It’s been more than 40 years since my family fell asleep to the rapid sound of gunshots, the night before we fatefully crossed the Mekong River, the body of water that divided Laos from Thailand. My mother told us that Communist soldiers were heavily guarding it and shooting anyone crossing. She could hear the sound of gunshots all night long but made every effort to sleep on the hard surface of the ground. She would need every ounce of energy to carry her baby, me, across the river.
Years later, my father described in detail the image of bullets propelling blades of grass before him and holding his breath.
While the skies were remarkably blue and the mountains deeply green in our small and strong State of Vermont this week, where I have hiked, kayaked and had the privilege to safely work from home, my family in South Minneapolis found themselves once again falling asleep to the sound of gunshots.
Like in Laos, helicopters flew overhead. Then, those helicopters delivered food, water, and weapons.
Forty years later, those helicopters were flying overhead in my Minneapolis neighborhood, capturing images of destruction and chaos. Smoke engulfed the house my parents purchased for $64,000 in 1980. Neighborhood laundromats, grocery stores, restaurants – many of which are owned by racial and ethnic minorities – were in flames.
Some of these arsonists were white supremacists – walking amongst protesters in disguise. Some arsonists were people who had flown or driven into Minneapolis from other states to join the uprising. And painfully, some of these well-loved landmarks that represented diversity and generations of love, toil, and investment of new immigrant families from all over the world burned at the hands of the very people who lived and worked there.
The pain of a community taking the shape and form of self-destruction when the soul can no longer withstand trauma and torture. These flames were caused by a psychic implosion of a people sick and tired of being sick and tired.
This week, that rage and sorrow burned so bright it ignited a firestorm across this country; a country that has long been divided along the lines of color and wealth and privilege.
Many of us witnessed the video coverage of the murder of George Floyd on 38th and Chicago in my former neighborhood of Minneapolis – the place I still refer to as “home” when I go home for Christmas. So many people all over the country and world expressed shock and horror at witnessing four officers brazenly murder a man in public, in daylight, on camera, with witnesses who screamed and yelled for his life to be spared.
We’ve heard law enforcement across the nation condemn the actions of these four police officers and call for charges of murder. This has never happened before. We’ve heard from our country’s local and national political leaders, except one, demand justice and change. Even here in our insulated and beautiful Vermont, we came out in peaceful protests, and our Governor and law enforcement entities united in public statements condemning these officers.
At the Human Rights Commission where I have the honor to serve as the Executive Director, we also considered issuing a similar public statement or calling an emergency town hall meeting or just to do something other than stand still, with our jaws hanging and holding our heavy hearts. Nothing felt right because nothing is right. Any public statement would have just been another token statement of outrage and support. It would not honor the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, Eric Garner, Treyvon Martin, and more, and more – generations of murdered persons of color at the hands of law enforcement.
And it would embarrassingly fail to address the inevitable truth that George Floyd is not the last innocent Black person who will be murdered.
Let me make it very clear that George Floyd was an innocent man. And I don’t mean he was never charged and convicted of using a $20 counterfeit bill, the amount of which is three times less than what any of us have paid on a single speeding ticket. George Floyd was murdered for being Black and being poor. He didn’t die at the hands of a few rogue officers who failed to follow protocol for use of force. He died because of a system that has been rigged by design – from the time this country came into being – to keep the rich and privileged in power and the rest in generational poverty. Those officers were simply maintaining that order and asserting that “privilege.”
That is why it is fair to say that every law enforcement entity, every politician and every individual who is a benefactor of this system and who had the privilege this week to “tune out the news” or “take a break from the chaos” or “block or unfollow that Facebook friend who stopped posting pictures of their pet and started talking about race” in fact, caused George Floyd to be murdered. And the rest of us? In one form or another, by turning away and tuning out, we become the officers that held him down or stood by and allowed it to happen. How?
The fact that using a single $20 counterfeit bill was ever an arrestable crime to begin with.
That we never seem to question the cost of food, clothing, shelter, real property when they are marked up so high beyond their value and costs.
That we have divided our towns and neighborhoods along invisible lines so that our most vulnerable children have no choice but to attend schools with the least amount of resources.
That we suspend and expel Black and Brown children and children with disabilities at rates 2-3x that of white children and children without disabilities.
That in cities across a free country, Black and Brown people must wait for hours, sometimes in the rain, cold and dark to cast a vote but their white counterparts can walk in and out.
That our voting districts have been gerrymandered to nullify the power of the vote.
That America’s poorest must also pay the highest rates for loans and credit cards and be subjected to predator lending.
That being objectively harassed at work or in a place of public accommodations doesn’t meet the standard of harassment set by the Courts.
That our correctional systems dehumanize and punish the poor and incarcerate people of color at significantly higher rates for minor crimes
That Officer Chauvin was an honored and respected officer despite his record of complaints and previous shootings.
That a former prosecuting attorney who failed to prosecute over two dozen police shooting cases during her tenure is being vetted to be the Vice President of the United States for the Democratic Party.
That our media issues biased reports and narrow storylines without accountability.
That our president is a billionaire who has been entirely absent from the most significant movement of this decade yet maintains the devotion and loyalty of some of America’s poorest by means of lies, fear, and divisiveness.
I could go on but this letter is not intended to be a token statement, highlighting problems most of us already know to be true. The only acceptable way that I know how to honor George Floyd and the others who have been murdered is to bring amount real systemic change. This week we saw some of our leaders stand up and acknowledge individual and systemic racism and in some instances, publicly admit their complicity in this system.
Now that you are listening, we demand the following:
Civilian oversight board for the police with the first order of business being to investigate, review and report on every police use of force from the last decade.
Change the standard for use of force from “reasonable” to necessary.
Immediately terminate officers who have engaged in two or more incidents of bias in the community and violated the department or agency’s policy on use of force.
By executive order or legislative mandate, ensure that every State department and agency hire an equity director, with lived personal and professional experiences, whose job is to train and educate their staff on issues of equity and harassment, to conduct mandatory exit interviews and to collect and report all relevant demographic data on an annual basis and make recommendations.
Through legislation, change the “severe or pervasive” standard for harassment to a standard that factors how harassment has impacted the individual.
Immediately stop all suspensions and expulsions of children in favor of a restorative and healing in-school process.
Through legislative mandates and executive orders, prioritize state and federal resources to address Vermont’s housing crisis and get every child out of poverty immediately.
Reparations for African-Americans who live in the State of Vermont in varying forms across different systems.
These would be a starting point. The HRC promise to never stop fighting for these changes and to never stop listening to the people of Vermont, and of this country for the changes you want to see.
I had a long conversation with my 70-year-old immigrant father this week; a former foreign soldier for the CIA operatives in Laos, who had lost his older children in a country plagued by disease and famine and then later lost his home in the war. He was not the least bit worried about the potential for his real or personal property going up in flames this week. He knows the City of Minneapolis will recover. The people of Minnesota have been coming out to feed protesters. They have showed up with brooms to clean the streets in between nights of protests. My father told me he was interested in protesting too. To do nothing, to stand by, to be complicit is not acceptable. Our principles cannot be abandoned for the simple preservation of property and self. Thank you Dad.
I hope these recommendations, this promise and my personal commitment honors the life of George Floyd and the thousands like him. I hope this letter gives hope to the people of Vermont who are hungry for change but needed a kick start. Thank you for listening.