Opinion: Commentary: The Time to Act is Now

Opinion: Commentary: The Time to Act is Now

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” The centuries-long pain and suffering of black communities across this Commonwealth and our nation is clearer now to majority whites than ever before. Now, finally, we must dismantle the racial inequities that led to the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, inequities that should have been eliminated decades ago. The murderous 8 minutes and 46 seconds of Officer Chauvin’s knee in Mr. Floyd’s neck has shown white Americans what America’s black citizens have endured all along. The time for action is now.

It is time for white citizens, who as a race have never endured this treatment, yet benefit from white privilege, to act. It is time for all of us who want to do the right thing and truly demand equity, but are unsure of what to do to move forward against four hundred years of institutionalized racism to speak out. The quote I remember best from Dr. King was his admonition, seemingly, to me: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As your elected official, I am duty bound to try to change our laws after listening and learning, especially from black leaders in our community as we act together to dismantle the broken system that led to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rodney King, Eric Garner, among countless other black and brown citizens. Closer to home, we can add to that list 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar, who was shot multiple times with impunity by the U.S. Park Police, without facing any accountability, on a quiet Tauxemont community street two and one half years ago.

We cannot be complacent with a return to normalcy. The status quo was never equitable for black Americans, was it? We will try harder, and we will make our society more just and fair. Racism is a systemic problem. We each have a personal duty to call out racism wherever we see it in our daily lives, and to actively consider our own behavior through an equity lens. I am encouraged to see so many white youths around the country and in our own Mount Vernon community this past Friday evening, standing up and using their privilege to march down Richmond Highway in solidarity with black Americans to denounce racism in all its forms.

To all others, I need you to listen, learn, read books by black authors, donate your time and your money if you can, and even to attend peaceful demonstrations (using your masks and maintaining social distancing inasmuch as possible). As white allies, we must use our privilege to demand change and reconciliation for 400 years of suffering. One thing that is abundantly clear is that silence and inaction are not the answer and the time to act is now.

For all of us, watching the news has been heartbreaking and tough to take. Over the weekend, we witnessed yet another disturbing use of force incident in the Gum Springs community when a black man in obvious distress, who did not appear to be a danger to himself or others, was tased by a Fairfax County police officer. The officer then put his knee on the back of this man's neck and tased the man additional times as he lay face down in the street and cried out that he couldn’t breathe. While I commend Fairfax County Police Chief Roessler and Commonwealth Attorney Descano’s quick response in arresting and charging the officer with assault and battery, this incident shows that we have a police officer here in our community who is too quick to escalate the use of force, and just how critical body-worn cameras are for transparency and holding our law enforcement accountable.

As both a member of the General Assembly and of the Virginia State Crime Commission, I stand ready to work with my colleagues and the Governor to recommend specific policy changes to ensure that law enforcement in Virginia is not just held accountable but is transformed and trained into peace enforcement agencies that emphasize de-escalation and nonlethal force, and employ empathy with a focus on mental health. It is important to work towards limiting the interactions between armed law enforcement officers and communities of color. Today, we call the police for everything, from welfare checks, to mental health crises, to seeing a person experiencing homelessness sleeping on a bench. While often well-intentioned, these interactions often have deadly consequences due to lack of training, as was the case for Atatiana Jefferson, who was shot in her own home by police during a check on her welfare. These situations could be better served by public safety employees who are trained social workers who are better able to diffuse a situation without the added dynamic of a deadly weapon.

We will eliminate those laws which contribute to the systemic racism in our Commonwealth that exist not just within the criminal justice system, but in healthcare, in housing, and so many other areas. We made some progress in this last General Assembly by passing legislation to remove all of the old Jim Crow language throughout the Virginia Code, and to allow localities to remove powerful symbols of hate, like the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond and the statue of the Confederate soldier in Alexandria, that no longer stands after 131 years in the middle of South Washington street. We also eliminated another potent symbol, by no longer celebrating Lee-Jackson Day and instead making Election Day a state holiday, something I have long advocated for. Those monuments do not belong in our public places. They are totems to racism and must be dismantled altogether.

I hear — and encourage you to contact me — from constituents with hearts broken by witnessing police brutality, but now also with hope and legislative ideas on reforming our criminal justice system, as well as how to address better access to health care, workforce skills development, training for incarcerated black youth with real job skills, and affordable housing. There were many bills that I supported in past sessions like bringing back parole, expungement of ten-year-old plus nonviolent crimes, ending the death penalty, community policing, giving judges the discretion to reduce and drop charges after jury sentencing, eliminating mandatory minimums, and other laws to tackle structural inequality.

I am committed to equity and to help those who are struggling, which has been especially difficult in the context of this pandemic. Our nation is under tremendous stress, pain, and anxiety. But, as I watch the peaceful protests—a determined and blended mosaic of young people of all races—I am more confident that we can come together to honor the essential cause of reconciliation and racial equality. We cannot unsee what we have seen with our very own eyes, or unlearn what we have finally learned over the past few days. This is our moment. We cannot fail our children. They are showing us the way.