Get Their Knees Off Our Necks
A Speech From Juneteenth, 2020 NYC for Amazonians United Vigil
June 28, 2020
My name is Haley Pessin. I am a legal service worker and a rank and file union member of 1199 SEIU. I’m here tonight to stand in solidarity with Amazonians United, and all Amazon workers in New York and around the country. Because the police are not the only ones with their knees on our necks.
When your boss forces you to work in crowded, unsafe conditions, and risk your lives for a paycheck during a pandemic — that’s their knee on your neck.
When they fire you, like they did to your coworker Chris Smalls for demanding sanitary and safe work conditions, and when they turn around and call that same person “not smart or articulate” — that’s their knee on your neck.
When Amazon says “we believe Black Lives Matter” but then donates to the same police departments that are killing black people and incarcerating black people, and using the same surveillance technologies that they use to surveil their workers on black communities in order to oppress them — that’s their knee on your neck.
When black people are disproportionately concentrated in low wage work, and lack healthcare, and are dying of COVID-19 and still we can’t catch a break from the police killing us in disproportionate numbers — THAT’S THEIR KNEE ON OUR NECKS.
At the organization that I work for, we’ve been fighting to get people off of the notorious jail Riker’s Island where people at one point were experiencing higher rates of COVID than in any other part of the country in the country with the highest rate of COVID contractions in the world. But it’s not just enough to talk about those deplorable conditions, it also has an effect on the workers who’ve dedicated themselves to trying to get these people free. One of my co-workers in 1199 was working in arraignments in the court. He was 65 years old. He was afraid to stop working when the pandemic started despite being in a high-risk category because he had a supervisor above him who had been targeting and harassing him prior to this. He died. His wife contracted COVID as well, and instead of having time to even mourn the loss of her husband, she had to be dealing with her own sickness and the fact that this organization went to defend the managers and blamed this man for not speaking up sooner about the fact that he shouldn’t have been in court.
In a just society, we would understand that people like Jeff Bezos, and people like the bosses who are making us go in so that they can make a profit — those are the real looters, and those are the real criminals. They don’t arrest people like Jeff Bezos who is $44 billion dollars richer during the pandemic while $45 million people remain unemployed in the U.S. No, instead, the police target people like George Floyd for allegedly forging a $20 bill. They targeted Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes. They target the poor, and black people, and when they kill us they are protected by a legal system that almost never holds the police accountable unless we make them. This is not a mistake, and it’s not a matter of a few bad apples. Racism has been central to the way that the cops have operated since the beginning. They are the descendants of slave patrols and of strikebreakers, and they continue to function in this society to maintain the wealth of a very few at the top. They don’t care about our lives, they only care about one thing, and that’s their profits.
And there is only one group of people with the power to get their knees off our necks, and that is us. Not alone, but as workers, because no matter how they try to treat us as disposable, without us, they would have nothing.
We’re talking about Juneteenth today, which of course is the day that black people discovered they had been liberated two years earlier in Galveston, Texas. But black people were not passive in any of this, from the very first slave that was brought over on a boat, black people have fought back every step of the way, and it wasn’t any politician, or any benevolence on the part of their slave-masters that freed the slaves –they slaves freed themselves. They went on strike, contrary to what the slave-owners believed — their own myths about how docile and how much people loved their work — black people refused to work and it turned out that they could not make their own plantations run, they could not supply their own armies without the people whose wealth they had made off their backs.
It is the same with Minneapolis, it is the reason that we are seeing a massive rebellion all over the country today. When black people fight against their own oppression, it strikes at the heart of how the people who run this society maintain the enormous wealth that they have because when workers — not just black workers — but workers of all races begin to fight racism, their days are numbered.
And I’ll end by saying this: if you do go to continue to fight, if you continue to fight the bosses here at Amazon, I can tell you that especially now, when we’re learning that the only way to fight is if we fight for ourselves and each other, that you will not be fighting alone, that your unionized brothers and sisters and comrades will be fighting there with you, so solidarity and thank you.