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Protesters in Des Moines, Idaho, on May 29. Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr.

Smithsonian Responds to US Protests, Urges Collective Action to Demand Racial Justice

Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch has issued a statement on behalf of the federally funded institution in response to the ongoing unrest over racial injustice in the United States. Cities in every state across the country have erupted in protests over the last six days as people expressed anger and anguish over the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by a white police officer while he was being placed under arrest for allegedly trying to use a counterfeit bill in Minneapolis last week.

While Derek Chauvin, the officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as the forty-six-year-old man cried out that he couldn’t breathe, has been placed under arrest and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, the growing call for police accountability has led to six days of demonstrations, the issuing of curfews, the arrests of more than 4,400 people, and the deployment of the National Guard in more than two dozen states. The turmoil has also expanded from at least 140 American cities, including Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles, to Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Vancouver, and other cities worldwide, which have mobilized to condemn police brutality.

President Donald Trump has responded to recent events by calling state leaders “weak” and urging them to “dominate” protesters. Other political figures and authority officials have expressed solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter protesters and those mourning Floyd’s death. For Bunch, it’s time for America to “confront its tortured racial past.” “Although it will be a monumental task, the past is replete with examples of ordinary people working together to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges,” he said. “History is a guide to a better future and demonstrates that we can become a better society—but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice.”

Bunch’s full statement is as follows:

Like many Americans, watching multiple incidents of deadly violence against black people unfold before our eyes has left us feeling demoralized and distraught, aghast, and angry. Not only have we been forced to grapple with the impact of a global pandemic, we have been forced to confront the reality that, despite gains made in the past fifty years, we are still a nation riven by inequality and racial division. The state of our democracy feels fragile and precarious.

Once again, we struggle to make sense of the senseless. Once again, we bear witness to our country’s troubled history of racial violence, from Freddie Gray and Eric Garner to Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin. Once again, we try to cope as best as we can, whether suffering in silence, participating in protests, or engaging in conversations that evoke all of our emotions. Once again, we try to explain to our children that which cannot be explained. Once again, we pray for justice and we pray for peace. Once again.

We express our deepest sympathy to the families and communities of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the far too many preceding them whose needless deaths were brought about by unjustified violence. We hope that their pain and sorrow compel America to confront its tortured racial past, and that this moment becomes the impetus for our nation to address racism and social inequities in earnest.

Although it will be a monumental task, the past is replete with examples of ordinary people working together to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. History is a guide to a better future and demonstrates that we can become a better society—but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice.

Frederick Douglass famously said, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground. . . . The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle.” At this pivotal moment when the eyes of the nation and the world are upon Minneapolis, will we join the struggle to seek justice and equality? Will we heed the call of courageous figures throughout history who spoke out against slavery, marched on for voting rights, and sat in for basic equality? Will we challenge the nation to live up to its founding ideals? In the memory of those taken from us and for the good of the country, I hope that we do.

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