Northam brought together state officials, religious, social and student leaders to what is typically a briefing on the status of pandemic control efforts to talk about the fallout from last week’s killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the shooting of Brionna Taylor in her bed during a no-knock warrant raid by Louisville, Kentucky, police and the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by two former police officers in Georgia.
“Our country is in a moment of turmoil and we need to talk about it,” Northam said. “The protests we have been seeing are for them because of a system that continues to allow this to happen.”
Northam said that racism in Virginia follows a 400-year line from when black slaves were brought to the colony, through the Jim Crow era of racial discrimination and suppression, to the Massive Resistance closing of Virginia schools against desegregation and to police violence against blacks today.
“But what I can do is stand with you,” Northam said, “and I can support you, and together we are going to turn this pain into action.”
Northam said racism has affected black Virginians in several ways including less access to health care, higher mortality rates for mothers and newborn children, lower educational achievement and discrimination in court and law enforcement.
Northam said his administration will work on racial inequality and injustice issues through four specific actions: listening and learning from black Virginians through virtual town halls and other means; meeting with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police to make police departments aware of the importance of the issue; organizing a statewide day of prayer, healing and action; and examining the Code of Virginia for racist provisions with a focus on criminal justice and public safety.
Northam also spoke to protesters who have organized demonstrations in Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke and other cities and towns across the state.
“I hear you,” Northam said. “I’m here to work with you so that together we can help build a place where no one fears for their life because of the color of their skin. I pledge to stand with you.”
Delegate Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, spoke of when her 6-year-old granddaughter saw the video clip of Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
“She said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, mister policeman. That’s just too much,’ ” McQuinn said. “My heart was bruised and broken, and so many people across this country are bruised and broken.”
McQuinn thanked Northam for his leadership in tackling systemic racism in government and society.
Virginia State University political science professor Wes Bellamy said the rioting and violence of recent days are understandable when violence by a “cancerous portion of what is, without a doubt, an otherwise healthy and properly functioning group of police officers who each day risk their lives to serve and protect.”
Bellamy added that some rioters are just opportunistic and their actions are distracting attention from people who have legitimate concerns.
“We need to listen to the young people on the street fighting for justice,” said Northern Virginia community organizer Shirley Ginwright. “To my white brothers and sisters, don’t stand behind us. Stand with us. To my black brothers and sisters, let your voice be heard through your vote.”
Tyrone Nelson, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond, said his anger and frustration as a black man conflict with his sense of responsibility as an elected city official.
“Be angry,” Nelson said. “Make your anger into righteous indignation and then let’s take advantage of this moment we have and do something. … Let’s stop empowering people to murder black people.”
Cynthia Hudson, a member of the state NAACP, thanked Northam for his efforts and pointed to comments from national NAACP President Derrick Johnson.
“(Johnson) has said very succinctly, and it sums it up for me, ‘We are done dying,’ ” Hudson said. “I’m a little done talking and I’m ready to act.”
State Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Janice Underwood pointed to the Northam administration’s and Democratic state legislators’ efforts to improve voter access for all Virginians by making Election Day a state holiday and criminal justice reforms that affect blacks and minorities.
Underwood said the events of recent days may be the first time that many children are “seeing painful things.”
“Helping our children, our friends and neighbors requires a commitment to leaning, and I mean leaning, into our discomfort and privilege,” Underwood said.