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Screenshot of Shannon Watts and Rep. Val Demings on a Facebook live
Shannon Watts

The Power Always Rests with the American People and Keep Up The Good Fight: Six Things I Learned From Rep. Val Demings

The protests gripping America right now after the killing of George Floyd have once again laid bare the longstanding inequities and racism that make Black families unsafe in America.

There has never been a more crucial time for all of us to stand with Black and brown Americans in their fight for justice. That means calling out racism when we see it, regardless of it is coming from the White House or from our own homes. It also means fighting police violence as part of gun violence, and all gun violence that disproportionately impacts people of color.

Racism—and the role it plays in our country’s gun violence epidemic—didn’t end the moment the coronavirus pandemic began, and right now, we’re witnessing the turmoil that comes when we fail to address multiple public health and social crises.

Last Friday, I sat down with Rep. Val Demings to discuss the public health emergency of gun violence during the COVID-19 crisis. Rep. Demings spent 27 years as a law enforcement officer and served as the chief of police in Orlando before being elected to Congress. She’s seen firsthand the human cost of gun violence on the streets, and she’s brought her decades of experience enforcing America’s gun laws to the table as she now writes them. Rep. Demings is on the frontline of America’s fight for gun safety, and knows what it takes to close loopholes, save lives and build trust between communities and police departments.

You can watch my full Demanding Women conversation with Rep. Val Demings here:

Ahead are just six of the many lessons that came out of my conversation with Rep. Val Demings.

This fight requires absolutely all of us. 

When it comes toaddressing systemic racism, inequality and gun violence in this country, we must stand together. The coronavirus pandemic has made it clear how interconnected and interdependent we truly are. Simply put, this fight is a matter of life or death that requires all of us to stand up and act. “This is going to take every responsible person to get involved if we are going to significantly reduce gun violence in Florida and all over this nation,” Rep. Demings said during our conversation.

When I founded Moms Demand Action more than seven years ago, I knew it was past time for me as a white mom living in the suburbs to stand with mothers of color fighting to protect their children. For me, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a wake-up call to get off the sidelines and change our country’s gun laws to keep our children safe. I came to this fight from a place of privilege; many mothers of color, particularly Black mothers, had already been in this movement and living with the fear of losing their children to gun violence every single day.

White Americans must stand with communities of color in their struggle for justice, and it’s on all of us to help end gun violence that disproportionately impacts Black and brown people in this country. These are fights we will only win if we stand together. “Keep up the good fight,” Rep. Demings told me during our conversation. “Bad things happen when good people don’t rise up and speak up and speak out and set a standard of excellence.”

Our strength comes from our diversity. 

The grassroots movement to end gun violence is made up of survivors, mothers, students, law enforcement leaders, mayors, artists and more, and that’s what makes us strong. Rep. Demings brings her experience as a social worker and police officer to the table when she fights for gun safety in Congress. We all have a role to play and a story to share in this movement, she said. “Some people know about gun violence because they’ve unfortunately personally gone through it in their families. Some read about it. Some hear about it on the news,” Rep. Demings explained. “I responded to it as a career law enforcement officer, and I have seen the pain that it causes and the hurt and harm that it causes.”

“Gun violence is real, it affects everybody, it really knows no boundaries, so bringing that real-life, on-the-ground experience to Congress has just been so effective,” she added. During our conversation, Rep. Demings and I were joined by Maria Wright, a member of the Everytown Survivor Network from Miami whose son, Jerry, was shot and killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016, which took place in what is now Rep. Demings’ district. Maria asked Rep. Demings how states can pressure the federal government to take our gun violence crisis seriously.

“It’s local and state governments that have to deal with the consequences of gun violence, and so we need real leadership, not just in Florida, but around the nation, in statehouses and local governments,” Rep. Demings said.

We can accomplish that by pressuring our legislators at every level—both Republicans and Democrats—to make addressing gun violence a priority. Then, it’s about holding them accountable.

Bridges between police departments and communities are built slowly. 

“The police is the community and the community is the police,” Rep. Demings said, adding that there is an urgent need to build trust and respect between police officers and the communities they serve, particularly during these difficult times. But, she emphasized, it’s not enough for police departments to start their community-building efforts when a crisis hits. Mutual understanding and respect are built over the long haul.

“My heart goes out to the Floyd family because what happened to him should not have happened, and those who were involved in his death must be held accountable,” Rep. Demings said. “That’s what justice in America is supposed to look like. Building trust and fostering relationships with the community is critical to the police being able to do their job and the public being able to respect and trust them. But you cannot wait until you are in the middle of a crisis to build relationships and trust, that is something that you have to work on every day, whether it’s good times, challenging times, or bad times.”

