This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
For nearly 250 years of Virginia’s history Black people in the state were enslaved. Following emancipation there was a denial of the rights of Black people in the state, and Jim Crow laws curtailed their freedom. The Lost Cause movement after the Civil War sought to obscure the treatment of Black people as slaves and downplay any contributions they made to society. Only in recent years with the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements have Black people started to receive the recognition they deserve in society and in the state legislature.
Each day in the Virginia General Assembly history is being made as a record number of 18 Black members serve in the 100-member House of Delegates and three Black members are in the 40-member Senate. For most of my career as a delegate the number of Black legislators in the General Assembly could be counted on the fingers on one hand. For the first time ever, Black women are in leadership roles with the Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth, the President pro tempore of the Senate, and the House Minority Caucus Chair. A small but significant example of the changes being made are the daily speeches in the General Assembly during February about notable Black Virginians who have not received the attention they deserve
President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Events leading up to the designation of a Black History Month extend back as far as 1926 when the Association for the Study of African American Life and History founded by historian Carter G. Woodson and Minister Jesse E. Moorland started a Negro History Week. The second week of February was chosen as the date to correspond with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Hopefully the writing and teaching of more complete histories will reduce the need for separate historic celebrations, but there is so much to do in filling in the blanks of histories in the past that left out so much information or distorted it in so many ways. There is a continuing effort on the part of many who see one-sided historical accounts as benefiting the false narrative they continue to present.
There are real concerns that I and others have about what is happening currently in Virginia. As I discussed in a recent column, the Governor’s Executive Order Number One “ending the use of inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” has fueled this concern. Adding to the Order, the Governor’s setting up a snitch line for parents and others to report on teachers teaching “divisive concepts” raises further concerns. It’s impossible to teach accurate history without some seeing it as divisive. Hopefully the celebration of Black History Month in the General Assembly will demonstrate that celebrating each other’s successes will not be viewed as divisive but rather as strengthening our common histories and aspirations.
(Updated at 9:50 a.m. on 4/21/2021) Local officials and organizations expressed relief at the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd, while also reiterating a need to address inequities and discrimination within the criminal justice system.
Yesterday (April 20), Minneapolis, Minn., police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter for killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by kneeling on his neck. Captured on video, Floyd’s murder spurred protests against police brutality around the world, including in Fairfax County.
Within minutes of the verdict, the Fairfax County Police Department and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay shared their separate statements together.
Notably, FCPD’s statement does not specifically mention the trial or the guilty verdict, but does speak to their ongoing reform efforts and repairing trust in the community.
Del. Ibraheem Samirah, who represents the 86th District, including the Town of Herndon, also released a comment via social media, saying that it shouldn’t have taken “a massive media focus to ensure justice is served for Black and Brown people.”
Justice has been served for George Floyd. But do not forget the multitude of other lives that have been lost to police violence that didn't have the same outcome. It shouldn't take massive media focus to ensure that justice is served for Black and Brown people. #BlackLivesMatter
— Del. Ibraheem Samirah (@IbraheemSamirah) April 20, 2021
The Fairfax County chapter of the NAACP released a statement earlier in the day calling for peace no matter the verdict.
After the guilty verdict were announced, the organization re-posted NAACP national’s message on Facebook, which read:
“Justice has prevailed in the case against #GeorgeFloyds killer #DerekChauvin, but the work is not done! We must keep fighting to end qualified immunity, and we must get #PoliceReformNOW.”
Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand also provided a statement saying that students and staff are “experiencing a range of emotions” about the verdict and that the school system is constantly working to create an environment where racism and hate are not tolerated.
“There is no justice in the loss of loved one,” he said.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano tweeted that the verdict was “a first step toward justice and accountability,” but he also called Chauvin’s trial “a dramatic reminder of the pain countless Black Americans experience as a result of a justice system that too often devalues their lives.”
Those of us who wield power in this system have a responsibility to learn from & be responsive to this pain. In Fairfax County, I will continue to serve as the independent check on the justice system the community deserves & hold police who abuse their power accountable. 2/2
— Steve Descano (@SteveDescano) April 20, 2021
Several of Fairfax County’s Congressional representatives said via social media that they agreed with the verdict.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton called it “a good day for justice.” Rep. Gerry Connolly wrote that the verdict was “just,” adding that “far too many Black lives have been cut short” and “we owe them real, structural change.”
“The jury confirms what we saw: Derek Chauvin is guilty of murdering George Floyd,” Rep. Don Beyer said on Twitter. “I’m thinking about George Floyd, his family and friends, who have been through such much.”
