Some of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ leading government officials met in Freedom City Sunday morning to decry systemic racism and voice support for the Black Lives Matter movement, following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis and worldwide protests over police brutality.
The officials spoke in front of the bronze bust of John Gottleib, a slave known as General Buddhoe, one of the leaders of the 1848 slave rebellion on St. Croix. The uprising led Gov. Peter Von Scholten to declare “All unfree in the Danish West India Islands are from today emancipated.”
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett, Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. and Police Commissioner Trevor Velinor spoke passionately and without many notes to the people of the Virgin Islands.
“I am a black man. I was born a black man. I thought the whole world was like us,” Bryan said. “My dad explained to me at a very young age that I was not born with nature’s passport and that I would have to do three, four, 10 times as much work to make it.”
He said people thought America “reached the mountain top when Obama was elected,” but he is still the only black governor in the United States. The death of Floyd, just the latest in a long series of black men and women who died at the hands of the police, is a constant reminder that much more work needs to be done to reach equality. He said everyone must get involved, vote and participate in the lives of black children.
Plaskett talked about some of the wrongs that underline systemic racism in the United States and the Virgin Islands. Black wealth is not equal to white wealth, blacks experience discrimination in the job market, there is inadequate education for black communities, and the childbirth mortality rate is higher among black women, she said.
“The Virgin Islands is a possession. We’re still a colony and can’t vote for president, and other Americans think that’s OK,” she said.
In the 1900s, the U.S. Supreme Court called Virgin Islanders “alien races who cannot understand Anglo-Saxon principles and law,” and every administration in Washington D.C. since then has supported that ruling, she said.
“We continue to support this country, even though this country doesn’t support us,” she said. “We gave you Alexander Hamilton who created that Constitution, that we obviously can’t understand.”
Francis, a former V.I. police commissioner, said he “cringes” every time he sees the Floyd video. He said, “we’ve come a long way in 400 years” and we’ll continue to fight, demanding emancipation. He sent condolences to the Floyd family and to all of the others unjustly killed by police.
“We’re not here asking for revenge. We’re asking for equality and if we need to demand it, we will demand it,” he said.
Velinor said he realizes “Law enforcement has, in part, failed the black community.” He said there is a responsibility to say something and not ignore excessive force. He worked in the states for 26 years and has seen “disparate and unequal treatment,” but that all communities deserve “constitutional policing.” He said African Americans should be more involved in law enforcement, at all levels, to ensure justice.
“We don’t need any more ‘I can’t breathe,’” he said, quoting Floyd’s last words. “We need ‘Thank you for your service.’”
After everyone spoke, Plaskett told the Source about a bill forwarded by the Congressional Black Caucus that is being introduced Monday in the House of Representatives. The bill will outlaw chokeholds and knee restraint by law enforcement officers and mandate a nationwide database of police employees to prevent someone from getting a job in another state after being disciplined for bad behavior. Only about 40 percent of the states keep this data now, she said.
Asked about the restraints officers are allowed to use in the Virgin Islands, St. Croix Police Chief Sidney Elskoe said chokeholds and knee restraints are prohibited in the territory and are “frowned upon” elsewhere. Elskoe has 26 years of experience working for a variety of state and federal agencies.
“The goal is not to hurt anyone,” he said. “An experienced officer knows when someone is in distress.”