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Rep. Peter Welch On The Killing Of George Floyd

Rep. Peter Welch.
Alex Brandon
Associated Press File
Rep. Peter Welch spoke with "Vermont Edition" about the death of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police officers, and what can be done to combat systemic racism during the pandemic.

Over the weekend, there were major protests in many American cities, including at a number of locations in Vermont. Many more demonstrators joined in across the world to protest the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis.

Floyd died in police custody, after a law enforcement officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes, despite pleas from Floyd that he couldn't breathe.

That police officer has been charged with third degree murder and second degree manslaughter, but protesters want the other three officers who were present at the scene to be charged as well.

Some of the protests have turned violent amid concerns that small groups of agitators are trying to turn largely peaceful protests into a larger political statement.

Our guest is:

  • Peter Welch, Democratic U.S. Representative from Vermont

Broadcast live after Gov. Phil Scott's 11:00 a.m. press conference on June 1, 2020; rebroadcast at 7:00 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bob Kinzel: Congressman, as you watch the video of protests from around the country all weekend, what ran through your mind?

Rep. Peter Welch: I could never get out of my mind that searing image of the Minneapolis police officer with his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd, who was prone, lying face down into the pavement and pleading for his breath and his life.

Part of what was so shocking to me was that the officer who was doing it was so casually indifferent to what he was doing and how Mr. Floyd was suffering and about to die. The officer had his hands in his pockets. It was no big deal for him, and he was doing this in front of people who were videotaping him. He was displaying that he thought he was entitled to do it. And, he was doing it in front of three colleagues.

The sacred trust of our police officers is to keep us safe. And they sat by, stood by and watched this entire event unfold for eight long minutes and then 43 endless seconds. It was just shocking.

Do you think those other officers should be charged as well?

I do. They have a duty – all officers do – to stop a crime from being committed. And that crime went on. I mean, there was a point where this is way past any kind of subduing a suspect. There was no threat whatsoever. So those other police officers can't just turn a blind eye to what was a wanton act by the officer who had the knee on Mr. Floyd's neck.

How do you think this is being viewed around the world?

I think it's viewed right now from the perspective of what happened to Mr. Floyd. But it's also being exposed in the context of ripping this bandage off of what has been the historic stain of slavery in our country.

These actions on the street are taking place right after what happened in Minnesota.

But if we just look back, there was the killing of Mr. Arbery, who was a jogger. He was jogging in a neighborhood, and a father and son killed him because they were thinking they were, quote, “stopping a crime” – the crime of jogging while black.

More from VPR: Talking With New American Youth About Racism

And then you had, of course, the Central Park person, that woman who confronted an African-American man who was birdwatching. He was birdwatching. And she got on the phone and called the police demanding they come because she was, quote, “under attack.”

"There is something very deep here that I think all of us have to acknowledge is our responsibility to examine and finally face." - Rep. Peter Welch

This is not just an issue that's related to the police. It's immensely important with the police because they have the authority of the law and the authority of the state. But this is something that you saw with the Central Park woman. You saw with those two men, the father and son in Georgia, that there's something very deep here that I think all of us have to acknowledge is our responsibility to examine and finally to face.

There have been several thousand national cases of African-Americans being killed by police officers in the last decade. You mentioned some of the higher profile cases. After every case, there is a message that things have to change. And yet very little seems to change, and it's just a matter of time before we have another tragedy. Why is this time different?

We don't know if it's different, but it's necessary. And you're right: It goes on and on.

You know, last spring when we could still travel, my wife and I took a trip to Mississippi and went to where ­young Emmett Till from Chicago was slaughtered because supposedly he said, "Hello," in effect, to a white woman in a store.

This violence has been going on. And I've talked to some of the really good people I respect in law enforcement, and they think things have been sliding a little bit backwards. Each of us has an individual responsibility to do our level best out in government.

We have to have policies that make it possible for there to be equal opportunity. And that has not happened. There's been an incredible disproportionate impact of death and illness from the coronavirus on black Americans and brown Americans. And there are a lot of reasons for that – but they're not genetic.

More from VPR: Vermont’s Deputy Health Commissioner On COVID-19 Data Collection, Demographic Trends

It's really a function of many things that we've allowed to occur in our society over time. In my view, each and every one of us has to do whatever it is we can to start to correct it.

"We've got to ban the chokehold." - Rep. Peter Welch

In an official statement on the death of George Floyd, you wrote: “The police officers involved must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But each of us shares the responsibility to challenge a society where it is, normal for a black man jogging to be shot or a black man bird watching to be accused of a life threatening attack or our justice system to be too often indifferent to justice. We must all renew our commitment to all we can to build a society as free of bigotry and equality."

So how do you see yourself and your colleagues in the House renewing your commitment to this effort?

Just to give a couple of examples: We do need criminal justice reform. I mean, we have mass incarceration in this country. It's heavily focused on people of color. And one of the things that we also have to do is have a justice system and a Justice Department that investigates cases involving the death of people in the custody of officials.

More from VPR: Why Are There So Many African-Americans Incarcerated In Vermont?

We've got to do that. We've got to ban the chokehold. I mean, that's essentially the version of it that was used to kill Eric Garner and it was in a version of it used here. Hakeem Jeffries, one of my colleagues, has a bill on that. I'll be on it.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley has a resolution that I’m on with her to require the Justice Department to be investigating killings in police custody.

I also think that on the CARES Act, when we were trying to get money to small businesses, we put in a provision that said these local community banks have to be given access to that money, not just the JP Morgans, because they're much more in a position to help folks who live in minority communities.

It has to be on the front of our mind. It's about trying to make certain that the talk about equal opportunity has a mechanism by which folks who want to lift themselves up have a shot to do it.

Listen to the rest of Rep. Peter Welch's interview with Vermont Edition above.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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