THE SEIU (Service Employees International Union) is reflecting on Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn.: Feelings, Thoughts and Action. Working together to make sense of the recent tragedies and trying to create change.
The union says: 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
What’s on your mind?
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 criminalised 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 colour 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 neighbourhoods. 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.’
Kyle Bragg 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 first-hand 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 US 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 programme, 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 colour. I’m at a loss for next steps.’
April Verrett 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 colour, 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 favour 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.’
Maria Castaneda 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! Organise!” 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.’
Dave Pickus 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 colour 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 colour of their skin (I do), we must call out this system at all turns. Not just Black people clamouring 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. 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.’