by Cathy Kennedy, RN

Whenever my husband walks out the door, I cannot really relax. I am on edge until he’s home again. This is the reality for Black people in America. As a Black and Japanese nurse and mother married to a Black man, I am intimately familiar with racism in this country. George Floyd could have been my nephew. Daunte Wright could have been my son. Adam Toledo could have been my grandchild.

When my four sons were growing up, I constantly worried about their safety. They no longer live at home but I still worry about them.

When my daughter got her driver’s license as a teenager, I sat her down and told her, “If you see police behind you with their lights flashing, go to a gas station that’s well lit so you will be in a place of safety.”

But I know now that being in the bright lights of a gas station is no guarantee of safety. Caron Nazario drove to a well-lit gas station because it was nighttime, and he did not feel safe pulling over to the side of the road when a police car flashed its lights at him. But the brightly lit location did not protect him from police abuse. The Virginia police officers approached his car with their guns drawn and pepper-sprayed him before telling him why they were pulling him over. He feared for his life.

What makes people safe? Safety is about investments in communities and responding to poverty so that everyone can get nutritious food and a safe place to sleep at night. It means access to education and job opportunities that are so important for our material, psychological, and spiritual well-being. We also need public places for people to gather and to ensure that we have a voice in a healthy multiracial democracy.

The reality is that Black people have been shot and killed by police walking down the street, sleeping at home, standing in a backyard, and playing in a park. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) continue to be killed by police at significantly higher rates than whites, according to a 2020 report. This keeps happening due to structural racism: Law enforcement assumes that BIPOC are threats to target, no matter what they are doing, regardless of body cameras and so-called police reforms.

Racism undermines public safety and deeply injures public health. For years, the American Public Health Association has recognized police violence as a public health crisis. Nurses understand that the root causes of harm are social inequalities, racism, sexism, poverty, and lack of access to resources and opportunities. Policing and criminalizing people with social needs creates more harm and violence in BIPOC communities and does not address the root causes of harm or stop them from happening.

As nurses, we have a duty to speak out to end the suffering caused by structural racism in our public safety, health care, and social systems. My union, National Nurses United, stands with the family of George Floyd. We welcome the conviction of Derek Chauvin on all charges for the muder of George Floyd. We mourn with the families of Daunte Clark and Adam Toledo, and we fight like hell with the millions of people who rose up last summer to put an end to the violence of policing. We recently released a statement on racial justice, calling for “a public commitment to solutions to end structural racism and promote social equity and healing.”

Nurses know our health care and justice system is broken. We approach life with a focus on healing. We want to prevent more suffering, racial disparities, and medical discrimination in health care by improving and guaranteeing Medicare for All. We value every life and treat all of our patients — no matter who they are — with the respect they deserve. When we see someone who needs medical attention, we immediately check their airway, breathing, and circulation, the ABCs of nursing. We do whatever it takes to ease their suffering and keep them alive.

We must all commit to solutions to end structural racism, particularly in law enforcement, or more lives will be lost. Nurses will continue to speak out and to fight for solutions.

After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020, nurses held Black Lives Matter protests at their hospitals. We also spoke out against the increase in violence against Asians during the pandemic due to racism and xenophobia. We were horrified by the murders of six Asian women in Atlanta. And we have been fighting for Medicare for All for decades because we know that our current system fails our patients and leads to unnecessary suffering and death.

We must approach each life from a place of caring and compassion, not punishment and violence. This crisis will not end until Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other people of color’s lives are valued and we are treated as deserving of respect and dignity. We must address racial injustice at the roots and reinvest in holistic solutions that keep people and communities safe, including ending police violence. Meanwhile, I worry about my husband. I worry about my sons. I worry about my grandkids. I worry for my community. And, I stand for justice.

There are no more excuses. We have to fix this. We must stop the hate.

National Nurses United, with more than 175,000 members nationwide, is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history.