Standing in Solidarity Speech

On Saturday, February 4th, 2017, Supervisor Walker joined several organizations from around the state at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to call for fair policing and justice reform. Below is the speech Supervisor Walker gave at the event.

 

Thank you all for coming here today as we stand in solidarity.

 

Thank you to Pastor Epps for opening the doors of this church for this very important community event.

 

And to the Mitchell family. We are all here for you today.

 

Since that fateful night in November, when Jerime Mitchell was fired upon three times at close range, with one bullet entering his neck, leaving him paralyzed, much has been said by many people in this community. These incidents tend to be controversial in nature for many reasons, one of them being our society tends to hold certain institutions as sacrosanct. And any time those institutions are challenged or questioned, our society divides itself into two camps: those who believe certain institutions are infallible and those who wish to hold all institutions to an equal account.

 

We peel off into these camps, leaving so much space for constructive dialogue in-between us, that we are left to stare at each other through long-range binoculars, insisting that the other is wrong. When we do this, we make progress nearly impossible. This is how society divides itself, and stays that way.

 

What we need today, are people willing to leave their camps, and walk a little closer toward one another, prepared to admit that we simply see the world differently. Our individual experiences, our profession, the way we’ve been socialized over time by friends and family, all contribute to our worldview and perspectives. It is rarely the case that these worldviews are fundamentally wrong or immoral. It is more likely that they are just different from that of our peers, and that is okay.

 

By nearly all measurable accounts, Mr. Vander Sanden is a good county attorney and he commands the respect of his peers from across the state of Iowa. I have mentioned before, that the work of law enforcement professionals is hard and can be extremely dangerous. These brave men and women deserve our praise and respect.

 

However, no institution or profession is above scrutiny. We must get to a place where we can offer constructive criticism and point out ways in which our system and processes can be better and more equitable without fear of being labeled as anti-cop or disrespectful. We can criticize law enforcement while respecting law enforcement. In fact, our criticism is borne out of respect for that fine institution.

 

We are living in a time and place where a young African American boy growing up in this community can go his entire life without seeing one teacher of color, or one police officer that looks like him. When that same boy goes home, he can turn on the T.V., and see images of himself reflected in the countless unarmed Black men who make the news because they are gunned down in the streets by police officers. And while each and every one of these situations are different and present their own unique circumstances that should be considered, almost of all these instances end with a police officer walking free. It is almost as if our society discounts the idea that even police officers might sometimes act outside the boundaries of the law.

 

Every time this happens, we send a message to that young child, that his life is less valuable than others; that it is possible for him to fall victim to violence perpetrated by a law enforcement official, and for justice to become a concept that he could never find. This is why it is important that we reaffirm to the world that Black Lives Matter. We say this not because we believe that no other lives matter. We say this because we understand that right now, in this time, the value that society places on Black lives seems to be negligible. We owe it to the coming generations to affirm their humanity.

 

We have many good leaders in law enforcement in this community – Mr. Jerry Vander Sanden being one of them. But what we need now more than ever, is for our leaders to be great. To make that leap from good to great, our leaders must acknowledge the unfortunate national epidemic of unarmed Black men being killed by police officers. Not only must our leaders acknowledge this epidemic, they must find it within themselves to consider that some of these instances may not be justified and that no one is above the law; especially police officers. This is not a radical idea. In fact, it is reasonable and necessary. All law enforcement officials have a vested interest in addressing these problems, because in doing so, we can start to rebuild trust between this institution and the diverse communities the institution seeks to serve.

 

Great leaders recognize their responsibility to go the extra mile to assure a concerned public that the judicial process is as transparent as it can possibly be.

 

Great leaders don’t demonize and denigrate other leaders who call into question a system that for generations has oppressed people of color in this country. As former first lady Michelle Obama once said, “when they go low, we go high.”

 

Great leaders don’t lecture crowds of Black people on how to behave when they are pulled over by the police. We all have gotten the talk by our parents and loved ones. It is a talk that is fundamentally different from the one our white peers receive. When others are taught to run toward police officers in times of trouble, we are given instructions on how to survive encounters with the police.

 

Great leaders take time to understand their privilege and how it might blind their eyes to the dark realities that others may face.

 

Great leaders do more listening than talking; and offer to be a part of the solution, rather than staking out their place in their own camp, refusing to come to the table and engage in constructive dialogue.

 

Great leaders should view themselves through the sober lens of history and understand that our grand-kids will look back on these moments and wonder what it is we did to bring people closer together; how we busied ourselves to solve the tough problems that often divide people along the color line.

 

I stand before you today as a living testament to my grandmother, Shirley Ann Martin. Born in rural Alabama near the end of the second Great War, she recounted to me neighborhoods where the Indians – as she called them – would stay. She told me stories of friends and family members being “strung up,” from trees. One story I’ll never forget dealt with the quietness of her grandfather. He was a man who seldom spoke. When she asked her grandmother about this, she was told that her grandfather hadn’t quite been the same ever since she saved enough money to buy his freedom out of slavery.

 

She raised seven kids of her own, after making the great migration north to Chicago. She lived through tumultuous times: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church where four innocent girls lost their lives, the brutal beatings of the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, and the assassinations of Malcolm X, then Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many more of our leaders.

 

But she also lived through some pretty remarkable times including the Brown v. Board of Education decision which effectively ended segregation in our public schools; the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960 and 1964; and the election of this nation’s first African American president a little over 50 years after the Brown decision.