Wexton and Sen. Mark Warner urged their colleagues in Congress to support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would require police to wear body cameras, establish a national registry for records of police misconduct, and limit qualified immunity as a defense in civil lawsuits against law enforcement officers, among other reforms.
Reston Now reached out to the Fairfax County Police Association for comment but has yet to hear back as of publication.
Photo by Nick Papetti
Protesters are asking that we say her name, “Breonna Taylor,” as well we should in reminding ourselves and others as to how unfairly laws can be applied. Breonna was a young Black woman in her mid-20’s who worked as an emergency room technician before she was tragically killed by police in a raid on her apartment for reasons that did not involve her. Louisville, Kentucky police got a “no-knock search warrant” to enter her apartment for they suspected that her boyfriend who was in the apartment with her was dealing in drugs. The no-knock warrant was justified by the police as necessary to keep the suspected dealer from having time to destroy evidence. That’s the police view of events.
From inside the apartment in the dark after midnight on March 13 this year there was the sound of the front door being knocked down, and three plain-clothed men entered the apartment. The boyfriend responded by firing a shot that he maintains was in self-defense and that hit one of the policemen in the leg. Under the legal concept of “castle doctrine” in common law and many state statutes a person can use deadly force to protect oneself from an intruder in their home who could cause bodily injury or death.
The boyfriend said he fired that single shot in self-defense. The police responded to his self-defense by firing 32 times into the apartment in self-defense against his self-defense. The boyfriend was not hit, but Breonna Taylor who was an innocent unarmed bystander was killed by the six shots that hit her. No one has been charged with her murder! Any wonder why criminal justice reform advocates have taken to the streets once again?
Clearly the job of maintaining safe communities is a challenging one, but since when is intercepting an alleged drug dealer more important than the life of such an innocent and promising young woman? Since when do we prioritize the arrest of a possible drug dealer over the sanctity of someone’s home with an unannounced, middle of the night raid when the home that is raided is not even that of the person who is the subject of that raid?
I am pleased that the Special Session of the General Assembly now convened is taking on the difficult issues related to public safety and criminal justice reform and the racism that too often has driven policy in the past. While many of these tough issues are still being debated between the House and Senate, I am confident that we will get rid of no-knock warrants in the state, that we will expand police training and civilian oversight of police activity, and that we will reduce the classroom to corrections situations that have caught too many young people of color. We will maintain law and order in our communities without locking up persons of color for minor offenses for unjustified lengths of time.
We need to say the name of Breonna Taylor to remember her murder, but hopefully in the future her death will represent the beginning of real criminal justice reform.
Efforts to Preserve Lake Health Underway — “RA hosted a virtual meeting on Aug. 31 to collect input from residents and answer questions about the ongoing health of Reston’s lakes. Based on that feedback, RA has set up a Lakes and Watersheds webpage, where residents can find the latest water quality reports. They can also send their concerns via email to [email protected].” [Reston Patch]
Responding to Hate Crimes in Reston — A fifth Rainbow flag and a second Black Lives Matter banner that flew at the entrance of the church were installed at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. They replace banners stole in June. [The Connection]
More Funding Pumped into Small Business Grant Program — “Additional funding for the Fairfax Relief Initiative to Support Employers (RISE) grant program will provide grants to remaining eligible businesses and nonprofits that applied. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved up to $12 million for the program. The Town of Vienna is providing $1 million as well.” [Reston Patch]
Photo by Marjorie Copson
Virginia and the southern states of the Confederacy lost the Civil War with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, but for more than another hundred and fifty years it appeared that the South may have won the peace. There was the Emancipation Proclamation, three amendments to the Constitution, and a period of Reconstruction to guarantee the new social order without slavery, but Southerners who favored the old order found ways around the new laws to perpetuate a society of racial segregation and inequalities. Jim Crow laws replaced slave codes, oppressive laws limited the freedoms of Blacks, unequal schools limited their opportunities, and various voting limitations kept Blacks from registering and voting. There were thousands of lynchings to remind Blacks of their status in society and a Lost Cause movement that erected thousands of monuments in celebration of the old order of white supremacy.
After World War II, historian C. Vann Woodward wrote that America went through a Second Reconstruction as Blacks started to win significant victories against racist policies and laws with the various civil rights laws that passed including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education ending school desegregation. Even those advances were short-lived and limited; the Voting Rights Act was repealed, and inequities suffered by Blacks in educational programs and employment persisted. The mistreatment of Blacks by policing authorities became more tolerable than society could stand.
A series of events over many years culminating with a police officer murdering George Floyd from his knee on Floyd’s neck signified that, like the original Reconstruction, the Second Reconstruction left many inequalities and much work to be done. The Black Lives Matter message seems finally to have been heard and finally for many understood. There is no postponing change.
