural and political systems are and continue to be propped up by these beliefs. I found it disturbing watching the difference of the media's response to police being killed versus unarmed Black people being killed—and to the statements from politicians in response to it all.
If we want a society where ALL people can be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin (I do), we must call out this system at all turns. Not just Black people clamoring for justice but whites as well. We cannot be silent or we mimic the Germans and the rest of the world who did not speak up against unspeakable horror against Jews, the LGBTIQ community and "others." We know that. It is profoundly sad that Black lives will not matter unless we are relentless in our demands to make them matter. This powder keg cannot be defused by hate. Hate can only destroy.
Last week’s killings are another wake-up call about how ugly and divisive our country is becoming. As a union leader and a white man, I see that it cannot get clearer: videos, funerals and the wailing of families are not going to end the structural and anti-Black racism in our country. While the previous sentences all sound nice and proper, our members and all workers cannot make the progress we so sorely need, and create a better world without unity. We can't have unity without equality and we can't have equality without equity. That is the work. That is the fight. As an older white man, I hoped we would be closer to racial equality and justice for all working people and their families by now. We are not. But I see a hope in the activism of the demonstrations and struggles. I am committed to do my part to get there.
Tom De Bruin
Public Services Division Director, SEIU International
I got home Thursday night and was watching CNN and MSNBC as the Black Lives Matter protests were happening around the country, and then I watched in horror as the events unfolded in Dallas. At about 2 a.m., I had to force myself to unplug, and ever since I've been swirling, really struggling with my reactions and emotions. I can't stop thinking about how people from different backgrounds, perspectives, racial identities and situations can look at something or some person and see and feel completely different things:
- The white police officer in Minnesota looks at Philando Castile in his car with his family and sees a "suspect," "perp" and "thug" and fears for his own life—and justifies killing Castile, watching him die and taking his girlfriend and child to jail for the night. I look at the same scene and see a young Black man shot for no reason bleeding to death, with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter sitting next to him, and wonder how is it that no one will do anything to try to save him or at least to comfort him in his last moments, but, yet they immediately come to the aid of the person who killed him. I think of the young children from the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, where he worked in the cafeteria for the last 13 years and knew all of the children by name. They knew him and came to love him as "Mr. Phil," and now don't understand how this could have happened or how things will be without him.
- I read an article from the Los Angeles Times that describes the reactions of Alton Sterling's 15-year-old son to his father's death, and how the 4-year-old daughter of Philando Castile's girlfriend experienced the entire killing and then tried to comfort her mother. It was an incredibly emotional and moving article. Then, through my tears, I read the only three comments that were present on the article at that time: "Liberals creating the next generation of criminals," "Alton Sterling five children with five different mothers," "No L.A. Times articles on Dallas police officer’s families that now have to grow up without a father."
I can't stop hearing the terror and total panic in the police officer’s voice after killing Philando Castile as he tries to explain to Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds why he shot her boyfriend, and her calmly describing what really happened and why he was wrong, as she watches her boyfriend bleeding to death and taking his last breaths. I worry about what the impact of 400 years of slavery and anti-Black racism has had on all of us —and what are we going to do about it? Can we use this moment where everyone is hurting, feeling the pain and the senselessness of Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights and Dallas and use it to make us better, to finally take on the remnants of our past and to change the course of our history? Or will we just allow it to continue to eat away at who we are as people, as a country, and to continue to destroy our chances for a better future and a more equal and just world for all of our children and grandchildren?
President, SEIU Healthcare Michigan
I'm mad. Mad because a 15-year-old’s last vision of his father is that of him lying on the cement with both arms held down and shot to death. Blood oozing from his chest. I'm mad as hell a 4-year-old had to see a man shot in front of her. Had to console her mother. Had to worry if she or her mother was next. I'm mad as hell at the guy in Dallas who shot cops. It takes away from the fact that these two men were murdered. I am mad as hell police officers died. It makes me sick to my stomach to watch a 15-year-old call out that he wants his dad. I'm mad. As a white person, I have to do better; to do something to stop this. I'm mad at some white people who no matter what they see it's the Black thug's fault. I'm mad that Donald Trump preaches hate and people follow him.