Rep. Demings also urged police departments to view the people in their community as “the most precious, valuable resource in the decision-making process.” She suggested police departments hold town halls, create youth mentoring programs and reach out to the community for advice. “Good police departments understand that they cannot just arrest their way out of some of the critical issues facing communities all over this nation, that they have to get involved in addressing some of the social ills that cause crime and decay in communities,” she explained.

Call out the failure of leadership when you see it. 

Rep. Demings was forceful in her condemnation of President Trump’s response to the protests sweeping the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd. “This president, time and time again, demonstrates that he is totally unfit for the office that he holds. America is on fire, and I mean that literally,” Rep. Demings said. “This isn’t just about what’s happening in Minnesota, this is about America as a nation. The nation is on fire and the president of the United States is standing there with gasoline.”

“In a tragic time like this, we look to our leaders to unify us, to be a bridge builder, to bring compassion and peace and calm but also accountability,” she continued. “If he wants to bring America together, then talk about what justice looks like. Talk about the persons involved needing to be held accountable. Talk about moving forward and how we need to build community and build relationships among different ethnic lines. But once again, this president does not have it in him to rise to this occasion.”

Addressing public health crises and keeping Americans safe are some of the most fundamental, basic and critical responsibilities the president has. President Trump has failed time and again to address the coronavirus pandemic and the gun violence epidemic. He has inflamed racial tensions, encouraged armed protests by white gun extremists while devaluing the lives of Black people and their fight for justice. That’s why we must vote to make sure he’s a one-term president this November.

“It’s sad to even suggest that property somehow is equal or more valuable than a human life,” Rep. Demings said. “Our most precious resources are human lives, and to hear that coming out of the mouth or the brain of the president of the United States is disgraceful and sad and troubling. But I thank God for all of the good people who are truly committed to getting this right and working together to do so.”

Rep. Demings praised former Vice President Joe Biden’s record on gun safety. “This has been a top issue of Vice President Biden’s agenda,” she said. “You can just look at his record and see that it has been and continues to be a top issue for him.”

Closing loopholes saves lives. 

Background checks save lives, but are only so effective if loopholes enable people who shouldn’t have guns to purchase them anyway. And in fact, the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated this problem. Rep. Demings’ career as a law enforcement officer helped her see where the loopholes are and how to legislate to effectively close them.“Believe me, it makes such a difference to understand, to have seen up close and personal, what some of the vulnerabilities were, or some of the loopholes were, in the laws during the time that I enforced the laws,” Rep. Demings said during our conversation. “Now, I have the ability to take that experience to Washington, D.C. and write laws that work for everybody and help to protect everybody.”

We know that loopholes in our gun laws have deadly consequences. Nearly five years ago, on June 17, 2015, nine people were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A loophole now known as the “Charleston loophole” enabled the shooter to purchase the gun he used to turn his racism and hatred deadly, even though he could not pass a background check, simply because that check could not be completed within three business days. Last year the House passed legislation to address this loophole, and Rep. Demings urged her colleagues in the Senate to act now and save lives.

“The Senate has the ability and the power right now to close this loophole: do it in honor of the nine people who were gunned down in Charleston,” Rep. Demming said.

Once again, it’s on us as voters to make sure our lawmakers receive that message loud and clear. “Reach out to your senators and hold them accountable, tell them to vote on and pass this much-needed legislation that closes the Charleston loophole. Had this been in place, perhaps those lives could have been saved,” she added.

We have the power to change our country for our children. 

In her first job out of college, Rep. Demings served as a social worker, helping families access emergency services and supporting children in foster care. “Our most precious resource for the future is our children,” she said. “Every child living in a country that we say is the greatest country in the world—regardless of their race, their last name, their economic status, what ZIP code they live in or how much money their parents have in the bank—deserves to have every opportunity that this country has to offer, and every opportunity to live up to their full potential and succeed,” Rep. Demings said. She emphasized the importance of creating youth mentoring programs, college scholarships and vocational training for young people.

“We as a nation have a direct obligation to wrap our arms around our children and make sure that they have every opportunity and the resources needed to live up to their full potential. It’s critical that we do that,” she said.

And it’s also on us to make sure our lawmakers know that we’re gun sense voters committed to keeping our children safe. “We have to keep holding them accountable, and Lord knows, we have too many real-life stories to share with them, but the power is in the hands of the people and we have to exercise it and use it,” Rep. Demings said.

Moms Demand Action has always known that gun safety victories are achieved one community, one state and one law at a time. Reminding politicians in Washington what gun violence looks like in our communities is crucial. “Having activists on the ground telling the story, having rallies, bringing awareness to communities is so very critical and important,” Rep. Demings said. “The more people we get involved, the more voices we have. The power always rests with the American people. I believe things change when people on the ground demand that change.” That’s why Moms Demand Action volunteers like me have committed to making this the fight of our lives, and we will never give up.

Demanding Women: Quarantine Conversations About Gun Violence

I’ve been hosting conversations with women leaders from around the country. Catch up on the conversations!

Watch here

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