June 02, 2020

Van Hollen Delivers Floor Speech on the Murder of George Floyd, Need for Justice & Action on Systemic Racism

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen delivered the following speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

Thank you, Madam President. Let me start by saying to our colleague, the Senator from New Jersey, who just spoke on the floor – that we're all thankful for his passion to make sure that this country lives up to its promise and for sharing with this body his personal testimony about the sting of racism and the need for all of us to move urgently to address the fundamental inequities at the heart of our society and institutions. 

And Madam President, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we are at a pivotal point in our country. It’s a moment of reckoning. Historians will carefully examine this moment to see how our country responded; to see which path we took; how the Senate responded; how each senator responded.

 The immediate spark for this moment was the brutal murder of George Floyd by agents of government – a Minneapolis police officer aided and abetted by three other officers. We all witnessed the horror of George Floyd gasp “I can’t breathe” as a white officer kept his knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and three other officers participated in the crime. All four need to be brought to justice. 

But the murder of George Floyd was not an isolated event in the United States of America. It is not the first time a black man has called out “I can’t breathe” as he was choked or lynched. We can draw a straight line that runs from slavery, to Jim Crow, to legal segregation, to de facto segregation, to institutional racism, to the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — as well the vigilante killings of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. The white police officer who looked at the video as he kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd thought he would get away with his actions because he and so many others had not been held accountable before. He thought he could get away with it based on his experience. We must change that. Senator Booker said, we can have our moments of silence. We can have vigils. But that is not enough. It is not nearly enough.  

This is a moment that demands real action, real change, and real results – starting with changes in police practices and the systemic racism and institutions that have shielded those who engaged in misconduct from accountability. 

Those changes must include establishing truly independent oversight mechanisms to ensure that those police officers who betray the public trust are held accountable. We must ban outright the use of choke holds unless the officer’s life is in imminent danger and use federal leverage to incentivize de-escalatory practices over escalatory ones. We need national standards backed up by real consequences for those who do not comply. And we must establish a federal data bank that tracks reports of police misconduct — not simply unjustified killings by police, but all forms of misconduct.  

These – and other changes – are required to ensure the protection of citizens, communities, and the overwhelming number of police officers who are meeting their sworn oaths to protect our communities. Bad cops are bad for good cops, and we need to make sure we have a system in place to punish misconduct and reward those who are upholding their sworn duty. 

Now, Madam President, while the murder of George Floyd and others has again exposed the need for systemic change in police accountability, it also cries out for systemic change to address racism embedded in other institutions. The need for additional change does not mean we have not made progress in our country on key issues of civil rights and political rights – but it does mean we have a very long, unfinished road ahead to achieve the promise of equal justice, equal rights and equal opportunity in America. 

The murder of George Floyd comes in the middle of a pandemic that has inflicted disproportionate harm on communities of color, especially the black community, because of deep underlying disparities in our society that have been well-documented. It comes amid a pandemic that has shown a harsh light on deep inequality in our education systems – including the digital divide and the homework gap, but so much more. The reality, Madam President, is we must put all of our systems under the microscope and very intentionally root out racial bias and discriminatory impact.  

In the city of Baltimore, in my state of Maryland, we have a terrible legacy of housing segregation. Baltimore City had an explicit Committee on Segregation, which was followed by harsh and restrictive covenants and red-lining that blocked our black community from economic mobility. That may seem like a long time ago, but harmful impact is lasting, and you can still trace those red lines separating our neighborhoods today. So let us be very clear here that these disparities can be directly traced to policies that were designed – designed to discriminate. For decades, federal, state, and local policies covering issues from housing to banking, amounted to nothing less than state-sponsored efforts to deny African-Americans the basic equal rights they are owed under our Constitution. And while many, many of these policies are off the books today, their legacy endures and practices endure. And it is our obligation at every level of government to uproot and destroy those embedded policies with the same kind of deliberation that they were put in place in the first place.  

Now Madam President, the protests taking place in Minneapolis and all across the country are an expression of the deep pain caused by the continued death toll and other harms caused by our failure as a nation to address the underlying inequities in our society and on our citizens. That is why people have taken to the streets to protest. It was Dr. King who said, and I quote, “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.” Real justice, and real peace, is long overdue. 

Now Madam President, last night – in response to those protests – we witnessed something I never thought we would see in the United States of America. We had the President of the United States call up and order military police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters to clear a path for him to conduct a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church – a historic church close by to the White House. Here is what Mariann Edgar Budde, the Bishop of the Episcopal Archdiocese of Washington had to say: 

She made a statement that outlined the President’s abuse of their church for his political purposes. And then the church itself issued the following statement, and I should point out, Madam President, that the pastor of the church and many of the parishioners were at the protest and were providing water and nutrition to some of the protestors. Here’s what the leaders of the church said:

 “We at St. John’s Church were shocked at the surprise visit from the President this evening and even more appalled at the violent clearing of Lafayette Square to make the visit possible.  St. John’s is a community that welcomes all—from powerful presidents to the homeless—to worship God. We fully espouse the words of our Baptismal Covenant, which says, in part, that we ‘will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.’  

Living that covenant, we stand with those peacefully protesting the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd, and the far too many who came before him. 

We pray that our nation finally confronts its history of racism and, as a result, can fully embrace the peace of God that passes all understanding.” 

Madam President, those are really words we should have heard from our President. Instead they came from religious leaders responding to the President’s abuse of their church for political purposes – and in the process, violating the First Amendment rights of peaceful protestors. The rights of those protestors to peacefully assemble. The President ordered up military police to clear a peaceful crowd.  

And we also listened in disbelief as Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense, talked about turning public places into “battle spaces” to be “dominated.” This is the Secretary of Defense, who’s charged with defending our country, talking about turning rubber bullets and tear gas against peaceful protestors here in the United States. 

Madam President, we witnessed General Milley – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in full military uniform – presiding over the break-up of this peaceful demonstration. 

I remind Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley that their oath is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” And they are not permitted by that oath to follow illegal orders – even from the President of the United States. The President of the United States can give them what orders he chooses but the Constitution and their oath requires that their first loyalty be to the United States of America and not to any one individual.  

So Madam President, I think it’s important that we investigate this incident and the role that the Secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff played in following the President’s illegal orders, illegal because they represented a gross violation of the First Amendment rights of citizens of the United States to peacefully assemble. 

And Madam President, let me close with this, I said at the outset that – this is a moment when our country has different paths to choose and the Senate is very much part of deciding which path we will take. Will we take, as Senator Booker said, of not only having moments of silence, but working together to pass true reform to address police accountability? To address other forms of systemic racism? Will we be willing to stand up to the President of the United States when he violates the civil rights and First Amendment rights of American citizens? That is really a test for this institution. Whether we’re willing to do our job and uphold our oath to the Constitution of the United States.  

Thank you Madame President. And I do not suggest the absence of a quorum.