Over the past week, the United States has seen widespread protests following the death of an unarmed black man in police custody. Now, as debate continues about the role the U.S. military may play in quelling the civil unrest that has accompanied many peaceful protests, the U.S. Air Force’s senior leadership has taken a vocal position on the underlying issues that led to the protests. Further, they’ve made the commitment to engage in a dialogue about race in the United States, while acknowledging that these conversations may be difficult at times.
On May 25, George Floyd was accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill by a deli employee in Minneapolis. The employee called 911 on Floyd, and police found him in a nearby vehicle with two other occupants. Police demanded that Floyd get out of the vehicle, and according to prosecutors, Floyd resisted when being pulled from the vehicle by responding officers.
Per the prosecution and videos uploaded to social media, Floyd was compliant after being handcuffed. None the less, (now former) Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin knocked Floyd to the ground, where he was again restrained by multiple officers. Finally, Chauvin placed his left knee down on Floyd’s neck, where he kept it for eight minutes and 46 seconds, despite Floyd’s pleas for help. By the time Chauvin removed his knee from Floyd’s neck, he was dead.
The following day, all four officers involved in the arrest were fired from their positions on the Minneapolis Police force, but it would be days before Chauvin would be taken into custody and charged with 3rd degree murder. None of the other officers involved have faced charges thus far. The delayed arrest of Chauvin, coupled with the lack of charges for the other officers involved, has resulted in an outcry from America’s black communities, demanding that police officers be held accountable for their actions, specifically regarding violence against black Americans.
In cities all around the country, peaceful protests and riots have ensued in the days following Floyd’s death, but as cultural and political leaders have pointed out, their outrage isn’t specifically about what happened to George Floyd–his death is rather seen as another symptom of a much larger issue regarding systemic racism in law enforcement and other legal institutions in America.
The United States military’s role in these protests began when some states chose to activate National Guard troops to quell civil unrest while allowing for protests. This situation grew more complex after President Trump announced his intentions to utilize active duty troops to instill order, and concerns about the implications of such a decision were exacerbated after Defense Secretary Mark Esper was quoted as calling on governors to “dominate the battle space” of these protests. While some have defended Esper’s word choices as a facet of his military profession, others have openly worried that this language, and approach, to protest suppression could set a dangerous precedent for U.S. troops deployed on American soil.
Independent from debate about the involvement of active duty troops in policing, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, a black man who serves as the senior most enlisted leader in the U.S. Air Force, took to Twitter to explain that his greatest fear as a leader is waking up to find a black Airman had been killed by police.
Who am I?
I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.
I am George Floyd…I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.
— Kaleth O. Wright (@cmsaf18) June 1, 2020
“Who am I? I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I am George Floyd,” Wright wrote.
“This my friends, is my greatest fear, not that I will be killed by a white police officer (believe me my heart starts racing like most other Black men in America when I see those blue lights behind me),” Wright wrote, “but that I will wake up to a report that one of our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer.”
Wright recognizes in his post that Americans are angry, and acknowledges that they have a right to be. He then goes further, calling on people to take an active and constructive approach to trying to initiate change.
“But you must then find a way to move beyond the rage and do what you think is right for our nation,” he said.
You can read Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright’s full statement here.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein soon followed in the Chief Master Sergeant’s footsteps, issuing a statement to commanders across his branch that included pointed language regarding the death of George Floyd, and calling on them to engage in difficult discussions about race at every level of command.
“The death of George Floyd is a national tragedy. Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020,” Goldfein wrote.
“We all wish it were not possible for racism to occur in America, a country founded on the sacred ideal that ‘all men (and women) are created equal’ and have the ‘unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ But it does, and we are at a moment where we must confront what is.”
You can read Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein’s full statement here.
That same day, Goldfein and Wright appeared in uniform in a video on Twitter discussing the situation, and more broadly, race in America.
Message to Airmen:
Join CSAF @GenDaveGoldfein and @cmsaf18 in a conversation about race, the Air Force, and acknowledging change that we must achieve. pic.twitter.com/C6OfmW3mZZ
— U.S. Air Force (@usairforce) June 2, 2020
Goldfein has directed the Air Force Inspector General to do an independent review of the branch’s legal system with an eye toward racial injustice.
Goldfein and Wright will be hosting a Facebook Town Hall on this issue today (Wednesday, June 3) at 5 p.m. EST. You can find it here.