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Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva: Focus on what matters: Ending systemic racism and police brutality
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Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva: Focus on what matters: Ending systemic racism and police brutality

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

While we are busy fighting the COVID-19 virus, another more entrenched disease has continued bubbling under the surface. Now it looks like the vile legacy of American racism is finally boiling over, and we’re reminded once again just how difficult it is to eradicate it from our country and heal our nation from its deadly impacts.

The images of Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck while he choked him to death have seared themselves into the American conscience. Floyd’s final cries of ‘I can’t breathe’ have reverberated in cities, towns, and communities across the country and have lit the spark that now calls on all us as to demand justice, accountability, and an end to police brutality.

For black and brown people in this country, justice and the equal application of the rule of law have been an elusive desire. Truth and reconciliation are desperately needed to begin the painful and uncomfortable path of coming to terms with this legacy of racism entrenched in our history and daily lives.

When we saw the murders of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, this collective memory and trauma busted at the seams. Generations of pain resurfaced. Old wounds never given the time nor the attention to heal ripped open.

But this is the reality of communities of color in this country, where the destruction of black and brown lives goes unpunished. Where peaceful protests — whether in the streets, in a classroom or in a sports arena — are met with anger and hostility from those who feel uncomfortable acknowledging the truth.

While detractors who condemned us for nonviolence are now laser-focused on instances of looting and violence in the aftermath of recent protests, we must not let them change the conversation.

Criminals and opportunists do not represent the demonstration. Instead it’s the demand for peace, justice, and acknowledgment that are the soul of this movement. We must focus on what matters.

For far too long, the justice system has failed us. It’s a system that allows officers like Derek Chauvin with numerous complaints to continue serving when their actions on the job should have disqualified them from service. It’s a system that keeps the tools of justice inaccessible to those with dark skin and punishes them disproportionately, starting early in life.

This caste-like system has a powerful ally who sits in the White House tweeting away while American cities convulse in anger and frustration. A president who sows division and calls for unrestricted violence instead of peace and reconciliation even when it’s so desperately needed.

One who fires on peaceful protesters to take a useless photo op while using a religious text and house of worship as a prop.

George Floyd deserves more than a promise of ‘never again,’ but a real commitment from those of us in power to implement real solutions.

It starts by reinstating the initial reforms in the Department of Justice that were a positive first step toward reconciling mistrust between the police and their communities, investigating patterns of racially motivated acts of violence, and creating legally enforceable consent decrees that helped reform police departments plagued by bias toward communities of color.

President Trump and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended these reforms, claiming without evidence that they negatively impacted police departments. With the stroke of a pen, they eliminated a key tool that civil rights advocates and police departments support.

It’s essential to have an administration in this country that will reinstate these urgent reforms.

However, investigating the practices of police departments isn’t enough. We must ensure that local law enforcement entities work within their ranks to end racial profiling and excessive use of force while punishing those who violate these principles.

We need to end their access to military-grade weapons that has outfitted local police departments with equipment that belong in a foreign battlefield, not our cities and communities.

Congress and localities across the country have the power to do this, and must enact comprehensive reforms to end qualified immunity for police officers, improve police training, demilitarize law enforcement, end private for-profit prisons, and create a national database to report misconduct by police officers that would prevent bad actors from moving to another police force. Failure to act means failing to protect our communities.

Most importantly, acting means shattering the systemic racism ingrained in our institutions since this country’s founding. Racism that not only pervades the criminal justice system but has resulted in health disparities, unequal access to education, voter suppression, and housing issues.

Tackling this requires more than meaningless lip service. It means boldly and honestly talking about our history, bringing the historic experiences of communities of color out of the fringes and into our historical narratives, and implementing policies that reverse this painful legacy and allow America to truly uphold its promise to all of us.

Conversations like these are difficult, but they are necessary if we have any hope of moving forward as one nation demanding full equality and equity for all.

These conversations must be held at every level and in every community, from kitchen tables to local police departments and mayors, to the halls of Congress. And they must result in change. This change can and will happen if we work together, both impacted communities and allies, to elect committed leaders.

Just as we have jumped into action to provide resources to fight the pandemic in our communities, so too must we treat this epidemic with the urgency it deserves and fight it with all our resources.

Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat, represents Arizona District 3 in Congress.

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