People of Color Are Facing Economic Devastation While Police Get a Blank Check

Increasingly, activists are drawing connections between police killings and rising inequality across class and racial lines.

On July 20, thousands walked off the job for Strike for Black Lives, connecting police brutality with the increasingly dire economic straits facing many workers of color. Backed by major unions, striking workers called on employers to protect the safety of frontline workers during the pandemic, provide a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, paid sick leave and the right to form a union, among other demands.

The day of action included dozens of virtual and in-person demonstrations in cities from Oakland, California, to Durham, North Carolina, where activists took a knee, raised their fists in the air and observed eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the amount of time police knelt on George Floyd’s neck.

Organizers have pointed to the fact that Floyd was accused of using a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes at a Minneapolis convenience store. After he was murdered by police, his brother, Philonise Floyd, told the House Judiciary Committee, “He didn’t deserve to die over $20. Is that what a Black man is worth? Twenty dollars?”

According to a report by the Institute for Policy Studies, “the median Black family today owns $3,600 — just 2 percent of the $147,000 of wealth the median White family owns. The median Latino family has assets worth $6,600 — just 4 percent as much as the median White family.” That same report also found that U.S. billionaires increased their wealth by $637 billion during the economic lockdowns that have devastated the U.S. economy.

“Our economy and health care system marginalize the economically vulnerable so this recession caused by a health crisis leaves the most economically and health-fragile community members to face the worst of both of these crises,” said Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, chief of race, wealth and community at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Before Floyd was killed by police, he was among the millions of Americans who lost their jobs due to the economic recession sparked by COVID-19. While over 40 million people in the U.S. have filed unemployment claims, workers of color have been affected at higher rates. In April, more than half of the adult African American population was unemployed, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). While the overall unemployment rate dropped to 11.1 percent in June, it continued to climb for Black men reaching 16.3 percent, according to EPI.

“The great concentration of private and public wealth and the segregation of opportunity require a police state to maintain these divisions and violence is needed to sustain these divisions,” Asante-Muhammad said.

In the days after Floyd’s death, Minneapolis labor unions connected his killing with the “devastating effects of racism and oppression targeting people of color in our communities,” according to a May 27 statement by UNITE HERE Local 17, which represents 6,000 workers in the food service industry in the Twin Cities.

People of color and immigrants dominate sectors like food service and hospitality, and have been especially hard hit by COVID-19. UNITE HERE has joined other unions to link Floyd’s killing — and the killing and harming of so many other Black and otherwise marginalized people — with unsafe working conditions made worse by COVID-19 and austerity measures, while policing often gets a blank check. A staggering 98 percent of UNITE HERE’s 300,000 members across the U.S. have been laid off since March, and many struggle to pay for food, rent and utilities, and risk losing employer-based health care.

“If Congress does not act, I will lose my health insurance on July 31, and without insurance there’s no way I’ll be able to afford my treatments and medications,” said Patricia Williams, a cashier at the U.S. State Department Cafeteria and member of UNITE HERE Local 23 during the June 17 Workers First Caravan for Racial and Economic Justice. Fighting tears, Williams, who is African American, urged Congress to protect health care access for workers impacted by COVID-19. “I was told that if I wanted to keep my insurance through COBRA, it would cost me $966 per month, but I can’t afford that, especially since I have no idea when I’ll be called back to work.”

Hundreds of union members and allies took part in the car caravans in all 50 states, organizers said, demanding passage of the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion stimulus proposed by House Democrats that Republicans deemed “dead on arrival” in the Senate. It includes $1 trillion for state and local governments facing budget cuts due to the recession, and $200 billion in hazard pay for frontline workers, who are disproportionately people of color.

“I’m here today participating in the caravan because my coworkers and I are concerned whether we will have a safe environment when we return to our classrooms,” said Chrystal Puryear, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Washington, D.C., and a member of Washington Teachers’ Union Local 6. “We need [personal protective equipment] provided and environments that are clean and safe for everyone.”

Schools face increased costs to reopen safely, while cratering revenue means states are imposing deep cuts to education spending. Nearly half of the 1.5 million public sector employees already laid off or furloughed this year are school employees, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Puryear also echoed growing calls to remove police from schools, a stance recently backed by the American Federation of Teachers.

“We are demanding full funding, including counselors back in our schools, because police are not the answer for discipline issues,” she said.

Over the past month, educators have backed successful campaigns to remove police from public schools in Minneapolis, Denver, Oakland, Milwaukee and Portland. The Chicago Teachers Union backed a proposal to cancel the $33 million contract for school resource officers in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The board voted down the proposal 4 to 3 on June 25 while hundreds protested their decision in downtown Chicago.

“Schools have multiple police officers yet they don’t have a social worker all five days a week,” said Sarah Chambers, a high school special education teacher and vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Chambers took part in the June demonstration to demand that $33 million instead be spent on social workers, psychiatrists or nurses.

