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32BJ President Kyle Bragg on Juneteenth: ‘We Have to Agitate and Take to the Streets!’

Brooklyn, NY – Labor unions — if they aren’t already in the streets following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other unarmed people of color — need to stand with the community activists confronting police brutality and “brining the heat for change in this country.” 

32BJ President Kyle Bragg [back] stands with supporters of the Black Lives Matter Movement ahead of the “Juneteenth Drive To Justice” motorcade.

That’s the message 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg brought to the “Juneteenth Drive to Justice” campaign kicking off at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Friday. 

“I can’t explain to someone white what it feels like to have the lights of a police car come up behind you — the anxiety overcomes you,” Bragg told LaborPress. 

That fear, dread and panic grew so acute earlier this month, during protests in response to Floyd’s killing and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ensuing nighttime curfews, that working men and women — many of them routinely lauded as “essential workers” during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — started carrying letters from the union and some employers explaining to any cop they might encounter — what they doing on the streets of New York City. 

“We gave them everything we could to protect them,” Bragg said. “But the fact is — they still have to drive while Black. They still have to travel while Black — and they don’t know what the outcome [will be].”

This week’s “Juneteenth Drive to Justice” motorcade, traveling from the triumphant Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch in Brooklyn and passing City Hall on its way to the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. state office building in Harlem — coincided with similar actions in 33 other cities across the nation aimed at defunding and demilitarizing the police.

Bragg, served as the “Juneteenth Drive to Justice” grand marshal here in NYC. 

“This is a moment where labor has to respond,” Bragg told LaborPress. “We have to have a voice — it’s our responsibility not to be silent. Our members need to have equity in their communities. They can’t be under tyranny in their communities and be expected to come in and perform at work.”

NYC’s “Juneteenth Drive To Justice” motorcade begins lining on Flatbush Avenue.

Earlier this month, 32BJ SEIU Political Director Candis Tolliver revealed that union members were afraid of running into police brutality commuting to and from work. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said Black and Brown police officers expressed similar concerns to him, as well. 

Vladimir Clairjeune, a 32-year-old passenger service representative at JFK Airport, said this week, that the current moment calls for organized labor to be “on the right side of history.”

“For too long, Black men, women and children have been murdered,” the Hillside, Queens resident told LaborPress. “If [labor unions] are not already supporting this movement, I hope that they become supporters.”

In Oakland, California, some 15,000 trade unionists and their allies rallied at the Port of Oakland on Friday. Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union [ILWU] ultimately shut down 29 ports in three states for eight hours in defiance of systemic racism and “police terror.” 

ILWU Local 500 members in Canada also stopped work in solidarity with their brothers and sisters on this side of the border. 

“If the working class is going to be heard, labor must shut it down,” Clarence Thomas, past Secretary-Treasurer, ILWU Local 10,” intoned.

Juneteenth observes the day, in 1865, when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached enslaved people in Texas — some two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the famed decree. 

New York State Assembly Member Walter Mosley [D-57th District] read Executive Order No. 3 as Union officer Major General Gordon Granger delivered it to the people of Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 —underscoring the section declaring the former relationship between “master and slave” was now one of “employer and hired labor.”

“The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages,” Mosley continued reading. “They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

32BJ members and their allies assemble at Grand Army Plaza ahead of the “Juneteenth Drive to Justice” motorcade.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former New York City police officer and co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, invoked the 1978 police killing of a prominent Black businessman named Arthur Miller on nearby Nostrand Avenue, as well as his own decades-long fight against police brutality and institutionalized racism. 

Forty-two years ago, the New York Times headlined the story reporting Miller’s killing and the 15 cops involved, “Brooklyn Businessman Strangled In Struggle With Police Officers.” 

“I remember all the editorial pages in the city attacking us for saying NYPD was racist and wrong,” the borough president said from the Central Library’s steps. “Everyone has selective memory now.” 

At the nearby Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Arch, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez offered his own latter day mea culpa.

“It’s very important that I acknowledge that prosecutors have added to the harm caused to Black and Brown communities,” Gonzalez said. 

Bragg cited the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying, “It won’t be the voices of our enemies that are remembered, but the silence of our friends.”

“We have to agitate and we have to take to the streets,” Bragg said. “This drive for justice is a way that we want to make sure we play a role with our brothers and sisters in the pulpit, and all the other community activists, who are standing out, bringing the heat for change in this country. We can no longer tolerate the inequities that exist in our country that [have] existed since the birth of this nation.”

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