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WATCH NOW: Martinsville teen talks to Sen. Tim Kaine in virtual discussion on racism

WATCH NOW: Martinsville teen talks to Sen. Tim Kaine in virtual discussion on racism

From the Martinsville-region COVID-19/coronavirus daily update from state, nation and world: June 21 series

Maria Johnson of the Boys & Girls Club of the Blue Ridge and other teens participated in a virtual discussion on racism.

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A Boys & Girls Club student from Martinsville added her voice Friday to the nation's discussion about racial injustice as part of a Zoom conversation with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

Maria Johnson, an 18-year-old rising senior at Martinsville High School, joined about 20 other teens from clubs across Virginia for a chance to ask the senator questions and share their thoughts on efforts to end racism and inequality. She is the Youth of the Year for the local Boys & Girls Clubs of the Blue Ridge.

“I thought it was an honor,” Johnson said of the virtual discussion with Kaine. “We discussed racism and how to move on and how we should really get involved as youth.”

The call was held on Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans and recently was named a state holiday in Virginia. This year, what is normally a day of celebration falls during “really difficult times,” Kaine said.

Not only are Virginians still struggling from the fallout of COVID-19, he said there is “significant and justified unrest right now” in response to the “horrible injustices perpetrated against African-Americans.”

Kaine kicked off the conversation with an overview of legislation Congress is considering to reform policing and the criminal justice system in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes as he pleaded for air.

Then, the majority of the call was spent fielding questions and comments from the youth about related topics, such as what the government plans to do to support Black Americans and help them feel safe, Kaine’s opinion on the protests taking place across the country, and how to build relationships between police and youth.

Adam Pace, BGCBR's director of organizational development, said, "When we heard about the opportunity earlier this week, we were very excited that our Youth of the Year would have a chance to talk and listen to her own U.S. Senator in a virtual town hall on racism and how to move forward. Rarely do youth get the opportunity to have discussions like this with political leaders.

"It was great to hear the questions and concerns that some of the youth across Virginia had and then to also hear how Sen. Kaine and all of his colleagues in the Senate plan to work together to end racism in America," Pace said.

Johnson was able to ask the senator for his take on the pandemic situation, which Kaine said is disproportionately affecting African-Americans in terms of health and the financial crisis.

“He said it’s not a Great Depression, but it is a problem for America. As everything is opening up, he said he thinks we should take it slow. We should be very cautious,” she said.

A generation's voice

The other question she wanted to ask but didn't have time was, “What did he think that my generation needs to do to bring awareness to equality in America?” she said.

“My biggest concern with racial justice and police brutality and everything is that we don’t have a voice,” said Johnson, who is African-American. “It’s a scary thing to think about. You want people to feel comfortable in their skin. I feel like no one wins in America when we’re all divided, and we have to come together.”

During the call, Kaine said both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are open to talking about reform, although they may disagree on how to go about it. Several bills are being introduced to address police brutality, including a national ban on chokeholds, prohibiting racial and religious profiling and an increase in transparency.

Kaine and his fellow senator from Virginia, Mark Warner, are among more than 30 co-sponsors of the Senate Justice in Policing Act of 2020, a bill that would hold law enforcement accountable in court for misconduct, collect better data about use of force, and improve law enforcement practices and training.

“If someone’s behavior is reckless, they shouldn’t be shielded from accountability,” Kaine said.

Building bridges

To reform the criminal justice system, he said, “I think it’s going to take some better laws, but it’s also going to take significant training for law enforcement.”

For example, colleges must be accredited but law enforcement agencies are not required to gain accreditation, he said. “Why is that?”

Asked about how to ease tensions between police and communities of color, Kaine touted the concept of community policing.

“I think there’s probably a lot of bridge-building we need to do between police departments and communities,” he said.

He encouraged teens to do a police ride-along if possible, to spend a day with an officer and learn more about what they do. “It really helped me to have a better understanding,” as well as dispel stereotypes, Kaine said.

“Explicit dialogue,” he said, or “talking about race in candid ways can break down barriers.”

Uncomfortable history

However, sometimes this means facing uncomfortable truths, such as the country’s history of slavery and its ongoing repercussions for African-Americans, he said.

“I made a bunch of people really mad this week giving a speech on the Senate floor,” Kaine said. Talking about the first enslaved Africans brought to Virginia in 1619, he said the first colonists chose to create the institution of slavery in this country and maintain it for close to 250 years.

“It was the government of the colonies and then the United States that maintained and perpetrated slavery. We could have chosen to be like other nations that didn’t have slavery,” he said during the call. “Although the institution of slavery stopped, the government was never held accountable for what it did for 250 years.”

As a result, Kaine said he is co-sponsoring a bill with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D) to form a committee to look at reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Overcoming apathy

In the next week, Kaine said he plans to introduce a bill to address racial disparities in maternal mortality rates. African-American women are three times more likely to die from complications related to childbirth than white women, he said.

Asked about whether he thinks the protests will result in lasting change, Kaine said he thinks peaceful protests are already causing positive changes. However, he said, the biggest problem is apathy.

Kaine said when he thinks back to the 2016 election, when he was on the Democratic ticket for vice president, he doesn’t dwell on the 63 million Americans who voted for the opposition: He thinks about the millions of people who didn’t cast a vote.

“When people get involved, we move forward,” Kaine said. “Get involved in your own way, by voting, activism, peaceful protesting.”

Johnson said she felt encouraged to do more to promote equality after the discussion.

“After this conversation, I kind of looked at things a little differently as far as what I can do to be a leader in my community,” she said. “I’m definitely going to push myself more in academics. And to vote, to understand that my vote and voice matters, and it can help change the world.”

Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.

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