More than a hundred black congressional staffers walked off their jobs Thursday afternoon to protest recent grand jury decisions in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, where no indictments were handed down for white police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men this summer. The decisions sparked major protests across the country and reignited national debate over race relations.
A group of mostly African-American congressional staffers — estimated to be about 150 — gathered on the steps of the Capitol Building shortly after 3:30 p.m. to serve as what Senate Chaplain Barry Black described as a “voice for the voiceless."
“Today as people throughout the nation protest for justice in our land, forgive us when we have failed to lift our voices for those who couldn’t speak or breathe for themselves,” he prayed.
“May we not forget that in our national history injustice has often been maintained because good people failed to promptly act,” he continued. “Lord, comfort those who mourn, who know the pain of loss, the anguish of grief and the futility of despair.“
The staffers added their voice to demonstrations across the country last week after a grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the white New York Police Department officer involved in the July 17 chokehold death of Eric Garner, who was confronted by police for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island.
"Many of us felt we needed to stand with others who were taking on the issue of police abuse and do it here, where we work, even though not all of us have had that same experience, personally. Everyone I talked to has known someone who’s been directly impacted," an organizer of the event, who wished not to be identified, told The Daily Beast on Thursday before the protest.
Last week thousands took to the streets in New York City to protest the decision not to indict in the case involving Garner, whose pleas to apprehending officers that he couldn’t breathe were recorded on video by a bystander. Protests spread to other cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland and San Francisco.
Nationwide protests also erupted in the aftermath of the grand jury decision in late November not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Wilson said he was defending his life, but some witnesses said Brown had his hands up when he was shot.
Four members of the Congressional Black Caucus earlier drew attention to the Brown shooting on the House floor by raising their hands in a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture that has become the rallying cry of people protesting the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement.
In 2012, about 200 Congressional staffers gathered on the U.S. Capitol steps for a Hoodies on the Hill rally to draw attention to the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old who was shot and killed in February 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida.
The Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, the Brooke-Revels Society, the Congressional Black Associates, the Congressional African Staff Association and the African American Women on the Hill Network were among the organizers of Thursday’s event. Those groups were joined by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association and the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association.