Senator Delivers First in a Series of Floor Speeches Following the Murder of George Floyd to Address Systemic Racism and Advocate for Much-Needed Change

WASHINGTON, D.C. [06/11/20]—Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) delivered a speech from the Senate floor to honor George Floyd, and to stand up for Minnesotans and the millions of Americans calling for transformative changes to policing and systems that perpetuate injustice.

You can access video of Sen. Smith’s remarks—the first in a series of speeches she will give in the coming weeks—here.

“We need a new and sustained push for racial justice, not just in law enforcement but in health care, in education, in housing, and in our environmental policy. The people I spoke to when I was home last week are grieving, angry, hurt. But most of all, they’re exhausted. Communities of color have spent years fighting to be heard, fighting for justice, fighting for resources, fighting for survival,” said Sen. Smith in her remarks from the Senate floor. “And as their Senator, it’s my job to carry that fight here to the Senate.

“Four hundred years of structural racism cannot be overcome with a single piece of legislation, or even by a single generation of legislators.  But we cannot let the enormity of the task blind us to the urgency of the work. The last two weeks have been extraordinarily difficult for Minnesotans, and our country. But, throughout our history, the hardest times have often been the times of greatest progress. And I choose to find purpose in making sure that this moment leads to real progress towards justice and equality. 

“This is a big fight. The scale of the injustice is overwhelming. It can be hard to know where to start. But the people who took to the streets last week—in the Twin Cities, in communities large and small across Minnesota, and in cities around the country—are a movement for change, and they are showing us the path forward. That path requires us to be courageous. It requires us to be humble. It requires us to be uncomfortable. But it is a path rooted in love, and in trust, and in hope. 

“We saw it in the way protestors brought joy to this most serious of fights. We saw it in the way they stood up to those who would harm their communities and their cause. We saw it in the way they kept their focus even in the face of unimaginable brutality. So many Minnesotans have showed such courage and grace. I am proud to be your Senator, and even prouder to be your neighbor.

“I am committing myself to the path you are forging. And I hope my constituents, my colleagues, and all of my fellow Americans will do the same.”

You can read Sen. Smith’s remarks as prepared for delivery below:

Floor Speech on Policing and George Floyd
Senator Tina Smith

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

M. President:

Last week, I attended a memorial service for one of my constituents, George Floyd, who was murdered by Minneapolis police.

Like so many of my fellow Minnesotans, my heart is broken – for Mr. Floyd’s family and friends, and for a Black community that has been here far too many times.

And I will once again add my voice to the chorus demanding that the police officers responsible for his death face justice.

But I keep finding myself thinking that Mr. Floyd’s death wasn’t just a tragedy, and it wasn’t just a crime.

It was a failure.  It was our failure.

Systemic racism is built into every level of our society. And for four hundred years, Black and Brown people have paid its price. 

Racism isn’t just evil, though it is.  It’s dangerous.  It’s not just a moral issue, though it is.  It’s a public health issue.

And the death of George Floyd, like the deaths of so many Black and Brown people before him, is an indictment of our failure as policymakers to fulfill our first and most important duty: protecting the lives of the people we serve. 

Black lives matter.  We need to say it loud, and often.  With strength and purpose

And if we truly mean it, then we also need to be very clear about why so many Black and Brown lives are being stolen.  

And that means we can’t just point to systemic racism writ large.

We have to talk about the police.

This is about the impunity with which police officers are allowed to kill Black and Brown Americans.  This is about a society in which police departments have become fundamentally unaccountable institutions. 

This is about the fact that law enforcement in America does not deliver equal justice for all.

Over the past week, I’ve heard and read so many statements about the need for change.  They’ve been moving, thoughtful – but, often, very broad and general.

The institutional racism that plagues American law enforcement is real.  It’s not a few bad cops. 

It’s the entire culture of policing – a culture that far too often encourages violence, condones abuse, and resists reform and accountability at every turn.  That culture kills.  And it will continue to kill until we end it once and for all. 

If you can’t see that. . . if you can’t say that. . . if you aren’t ready to use your power and your privilege to address this unforgivable failure – well, then you might as well say nothing at all.

