Defense Secretary Mark Esper has condemned the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer as a “horrible crime.”
“The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder,” Esper told reporters during a Wednesday Pentagon news briefing. “It is a tragedy that we have seen repeat itself too many times.”
“With great sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd from me and the department,” Esper continued. “Racism is real in America and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it.”
Esper also said he has always been proud to be part of the U.S. military, which embraces diversity and does not tolerate hate and discrimination.
“While we still have much to do on this front, leaders across DoD and the services take this responsibility seriously and we are determined to make a difference,” he said.
During Wednesday’s news briefing, Esper was asked why it took him more than a week to make a statement denouncing racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
Esper said he initially wanted to keep the Defense Department out of politics, and that is becoming increasingly difficult in the run-up to the national elections in November.
“Remaining apolitical means there are times to speak up and times not to,” Esper said. “As I said in my earlier remarks: What happened to George Floyd happens way too often in this country – and most times, we don’t speak about these matters as a department.”
“But as events have unfolded over the past few days, it became clear that this is becoming a very combustible national issue,” he continued. “I had made the determination as events escalated over the last 72 hours that the moment had reached a point where it warranted a clear message to the department about our approach.”
The service chiefs are also allowed to release their own messages to troops about combatting racism, he said.
Esper’s comments come shortly after the Air Force’s senior enlisted leader and top officer both spoke out against racism this week.
In a powerful Facebook post, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright wrote on Monday that he knows what happened to George Floyd could just as easily happen to him, but his greatest fear is learning that a black airman has been killed by a white police officer.
Wright also vowed to do more to combat racism within the Air Force’s ranks.
“I am Kaleth,” he wrote. “I am a Black Man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and I am committed to making this better.”
In his own message to airmen the next day, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein echoed Wright's comments.
“Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020,” Goldfein wrote on Tuesday. “We all wish it were not possible for racism to occur in America … but it does, and we are at a moment where we must confront what is.”