Much of what has been happening to date in what Rev. William Barber II has termed a Third Reconstruction has been symbolic but important. No longer do visitors to the original House of Delegates chamber in the Capitol in Richmond have to walk around a bigger-than-life and impossible-to-miss statue of Robert E. Lee. While his statue on Monument Avenue remains at present, it too will be taken down as soon as the court case about it is resolved. Throughout Virginia and the South more statues have been removed along with other symbols of the old South. Even the state of Mississippi gave up the Confederate flag as part of its flag.
More meaningful changes are coming. As a member of the House Public Safety Committee I am pleased with the public testimony we received last week. Other hearings are scheduled for this week and next to determine the changes we need to make in our policing policies and criminal justice system to remove the racial biases. We will enact important changes at a special legislative session in August. We have had two chances at getting reconstruction right for all our citizens; we must commit ourselves to making this third effort a charm!
The body of John Lewis will be laid to rest this week, but the legacy of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement will live on. In his role as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington in August 1963. While his words that day are not as well remembered as those of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke after him that day with his “I Have a Dream” speech, the message of John Lewis is as relevant today as it was then. He exhibited a style of frank speaking that day that became famous over the decades of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement when he told the crowd:
“We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of people being locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler ‘be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now!”
He must have had some sense of satisfaction when last month with District of Columbia Mayor Muriel E. Bowser he visited the Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House and stood where the Black Lives Matter message was painted in the street. That day was in sharp contrast to the day in 1965 when he marched with others in the Civil Rights Movement across the bridge in Selma, Alabama, and suffered a skull fracture from being hit in the head with a police baton in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
John Lewis was the last of the great civil rights leaders of the 1960s. He lived long enough I believe to realize that his message was being more widely heard than ever before in this country. Should John Lewis be beginning his career today rather than ending it, I have no doubt he would be at the forefront of Black Lives Matter. While Lewis experienced the police batons, dogs and fire hoses, others today have felt the knee of white authority pressing on their necks or bullets hitting them in the back. The words “I cannot breathe” have come to be more than the last words of individuals whose lives were being snuffed out but are the words of generations living under a society of oppression because of the color of their skin. I cannot breathe means to many that they cannot live freely in an unjust and discriminatory society.
John Lewis never gave up through many challenges that are now being chronicled by other writers. In recent years I have appreciated his efforts to get the Congress to take action to end gun violence that affects communities of color disproportionally. What would John Lewis have us do? He offered this advice: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just: say something, do something. Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” We can participate in making a more just society when we follow John Lewis in getting into necessary trouble!
Words have meanings defined in the dictionary that can take on other meaning within the context in which they are being used. Never has it been more important that we understand the meaning and use of words than in present day politics.
Last week I wrote about “Black lives matter” and the importance that we hear the message that is being conveyed with that sentence. It is a group of words whose meaning has been ignored for too long. The current demonstrations literally around the world are intended to place an exclamation point at the end to emphasize that they must finally be heard and understood. I believe with each demonstration of thousands of people and with each statue that comes down the message that black lives matter is finally coming through. We need to get on with the changes that are needed in society and in our laws that show that we understand that black lives do matter. There is no turning back now.
When the grossly disproportionate number of black persons killed by white policemen that videos have made totally clear, the need for major and immediate changes to our policing system have become obvious. We need to make sure that the words we use to bring out those changes are not used against us. The societal needs for which our current police forces have been given responsibility in recent years are too broad and need to be reimagined and redefined. We cannot allow those who view societal challenges in law and order terms to use the term “defund the police” against those who understand that policing policies need to change. While some people mean a total defunding of police departments when they use the slogan, “defund the police,” many of us believe police departments will continue to need to exist but be demilitarized and not be the sole responders to community incidents. We need to define a role for public safety and community personnel who can keep our communities safe without confrontation and expand the availability of mental health workers in our communities. You can be sure that there will be a war of words over public safety and policing in the next several elections, and we must work hard to get our message clear.
In 1993 the first woman attorney general of Virginia was up by 20 points in a race to be the first woman governor of Virginia by defeating the Republican candidate, George Allen Jr. An incident of a person committing a crime while on parole from a Virginia prison during the political campaign led to Allen adopting an “end parole” theme to keep Virginians safe that led to his upset victory. The resulting end parole policy led to filling the jails and prisons, a massive prison building program, and lengthy prison terms for persons who were no longer a threat to society. We have only recently begun to undo the damage done by that simple bumper-strip term “end parole” that led to many lives–disproportionately black–being destroyed by a terrible public policy.
Words do have meaning, but we need to be clear what those words truly mean as they impact public policy.