How do I feel now, worse than when we started? It keeps happening over and over. These are the big things. Structural racism shows how much we don't see. Or we, as whites, don’t want to see? Our work has had uncomfortable conversations. I don't want to feel comfortable again until more whites see what is wrong. I want more whites to say “Black Lives Matter” and mean it. I'm just mad and I am sad. I am frustrated and I know I don't have even a sliver of what a Black person is frustrated with. I want whites to see we are privileged just for being white in a white-dominated world. But most of all, I want the killing to stop.
Today on television, you see everything about five police officers, so now things calm down. We see things on Facebook about blue lives and we wait until it happens again. That being said, we cannot tire, we cannot be weary. We cannot and will not be silenced. I feel more like I need to listen and speak. My responsibility as a white American is to speak the truth and to do whatever I can to make this country better for everyone’s grandkids.
Missouri Director, SEIU Local 1
I am overwhelmed with sadness about the continuing killings of Black men in the United States. I am troubled by many of the comments that I have seen since the police officers were killed. I do not condone those murders any more than I condone the murders of Black men. However, when I see comments such as "we are better than this," it troubles me as to the double meaning of such a statement—which has been voiced loudly after the police deaths but not after the deaths of Black men. Yes, we can and are better than this—but that should apply to all of the killings. I feel in many ways that we as Americans in general are becoming desensitized to the deaths of Black people. We wring our hands, some people protest, others write or speak out, but the killings go on and on with no end in sight. Over the past couple of days, I feel as though I am waiting for "other shoe to drop" and another killing to take place.
We have our work cut out for us in moving a program to end "structural racism." I have never believed that racial justice, the end of structural racism or the end of these killings would happen overnight. There have been a couple of small steps made in Missouri as a result of the Ferguson Commission and the Ferguson Forward Report. They address fines, education, etc. Where we are lacking and in my mind—the harder task—is to change hearts and minds, and maybe that means helping people to be more open about white privilege and how that is hurting our St. Louis community. There has not been nearly enough real dialogue in greater St. Louis on race. A meeting here and there, but no in depth conversations.
The second anniversary of Michael Brown's death is Aug. 9. He was not the first person killed but clearly he is not the last. Tensions in the St. Louis area are mounting, and a police officer was shot and injured here last Friday during a traffic stop of a Black man. The man was arrested.
What do you say to staff when they say: "Nothing is going to change until a police officer is held responsible for killing us.”? I agree, even though I don't have a solution as to how problem police are held accountable. The despair is overwhelming. At the same time, the staff still wanted to figure out how we begin to have deeper conversations with our diverse membership about white privilege and race. Maybe we need to push those conversations with our labor allies too. We are not sure on the details yet. It is baby steps for us but we all want to do something besides attend rallies and demonstrations—which have not changed anyone's minds here.
I also remain committed to work toward racial justice and equality, and keeping our members united in this fight.
Executive Vice President, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota
The system that undervalues the lives of African Americans will never value the lives of Asian Americans or other people of color …. I commit to stand shoulder to shoulder with activists dismantling all structural racism.
Chief of Staff, SEIU Local 721
¡Ya basta! How many Black families must be ravaged until the decision-makers recognize we have a systematic problem? I feel this tremendous sorrow knowing that there are fathers, sons, sisters and many others who will no longer walk through the doors of their homes to awaiting arms because their lives were stolen by those entrusted to protect and to serve, and I feel this rage because they continuously do it in our name.
I have the urgency to denounce and shut down mass incarceration, deportation, detention and the for-profit prison-industrial complex, for these have nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with commodifying Black and brown bodies and terrorizing Black and brown communities. As a mother and a Latina, I feel much more than solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, I feel a deep-down closeness.
