WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor regarding America’s demand for critical reforms to address police brutality and the nation’s centuries-old history of systemic racism:
“I am honored to join with colleagues to talk about the historic moment that our nation now finds itself in. For over two weeks now, protests have continued in city after city across our land. Millions of our fellow Americans are rising up and speaking out to demand justice, accountability, opportunity, and above all, the equality promised by our founders 244 years ago.
“This latest movement may have been sparked by the senseless killing of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of public safety officers. An officer, sworn to protect and defend him instead knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes while he told him he couldn’t breathe. But this movement is also about so much more. The pain, and anger, and anguish that has burst forth from the hearts of black Americans everywhere runs far deeper than a single tragedy. It is pain born of endless tragedies.
“The senseless killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery; of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland; of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and more—so many more—black men and women who should be alive today. Of Rayshard Brooks, who was needlessly killed, shot in the back by a police officer in Atlanta just this past Friday night.
“It is a pain born even before we were a yet a country, when, more than 400 years ago, traders kidnapped Africans from their own lands, brought them here to these shores, sold them, and locked them forced into generations of brutal slavery. They were treated not as people, but as property. They were chained, were sold, were whipped, were raped, were treated as something less than human.
“Our nation has never come to terms with that history. There’s no memorial on the National Mall to the millions of victims of slavery. There’s no Truth and Reconciliation Commission owning up to the evils that were perpetrated and their lasting impacts. And so still today, America’s gaping wound of racism bleeds pain and injustice. And inequality continues to plague nearly every system of our country.
“Too many black men and women have lost their livelihoods, their lives, and their dignity to a justice system that is rigged against them, whether it’s through racial profiling; mandatory minimums; or policies like ‘Stop and Frisk.’ We entrust our public safety officers with vast power to serve their communities. But have we ensured that their power is exercised on behalf of all citizens equally?
“We have not. Too often, they treat white citizens as their clients and Black citizens as the threat. This must change. Which is why I’m proud to support Senator Booker and Senator Harris’ sweeping Justice In Policing Act reform bill. We need to hold officers accountable for their actions and change the culture of policing in America, and I believe this legislation is how begin to do that.
“No one should ever be profiled because of the color of their skin. Chokeholds, like the one that killed Eric Garner in 2014, must be a thing of the past. No-knock warrants, like the one that ended with Breonna Taylor being shot to death in her bed, should no longer exist. And under the Justice In Policing Act, they won’t. And when a public safety officer misuses the immense power of their badge, that misuse must be investigated; that misuse must be documented; that misuse must be penalized; and the record of that abuse must be public.
“That is the essence of accountability that goes hand-in-hand with the responsibility and power that goes with wearing the badge.
“Never again should an officer who has been fired for abusing their power be able to go down the road, be hired by another department, and be able to continue abusive practices in a new setting. That’s why I’ve proposed a national database of police misconduct to achieve this outcome. And it is why I’m pleased that such a database is included in the Justice In Policing Act.
“In 1968, the Kerner Commission, which was examining the source of demonstrations the year before, 1967, concluded the following: ‘Bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination all converged to propel violent upheaval on the streets of African-American neighborhoods in American cities, north and south, east and west.’
“Dr. Kenneth Clark, testifying before that Commission, observed the following:
“’I read that report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the (1965) Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture shown over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.’
“Let the same not be said about the proposals we put forward today. The time for inaction is over. Today is a day of action! It’s time for investing in affordable housing in decent communities and in schools and teachers in minority communities. It’s time to support Black business owners, and early education programs like Head Start, so parents can go to work knowing their children are well looked after.
“It’s time for us to ensure that every American truly has the right to vote free from voter suppression or intimidation. It’s time to ensure that voters in Black communities do not have to wait in lines for hours to vote while there are no lines to be found in the wealthier, white areas of town.
“This Friday, our nation will once again recognize and celebrate Juneteenth—the day when slavery officially ended in this country 155 years ago. Let this Juneteenth stand as a day for all of us to reflect on the calls for justice crying out across our land. Now is the time for all of us to be agents of change; to listen to the voice of the people… to join with all those who have taken to the streets, endured the rubber bullets and batons and tear gas to stand up for what’s right.
“It is time for us to stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Americans who have had enough of suffering, enough of inequality, enough of injustice—so that together, we can finally help our nation live up to the ideal of a land where everyone, no matter the color of their skin, is treated with the dignity, and respect, and opportunity equal to all others.
“Last week, I went down to join the protests outside the White House at Lafayette Square and saw a young black girl—she couldn’t have been older than 10—holding a sign that read: ‘hoping for the American Dream, living the American nightmare.’ Now is the time to change the system. To deliver to her and every child an end to the national nightmare of discrimination and a beginning to the fulfillment of the promise of the American Dream, of opportunity, and equality, and justice for all.”