Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pledged Tuesday to do more to end racial inequities in the state as he reacted to the death of George Floyd and increasing protests in Northern Virginia and other regions of the state.
During his twice-weekly news conference to discuss the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic, Northam and a group of African-American leaders from around the state spent an hour discussing Floyd's death and issues around race and equality.
The governor also explained why he refused a Department of Defense request Monday to send Virginia National Guard troops into the District of Columbia to quell protesters there. The decision was based in part because the request did not come from District Mayor Muriel Bowser and in part because of ongoing protests in Virginia, but also because “I am not going to send our men and women in uniform to Washington for a photo op.”
Shortly after protesters were removed from an area near the White House on Monday evening, President Donald Trump walked across the street to have photos taken in front of St. John's Episcopal Church.
Of Trump's comments to governors on a telephone conference earlier in the day Monday, Northam said, "The message regrettably was not one of healing; it was not one of unity; it was one of divisiveness. I regret that coming from the leader of the most powerful country in the world.”
Northam said the images of Floyd begging for his life while a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck were horrifying.
"It was heartbreaking, but that is not a new heartbreak for black Americans," he said. "The protests that we have been seeing are for them and because of a system that continues to allow this to happen. What we’re seeing today didn’t spring out of thin air. Racism and discrimination aren’t locked in our past. They weren't solved with the Civil Rights Act. They didn’t disappear. They evolved."
Although Northam didn't mention the blackface scandal that nearly ended his tenure as governor early last year, he noted several pieces of legislation passed by the General Assembly this year that will help African Americans, including decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it easier to vote, and ending the state holiday honoring Confederate generals.
But, he added, "There is more work to do, and I am committed to doing that work. … They are steps toward an America and a Virginia where this doesn’t happen.”
Northam outlined four specific initiatives:
- Holding virtual town halls around the state on criminal justice reform and public safety.
- Meeting with the board of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police to focus on training, diversity and community involvement.
- Holding a statewide day of prayer, healing and action
- Instructing the Virginia African American Advisory Board he created a year ago to examine additional issues around racial inequity, with a focus on criminal justice and public safety.
The other speakers during the news conference included Shirley Ginwright, chair of the Fairfax County Communities of Trust Committee and a member of the African American Advisory Board.
Ginwright noted that as a young woman she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. “A lot of things that I see now are the things we fought for then – the racism and the right to be included," she said. "We need to listen to the young people who are on the street fighting for justice."
She said business as usual will not work. "We have to make our legislators accountable. We have to be there so the next generation will not go through the same thing that we are going through now.”
And, most importantly, she urged African Americans to vote. "I would like to see as many of you vote as you are marching.”
In response to a question about violence and looting during some of the protests, Northam said, "It’s fair to say there are individuals out there who are exploiting the situation we’re in. We ask them to take their energy and their interest elsewhere.”