 

My grandmother took care of me and my younger sister, when my mother – her daughter – was murdered in Buffalo, New York in the early 1990’s. The case was never solved. My grandmother survived cancer on multiple occasions. She went to college late in life to become a nurse. She was deeply religious. She was the strongest, kindest woman I ever knew. My grandmother has gone on to be with her God now, but while she was on this earth, she had a friendship with Sister Louise Mitchell, the mother of Jerime Mitchell. Many folks here today might not know this. In fact, my grandmother and sister Mitchell sang in the church choir together.

 

When they would sing those old-time spirituals, you could see on their faces pain and wisdom that seemed to stretch through the ages. They were women of strong faith and deep conviction. While most of us struggle to reconcile what is happening to Black men and women around this country, I know in my heart, that Sister Mitchell has seen this before. In fact, many people here have seen this before.

 

Sister Mitchell and my grandmother came of age during a time where if something wasn’t right, you had a civic obligation to change it – or at least to try. Being women of faith, they also believed that you had a moral obligation to change this world. Their faith teaches them that Jesus Christ didn’t come to this earth because everything was fine and dandy. He came here to offer salvation, because mankind needed to be saved from itself. He instructed his followers to go ye therefore, and teach all nations.

 

If you go back and read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in full, you’ll remember that Dr. King was responding to mostly white clergy, who accused him of upsetting the natural order of things. They believed that things in the South were good enough, and that change would come over time. His advocating for justice as an outsider was not helpful they argued. He rocked the boat, and that upset the good Christians in Dixieland.

 

This desire on behalf of good people to walk softly is nothing new, and in fact, it persists even to this day. I can feel the disdain people have for me for speaking out on matters of social justice. They tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I ought to know my place. I’m told that I’ve called out some powerful people in this community, and if I wish to have a long career in politics, I would be wise to shut my mouth. I hear the voices chattering when I walk into a room. I can feel the stares. All of this, a constant reminder, that change does not come easy. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

 

As an elected official, I have a platform, and every now and again, people will listen to what I have to say. It is my obligation to force these issues into our public discourse. It is my obligation to force my constituents to think about these challenging issues of race and justice.

 

We must do more than think about these issues once a year, during this short February month where we celebrate Black History. And although the tragic scenes of unarmed Black men being gunned down in the streets by police officers flash across our television screens with increasing regularity, we must not confine ourselves to only thinking about these issues then. We must focus our hearts and minds on constantly agitating for change. Tragedy does not need to touch your life to motivate action. Instead, I hope it is your soul that is stirred by injustice. I hope your desire to be counted on the right side of history helps determine where you stand here in the present. It is my hope that we aren’t waiting for another tragedy to strike someone who looks like us or prays to the same the God that we pray to before we decide to act, because as the Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller reminded us:

 

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

 

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

 

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

 

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 

We must find our voices and we must use them. We must stand up for what we know in our hearts is right, period. We must do this for ourselves. We must do this for our children and future generations. If we continue to miss the mark and further undermine the concept of justice – a fundamental building block of our society – we undermine our very democracy. As President Obama reminded us in his farewell address, the gains of our long journey to freedom, in making this union more perfect, in carrying out this Democratic experiment are not assured.

 

“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of democracy.”  This is the task of all citizens; for all people who love this country and everything we stand for. It is hard, sometimes dispiriting, but it is worth it in the end.

 

In a few hundred years, we have built up a great nation, through many dangers, toils, and snares. And if you judge the greatness of a nation by military might and the size of its economy, then surely we are near the top. As Lincoln pointed out:

 

All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge Mountains in a trial of a thousand years. — If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.

 

But military might and a robust economy should not be how we determine the relative greatness of a country. We should judge ourselves based on how we treat the vulnerable and needy; and those whose rights have not been fully realized. We should judge ourselves by how well we articulate a morality that is inclusive and compassionate; by how aggressively we seek to destroy inequities and break down barriers to success for all those who want it and work for it. FDR got it right.  “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

 

While darker skinned peoples have been the subject of discrimination and humiliation since the first African slave ships arrived on the shores of the Americas, we are no longer bound by shackles and chains, or by segregation. We are bound by the absence of equal justice under the law. We are bound by the psychological trauma caused by a constant reinforcement of being less than. We are bound by pretextual stops, police brutality, microagressions, gentrification, poverty, income inequality, achievement gaps in education, the more comprehensive opportunity gap, and a school to prison pipeline. These socials ills lay over many ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, immigrants and refugees like a thick fog, clouding one’s sense of self-worth and dignity; they imprison the mind. And once you cause a person to believe in their heart that their life is of lesser value than the life of their fellow countryman, you condemn them to a forsaken darkness.

 

We cannot be okay with this. We all – here together in this place – are better than that.

 

I can hear the voice of my grandmother, “You know what’s right, so you ought to do what’s right.” – We can at least honor her legacy. We can allow a little bit of Shirley Martin to live on in all of us.

 

But so long as our society views the racial inequities and issues of social justice through a colored lens, as a “Black problem,” society will be slow in addressing these issues and correcting itself. “Justice too long delayed, is justice denied.” “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

 

If you want to move the needle, if you want to add power to this movement, then you would risk your own social capital. You would talk to your friends at the water cooler, you would make phone calls to your elected leaders – including county attorneys – you would make phone calls into other communities, you would show up at the rallies, you would write your local paper, you would donate your time and mental energy. You would stake your name on the cause of justice and stand proudly on the right side of history.

 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

 

These are the things I humbly hope you consider. Thank you very much for having me today.


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