Why is it so hard for us to talk about these issues?  Why is it so hard to even admit that there’s something dangerously wrong about the role police play in our society? 

In part, it’s because of the respect we have for police officers themselves.  We ask these men and women to put their lives on the line every time they go to work. 

Their job is to run to trouble.  And hundreds of thousands of police officers in my community and yours fulfill that duty with skill and courage every day.

But there’s something else lurking behind our inaction.

The vast majority of policymakers, especially here in Washington, are white.  And the vast majority of the interactions white people have with police officers are positive. 

When we are scared, or threatened, or hurt, police officers come to help.  We hear the siren, or we see a blue uniform, and we breathe a sigh of relief.

It is uncomfortable for white people to acknowledge what that feeling of relief really is: privilege.  And it is uncomfortable to imagine giving up some piece of that privilege.

After all, we want clean, safe streets.  We want quiet, orderly neighborhoods.  We want to be able to call 911 when we are in danger and know that  police officers will rush to our aid.  And we may even catch ourselves worrying that a police force held accountable for its abuses of power against Black and Brown bodies will be a police force less empowered to protect us.

Often, when white people talk about racism, we define it as a hatred that lurks within people’s hearts.  We can then search within ourselves and be satisfied that we are free from prejudice. 

But racism is manifested in behavior.  Behavior that hurts, and even kills.  Who knows how to change hearts and minds? Let’s change the behavior.

This is something I think about a lot as a Minnesotan.  My home state prides itself on our legacy of progressive activism.  We believe deeply in civic participation, proud of the highest voter turnout in the country.  We’re home to a diverse array of communities – not just African American, but Somali, Hmong, Latinx, Native, and more – people who belong here just as much as anyone else.

We’re also home to some of the nation’s worst racial disparities.  It’s not just that Black men are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be searched, more likely to be assaulted and killed by police officers.  A Black or Brown child growing up in the neighborhood where George Floyd was murdered can look forward to worse education outcomes,, less access to health care, and fewer opportunities than a white child who lives just a couple miles down the road.

The truth is, for all the progress we’ve made in America over the course of my lifetime, for all the hearts and minds that have changed, racism was built into our institutions from the beginning.  And while it is still present in everything from health care to education to housing to environmental policy, it jumps off the page when you look at our nation’s criminal justice system.

African-Americans make up less than 14 percent of the population – but they account for 23 percent of fatal police shootings, and nearly a third of our prison population.

And while studies repeatedly show that Black people and white people use drugs at roughly the same rate, black people are more than twice as likely to be arrested for drug offenses – nearly four times as likely when it comes to marijuana alone.

No matter where you look, our criminal justice system unfairly targets Black and Brown people, threatening their freedom and often their lives.  This is also tragically true for Native people. 

And you can’t just blame that on racist cops.  That’s us doing that.  Even if we harbor no hatred in our hearts, we are responsible for the racist impact of a system that was built historically by white Americans to serve white Americans.  

We are the beneficiaries of a racist system that killed George Floyd.  And Breonna Taylor.  And Ahmaud Arbery.  And Atatiana Jefferson.  And Sandra Bland.  And Aiyana Stanley-Jones.  And Rekia Boyd. And Jessica Hernandez.  And Eric Salgado.  And Philando Castile.  And Jamar Clark.  And so many others.

That’s a hard thing to admit.  But right now, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are demanding that we face the ugly truth.

The people marching in our streets have watched us forgive ourselves time and time again for failing Black and Brown Americans like George Floyd.  They are angry.  They are grieving.  Most of all, they are exhausted.  And, this time, they must not be denied.

It may make us uncomfortable to hear this anger, to see these images on TV, to experience this turmoil at a time when our country is already going through so much. 

But that’s the whole point of protest.  This crisis has long deserved our attention, and because we have withheld that attention, these protestors are now demanding it. 

We cannot claim to support the goal of justice if we object to being confronted with the reality of injustice.  Our discomfort does not entitle us to walk away from this moral crisis.

We’ve done that too many times, after too many deaths.  And every time we do, we fail the next black or brown American to die in police custody.

I can’t live with that.  Not this time.

This time, white people have to get past our discomfort. 

