A gathering of black congressional staffers and other Capitol employees stood silently on the House steps Thursday and raised their hands in the air to protest the killing of unarmed black men by police.
They bowed their heads as Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black prayed, “Forgive us when we have failed to lift our voices for those who couldn’t speak or breathe for themselves” – emphasizing “breathe” in reference to Eric Garner, who died after a policeman grabbed him in a chokehold in New York.
“May we not forget that in our history injustice has often been maintained because good people failed to promptly act,” Black said, with well over 100 people standing behind him.
The demonstration was organized by the Congressional Black Associates and other groups representing minority employees of Congress to show support for protests around the country following the killing of Garner and 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose death in Ferguson, Missouri, inspired the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture.
On the grounds nearby, Valerie Bell — the mother of Sean Bell, shot in New York on the morning of his wedding — watched with other mothers whose sons were killed by police. Nine mothers have been meeting with Congress members and Washington officials this week asking for an end to police brutality against black men.
“We stand with them, and they stand with us,” Bell said as the congressional employees gathered outside in the cold.
As staffers returned to work after the brief event, Black said they were exercising their free speech rights “to say that there are some issues that are significantly critical, that there needs to be a greater conversation.”
The wordless demonstrators also included Reps. Joaquin Castro and Marc Veasey, both Democrats representing Texas, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
“There is no community that is immune to police abuse,” Castro, a second generation Mexican-American, said afterward. “It is happening in every community. It is more concentrated in minority communities, particularly the African-American community, but this is something that all Americans are concerned about.”
Read a transcript of Black’s prayer during the Congressional Staffers walkout below:
We’re gathered here today so that we can be the voice for the voiceless. We believe that there is a power that has fueled our nation toward excellence through the centuries. And we are here today to take advantage of the free exercise rights guaranteed to us by the framers and founders of this nation. And we begin this gathering with prayer. So let us pray.
Eternal God, our hope for years to come.
We thank you that your presence has sustained this nation throughout the seasons of its existence. You have brought America through many challenging times. 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. May we not forget that in our national history injustice has often been maintained because good people failed to promptly act.
Forgive, O God, our culpability in contributing to our national pathology as you keep us aware of our own capacity to be instruments of injustice. Immunize us from that self-righteousness that blames everyone but ourselves. Lord, comfort those who mourn, who know the pain of loss, the anguish of grief and the futility of despair. Remind us that earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. Protect and guide your people who gather here today.
May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the activity of our limbs be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and redeemer. We pray this in your sovereign name. Amen and Amen.