Sen. Tina Smith: Making real progress towards justice and equality

Submitted photo Senator Tina Smith on senate floor

On June 11, 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. The following is a
transcript of her speech edited only for length.

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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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.