“CPS also pays millions of dollars in police misconduct every year. Statistics also show police are more likely to arrest students with disabilities and students of color,” Chambers said.

Since June, unions have linked demands for defunding the police with calls to action around COVID-19, which has disproportionately impacted Black communities. Some unions have held vigils to remember the nearly 600 health care workers who have died fighting COVID-19, and participated in actions to observe eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence for victims of police brutality, including Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician who Louisville police shot eight times during a no-knock raid on March 13.

With 400,000 members across the country, 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East is the nation’s largest health care union. Its 10,000 members in the Maryland and D.C. area, many of whom are low-wage workers of color, have also been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

“My experience with COVID-19 was horrible. I couldn’t breathe … I felt like I was going to have a heart attack,” said Shonda Charles, an 1199 member and geriatric nursing assistant (GNA) of 28 years who contracted the coronavirus from a patient on April 23.

Organizers say coronavirus’s impact on nursing homes is a racial justice issue. A lack of personal protective equipment, coronavirus testing and safety protocols turned nursing homes into COVID-19 hotbeds, with deadly impacts on both residents and staff, who are disproportionately people of color. The New York Times found nursing homes where Black and Latinx people make up at least 25 percent of the residents are twice as likely to be hit by the coronavirus. One study estimates nursing homes accounted for over 50,000 COVID-19 deaths, including hundreds of workers, comprising 45 percent of the nation’s death toll.

“We’ve had a large number of our members that have tested positive, or that have passed away,” said Ricarra Jones, 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East’s political director, in an interview with Truthout. A typical wage for a nursing home employee is $12.50 an hour. “A lot of them aren’t receiving hazard pay so they’re out risking their lives to protect our loved ones, and most of them are making pretty low wages.”

On a state level, Jones and the Fight for $15 movement helped lead efforts to pass a $15 minimum wage bill in 2019 over the veto of Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Now that coalition is fighting back against efforts to suspend the scheduled increase to the state’s minimum wage of $11 an hour. Low wages disproportionately hurt workers of color, according to the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, which found 1 in 4 Black and Latinx workers would benefit from a $15 minimum wage.

“It would mean a great deal for GNAs like me to receive more pay,” Charles told the audience of a Fight for $15 virtual rally livestreamed on Facebook even as she continued her recovery. “We are risking our lives … essential workers like me deserve more money,” said Charles, who also thanked her union for fighting back when her employer tried to terminate her for missing two weeks of work due to her illness.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in Virginia delayed the implementation of minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour. Corporate lobbyists in states including Oregon and California are pressuring lawmakers to withhold minimum wage increases in those states as well.

“We just can’t imagine that the way we would repay these people who risked their lives and the lives of their families to make sure that we’re all fed and taken care of and have groceries, by freezing their wages at $11 an hour,” said Jones, who expressed optimism on June 23, when it was reported that it appeared the state would not be delaying its minimum wage increase.

These demands are integrally tied to calls for reducing police budgets. Jones is among the local leaders who have long called on Baltimore City to spend less on police and more on social services. Today that movement is growing, and on June 12, protesters painted “Defund The Police” in large letters in front of City Hall during a budget hearing, urging officials to cut Baltimore’s police budget in half to fund social services. Baltimore City spends more than $500 million a year on its police force, more than it spends on its health department, civil rights, parks and recreation, and its local school system combined.

Some labor activists argue it’s not enough for organized labor to support the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement; they must also expel law enforcement unions from their ranks, arguing such unions play a major role in enforcing an unjust economic system.

“I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that we aren’t reckoning with police violence in its totality,” said Sydney Roberts, an organizer with the group No Cop Unions, which collected over 7,000 signatures on a petition urging the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate law enforcement unions.

A potent political force, police and prison guard unions are considered among the greatest barriers to reform and defunding the police, and are staunch defenders of officers accused of wrongdoing.

Facing growing pressure, SEIU, which endorsed the Movement for Black Lives platform and sponsored Strike for Black Lives, is considering separating itself from the law enforcement unions.

“We can’t say that we’re committed to racial justice, as it is connected to economic justice … if we’re not actively working to remove the presence of police and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and Border Patrol within our own ranks,” said Roberts, who is also a communications specialist for Working America, the political organizing arm of the AFL-CIO.

In a recent report titled “White Supremacy is the Pre-Existing Condition: Eight Solutions to Ensure the Economic Recovery Reduces the Racial Wealth Divide,” Asante-Muhammad and his co-authors argue that structural racism can be, in part, combatted by reversing policies that increase racialized economic inequality. The report argues the government must collect and audit data on racial disparities in government programs responding to the pandemic, create universal programs that guarantee health care and access to a living wage job, as well as direct investments to address the multigenerational wealth gap, among other proposals.

“Essential to bringing forth a true economic recovery and social healing is building a public infrastructure that bridges the racial wealth divide,” the report says.

Activists say diverting resources from law enforcement into community-led development plans, such as equitable investments in education and economic opportunities, could be a first step in truly achieving public safety and well-being.