Black and Brown people have been trying for too long to tell us that systemic racism isn’t just limiting their opportunities, it is killing their children.  To the communities of color in Minnesota who I’m proud to represent, know that I hear you, and that I will do everything I can to make sure everyone here in Washington hears you.

Most of all, we have to devote our time and our energy, our resources and our platforms, our power and our privilege, to helping this movement succeed.  As Reverend Billy Russell from Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis said to me, “We need to make it right.  It’s not right now, but we need to make it right.”  

M. President, I want to tell the communities I met with in Minnesota last week, my colleagues, and the American people exactly how I will use my power, and my privilege, to make it right. 

In the coming weeks, my office will move forward with legislative action focused on three priorities.

First: Fundamentally transforming the role of the police in our society – from the way we fund, train, and equip our officers to the relationship between departments and the communities they serve.  We must re-think the responsibilities we assign to the police and the authority we give them to fulfill those responsibilities.  We need to re-imagine and re-invent American policing from the ground up.

Second: Returning accountability to our system. We must fix the systems in police departments that obstruct accountability and transparency at every turn. 

Our system effectively puts cops above the law by insulating them from civil and criminal liability for their actions.  This leads people of color to conclude that they cannot trust the police, and it leads police to conclude that they’ll never face consequences for crossing the line.

They’re both right – and that means something is very wrong.  If we want to change the way officers act, we need to change the rules that shield them from accountability.

Accountability, and preventing this misconduct from being ignored, will not only hold police departments responsible for perpetuating violence and unequal justice, it will help prevent violence and injustice the next time.

The Justice in Policing Act, led by my colleagues Senator Harris and Senator Booker is an important step forward. I’m proud to support it, and I urge all my colleagues to join us. .e Racism is about behavior. We can’t legislate what police officers believe.  But we can, and must, legislate how they behave.  

Third: Restoring the communities that have been torn apart by this injustice.  In the Twin Cities, neighbors are already coming together to clean up the damage sustained during the upheaval of the last two weeks.  

But the task of making our communities whole goes far beyond repairing the physical damage. We need a new and sustained push for racial justice, not just in law enforcement but in health care, in education, in housing, and in our environmental policy.a

The people I spoke to when I was home last week are grieving, angry, hurt.  But most of all, they’re exhausted.  Communities of color have spent years fighting to be heard, fighting for justice, fighting for resources, fighting for survival.  And as their Senator, it’s my job to carry that fight here to the Senate.

Four hundred years of structural racism cannot be overcome with a single piece of legislation, or even by a single generation of legislators.  But we cannot let the enormity of the task blind us to the urgency of the work.

The last two weeks have been extraordinarily difficult for Minnesotans, and our country

But, throughout our history, the hardest times have often been the times of greatest progress. 

And I choose to find purpose in making sure that this moment leads to real progress towards justice and equality.

That’s why I came to the floor today, M. President. 

No statement of intent, no matter how thoughtful, will change the reality of this crisis.  But I want this statement to be on the record – part of my record as a United States Senator.  I want to be accountable for these commitments.  I want Minnesotans to hold me accountable.  And I want to help communities of color hold all of us in this Senate accountable.

This, then, will be the first in a series of floor speeches I will deliver examining the systemic injustice that plagues American policing and native, black and brown communities more broadly.  And the steps we need to take to address this injustice  – redefining the role of the police, reinforcing accountability for police officers, and restoring the communities I’m so proud to serve. 

This is a big fight.  The scale of the injustice is overwhelming.  It can be hard to know where to start. 

But the people who took to the streets last week – in the Twin Cities, in communities large and small across Minnesota, and in cities around the country – are a movement for change, and they are showing us  the path forward. 

That path requires us to be courageous.  It requires us to be humble.  It requires us to be uncomfortable.  But it is a path rooted in love, and in trust, and in hope. 

We saw it in the way protestors brought joy to this most serious of fights.  We saw it in the way they stood up to those who would harm their communities and their cause.  We saw it in the way they kept their focus even in the face of unimaginable brutality. 

So many Minnesotans have showed such courage and grace.  I am proud to be your Senator, and even prouder to be your neighbor.

I am committing myself to the path you are forging.  And I hope my constituents, my colleagues, and all of my fellow Americans will do the same.

Thank you.

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