In a powerful speech given at the Missouri AFL-CIO Convention, national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka took time to address the shooting of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown and the issues of race and class the shooting reignited in the national conversation. Trumka emphasized that racism is still a significant issue that we face not only as a country, but as a labor movement. He noted that both Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown, and Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, are union members.
Highlights of Trumka’s speech:
You see, the question of unity brings up a hard subject, a subject all of us know about but few want to acknowledge—race. I’m talking about race in America and what that means for our communities, our movement and our nation.
Because the reality is that while a young man named Michael Brown died just a short distance from us in Ferguson, from gunshot wounds from a police officer, other young men of color have died and will die in similar circumstances, in communities all across this country.
It happened here but it could have happened—and does happen—anywhere in America. Because the reality is we still have racism in America.
Now, some people might ask me why our labor movement should be involved in all that has happened since the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. And I want to answer that question directly. How can we not be involved?
Union members’ lives have been profoundly damaged in ways that cannot be fixed. Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother. Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.
So I say again, how can we not be involved? This tragedy and all the complexities of race and racism are a big part of our very big family as they always have been. A union is like a home. And in any home, good and bad things happen. We have to deal with all of them, honestly.
But that’s a philosophy. We can’t leave it at that. We have to look at real life today. We cannot wash our hands of the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death. That does not mean we prejudge the specifics of Michael Brown’s death or deny Officer Darren Wilson—or any other officer—his or her rights on the job or in the courts.
But it does demand that we clearly and openly discuss the reality of racism in American life. We must take responsibility for the past. Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans. Every city, every state and every region of this country has its own deep history with racism. And so does the labor movement….
I have a son. He’s not so young anymore but he’s not so old. I don’t worry about him. I don’t know, but I have a suspicion that like many of you, and certainly like me at that age, he may not always obey the nation’s traffic laws. So I worry he might wrap himself around a tree. But I never worry when he goes for a cross-country road trip or a night on the town that he may be stopped, shot to death by a police officer.
But for millions of mothers and fathers of young African American men and boys, men just like my son and boys who were as young as me and my friend Tommy—kids with promising futures in America, it is a constant fear, a constant fear.
And if you don’t feel that fear yourself, I’d just ask you, for a moment, to think about that. Think about what it would be like to watch your kid walk out the door and wonder, with good reason, if it’s the last time you’ll see him alive. Because you know it happens. If you haven’t had a close call yourself, you know people who have: friends, family, neighbors and people you worship with….
This is not somebody else’s problem. This is the reality of life for millions of our brothers and sisters. And so it is our problem. That is what solidarity means….
And think about what it means to be a police officer in this country where violence is so often the norm—about walking up to cars anticipating the worst, over and over again. None of us can really know the toll this takes unless we have worn the uniform. This reality, this experience, must be part of any conversation about how we move forward from what has happened here in Ferguson….
So we’ve got to talk to each other, not past each other. We’ve got to talk about how to help our police officers serve our communities. We’ve got to talk about registering and educating voters about jobs and housing and raising wages for all, and we’ve got to talk about accountability—about making sure the public has confidence that the laws of our nation will be enforced and enforced equally. And we have to do more than talk; we have to listen and then we have to act.
I’m not saying this is easy. If I knew how to fix the hurt in our communities, I would tell you. But I know how to start and that’s by listening….