‘America, Accepting Death Is Not an Option Anymore’

Excerpt of speech by The Rev. William J. Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, produced by Scott Harris

As nationwide protests against police violence entered their fourth week, a white Atlanta police officer investigating reports of a man sleeping in his car at a Wendy’s restaurant, shot and killed 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, a black man who resisted arrest and ran after he grabbed an officer’s Taser. The shooting set off a new wave of protests in Atlanta that saw the Wendy’s restaurant where Brooks was killed set on fire.
Congressional Democrats proposed sweeping police reform legislation called the “Justice in Policing Act of 2020,” while Senate Republicans are working on their own narrower, less aggressive bill. President Trump responded by signing an executive order that falls far short of the structural change demanded by Black Lives Matter protesters. Trump’s executive order encourages limiting the use of chokeholds and moves to create a national database for police misconduct.
The Rev. William J. Barber II is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, and founder of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement that has since opened chapters in other states. We now hear an excerpt of a sermon delivered by Rev. Barber at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C, on June 14 titled, “America, Accepting Death Is Not an Option Anymore!” that addresses the coast-to-coast protests against police violence and the larger issue of America’s long standing institutional racism and inequality.

THE REV. WILLIAM J. BARBER: According to the CDC, black women over 30 are 4 to 5 times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth compared to white women. This ought not be. According to the data compiled by the APM research lab, blacks are 2.4 times as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites. Not because they’re black, but because of the systemic racism that denies healthcare – denies clean air and clean water. Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population. But 25 percent of the deaths – over 3,000 deaths annually – are attributed to the particulate pollution from coal fire power plants, with poor communities and communities of color bearing the brunt. Blacks are three times more likely to die from particulate air pollution. The percentage of black children suffering from asthma — George Floyd had asthma. The percentage of black children suffering from asthma is nearly double of whites and the death rate is 10 times higher.

Before COVID-19, Native and indigenous people, those people that have already been through genocide, their life expectancy was five and a half years less than the national average. The Indian Health Services came out of a treaty obligation to provide health care to tribes in exchange for their land. The people had to give up their land just to get healthcare. It predates Medicaid and Medicare, but it has always underfunded. In other words, we stole that land and never gave them what they deserved when they never should have had to give up their land in the first place. And their health care is only funded at 16 cents on the dollar that is required to meet the need of indigenous people. And during COVID, this COVID-19 pandemic, Native and indigenous deaths account for the second highest death rate in the country behind African-Americans. All of these stats and figures are unnecessary and unfounded on unnatural deaths.

During COVID, the negligent response of the government has caused thousands of unfounded, unnecessary deaths, forcing poor, low-wage workers we now call “essential” to work without giving them the essentials they needed and their need has caused thousands of unnecessary untimely death. Passing three rescue bills in Congress that gave trillions of relief to the corporations and the banks. Eighty-four percent of all the money went to corporations and banks, but no guarantee of healthcare and living wages and sick leave and adequate unemployment and moratoriums on water shutoff have caused unnecessary and unnatural death. Columbia University said over 69 percent of the 115,000 souls we have lost did not, did not have to die. And then the video of George Floyd. So you can’t understand what’s going on in the street, unless you understand the compounded weight of all this death historically, and in real time. And then with all of that, we see the video of George Floyd’s lynching by knee. Eight 46. Eight 46. Death by racism code 666 captured by a 17-year-old-girl.

And now Rayshard Brooks falling asleep in a drive-through. Falling asleep in a drive-through. Not dead when he fell asleep, but then shot dead through his back by running — through the police. And when we all heard, George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” It is as if the democracy itself took a collective gasp. And so many people who seen so much death said, “I can’t breathe either. I can’t breathe called out in compelling shorthand – America’s enduring, systemic racism and poverty that endures the calls, death in virtually every measure of well-being, healthcare wages, wealth, unemployment, education, housing, policing, criminal justice, water quality and environmental safety. All realities that also wreak havoc in poor and low-wealth white communities, because we are all inextricably bound together. I know this is hard stuff, America, it’s hard stuff to face about one’s own nation. But until we face it, we can’t repent, right?

And that’s what Amos was saying to that nation then. And what Amos and the spirit is saying to the America. Now someone must not only say the truth, but somebody has to say no more accepting death is an option – isn’t an option anymore. The wisdom of God, if you continue to read that text through the prophet is number one. Amos says real truth-telling, real truth-telling that in this moment, we need some real truth-telling Amos said, Folk don’t like this kind of hard truth, but somebody has to engage in the radical, radical endeavor of telling the truth in a season of lies. If we’re going to get better, we need real truth-telling. Real truth-telling that says America, you’re killing yourself. Every nation must be told when she’s killing herself. America must be told the president must be told the Congress must be told. Governors must be told. Even the church must be told. We must be told the deaths in the past didn’t have to be. Many of the deaths in the present don’t have to be. They are the results of our failure to live up to the creed that all people are created equal. They are the results of systemic injustice. And as James Baldwin insisted, they can be changed when it comes to structures of our common life. He said, We made this world we’re living in and we must make it over again.

For more information, visit the Poor People’s Campaign at poorpeoplescampaign.org and Poor People’s Campaign’s Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, Saturday June 20th at june2020.org.

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