NEA President Lily Eskelsen García and NEA Executive Director John Stocks issued the statement below following the grand jury’s decision to decline to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
“Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. These are the names of children and adults whose lives ended in tragedy. They were all African American. They were all sons. And they all died too young at the hands of those who so far have not been held criminally liable for their actions.
“The failure of a New York/Staten Island grand jury to indict any officer for the death of Eric Garner is beyond disturbing, especially in light of what appears in the horrific video of his death at the hands of New York police. While we understand and respect the difficult jobs of police officers who have to keep our communities safe, this decision chips away at our community’s faith in their public safety officers, prosecutors, and the criminal justice system as a whole.
“We admit that our faith today is more fragile based upon the recent decisions in Ferguson and now Staten Island. But our resolve is steadfast: we owe it to our students to raise our voices and to help them grapple with the messages that have been conveyed by these cases to our youth, particularly our students of color.
“For the students who watched the news last night and came to classrooms and campuses today, there are powerful and unequivocal lessons in the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner decisions. They are lessons about race, trust, authority and justice. And for educators who serve America’s students, we should recommit ourselves to ensuring that every classroom in America is a safe place for students to air their frustration, ask tough questions, and to learn about the great historical movements for change that have occurred in our country.
“We must acknowledge our students’ legitimate anger and confusion. We must address their likely questions about why they should have faith in the ideals of our criminal justice system when they see graphic examples that our ideals are neither reality, nor do they appear attainable for men of color in this country.
“Our students—and our communities—have observed an unsettling double standard. We teach them about police officers, prosecutors, judges and juries as guardians of our safety and protectors of our constitutional rights. Yet once again we see painful instances of excessive force, racial profiling, and a justice system in our states that appears to turn a blind eye to it all. The overarching sentiment about these cases for so many people—especially many, many of our students and their families—is that the lives and the dignity of men of color in the United States do not carry the same value or import as others.
“A justice system designed to promote fairness cannot survive if it is permitted to condone injustice for some and favoritism for others. So, we must come together and act. As leaders of the National Education Association—an organization that has a proud legacy of being on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements for justice—we call upon NEA members to once again walk side by side with our students, their families, and our communities to demand change.
“We applaud Attorney General Eric Holder for initiating a federal investigation, but much more systemic reform must be demanded. As Mayor Bill De Blasio so eloquently stated last night, we must again remember the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we peacefully and persistently demand reform in how our communities are policed and how justice is served when the decisions rendered in our judicial system break the bond of public trust.”