To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we belong to a network of mutuality, and we are interwoven into a single garment of destiny, for we are literally neighbors, classmates, co-workers and family members. We cannot wait any longer to bring justice to all of our Black brothers and sisters.
President, SEIU United Service Workers West
I have a very heavy heart coming out of this past week. The impact goes beyond the victims but extends to those touched either directly or indirectly by violence and, in this case, violence motivated by hate. In particular, my heart goes out to the little girl who was comforting her mother by telling her not to cry that it's going to be all right, not realizing that her earliest memory will be a violent tragedy.
My first reaction on Facebook was, “WTF!” Hopelessness that yet again we are confronted by the issues of excessive force by the police targeting people of color and in this case two Black men, one while being restrained and the other on a traffic stop. Then, Dallas and five police officers shot in the line of duty with high-powered weapons, completely outgunned?
Then, the reaction as if Black Lives Matter was to blame and now they would have to go around and explain themselves, just because racists such as Rudy Giuliani says so! Completely ignoring the fact there have been 496 lives taken by the police in the first six months of this year alone. Thank God for Black Lives Matter!
I think we should add to our conversation the proliferation and access to guns in our streets. I’m fed up with the National Rifle Association and the politicians who are beholden to them. Our communities are the victims of their gun violence regardless of the circumstances!
I have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which outweighs their Second Amendment.
Southern Region Director, Workers United–SEIU
The events of this past week continue to be disheartening and cry out for explanation and analysis. Maybe it’s a psychological defense on my part, but when I feel myself getting too emotionally torn, I retreat in an attempt to analyze things as a way to understand them. While Dallas and Baton Rouge and Minneapolis are all horrifying and to be condemned, they are very different. Dallas shows us that deranged and evil individuals will commit deranged and evil acts. We must continue to think of how to minimize such acts—and ask why police should be put in situations where they are overmatched in firepower due to crazed open-carry and Second Amendment defenders, who totally misinterpret a constitutional right to bear arms put in place in the 1790s and based on the need for a "well-regulated militia," not a citizenry armed with high-powered rifles. Laws passed when weapons technology was single-shot muskets should not automatically be held sacred today.
“Evil people do evil things” sometimes applies to renegades in law enforcement as well. There are instances of police brutality and murder against whites.
The videos of Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, and other events sadly too numerous to mention, speak to something beyond evil acts. They speak to structural problems within our society regarding both race and policing. Policing and criminal justice in America is ultimately the function of protecting private property and individual rights. We know these are not simply rogue cops; although they may be rogue, these are the results of what happens to people in a certain systemic form of policing and race relations. They must be dealt with as such. The first element in dealing with a problem is to admit its existence.
Our union has to be a leader in having this discussion and shining the light on these issues. We have to be an interracial voice that demands we confront the issues and draw the distinctions. It’s not anti-cop, it is pro-real policing and admitting the reality of racial disparities. Black Lives Matter should have taught us something.
All of the deaths this week are tragic and abhorrent, that should go without saying. To conflate racial injustice with degenerate behavior will get us nowhere. They are both very real but very different problems calling for very different solutions.
Listening to the news and hearing the self-serving screaming heads, and then seeing all the suffering families, is so depressing, it’s hard to have hope. If we want change, we have to be the change we want. We have to challenge ourselves and our organizations as leaders, to raise these issues and have these discussions at every internal forum possible. Tweets, press releases and Facebook posts all have their place, but change must be planned and systematic, and it starts at home.
I don't have the answers, but we have to start somewhere—and I believe the discussion will provide its own rewards.
President, Public Employees Federation
I am a Black plainclothes parole officer with 24 years of on-the-job experience. I have 27 years total experience in law enforcement. I have had white officers put guns to my head while on duty because I was in plainclothes with a gun. I did not look like a law enforcement officer. That was 10 years ago.
What happens when Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter collide? I and about 300 of my co-workers of color worry about that.
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