Democrats seek to tap into fury over George Floyd
House Democrats intend to go big in their coming legislation to tackle systemic racism and patterns of violence against African Americans — a package responding to the killing of an unarmed black man by Minneapolis police exactly two weeks ago.
The legislation, while centered around criminal justice reform, will seek to address racial disparities well outside the realm of law enforcement, delving into issues as varied as health care, education and environmental justice.
The strategy advances the notion that the plague of police violence against African Americans — as exposed in graphic fashion with the death of George Floyd last month — is a symptom of problems much more ingrained and ubiquitous than police reform can fix by itself.
As protesters have flooded streets in scores of cities around the country, Democrats see a unique opportunity to confront the systemic racial disparities that pervade virtually every swath of American life.
“We want to see this as a time where we can go forward in a very drastic way — not incrementally, but in an important way to redress those problems,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday. “We’re talking a long way back and a lot of injustice in it all.”
Piloting the effort are the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), who have been busy conducting tele-conferences and gathering policy recommendations from their Democratic colleagues and outside civil rights figures.
Some of those voices have suggested an approach that focuses solely on the criminal justice reforms most directly related to the killing of Floyd and several other victims of similar attacks this year — a list that includes Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed by white vigilantes while jogging in south Georgia in February, and Breonna Taylor, 26, a medical technician killed by Louisville police during a botched drug raid in March.
Yet CBC leaders, backed by Pelosi and other members of the party brass, want to tap the current wave of public outrage to move sweeping reforms designed to fight racial injustice at its roots.
“I’m inclined to push the envelope as far as we can because we have a moment now,” CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) told CBS News last week.
Floyd and the killings of African Americans by police is not the only factor driving the current national unrest.
The coronavirus pandemic and the unemployment it has caused have laid bare what Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) described as the “systemic racial inequities that have festered in our society for years.”
Black men and boys face the highest risk of being killed by police. Blacks have died from the coronavirus at higher rates than other groups. And the unemployment rate for blacks climbed to its highest level in a decade in May (16.8 percent), even while the joblessness rate for whites fell to 12.4 percent.
Floyd tested positive for COVID-19 after he died, the medical examiner’s autopsy report said, though the disease did not play a role in his death.
The inequities don’t stop there. Blacks are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites in this country. Only 40 percent of blacks own their homes, compared to 70 percent of whites. And blacks are two and a half times more likely to live in poverty than whites.
The disparity is even more acute when it comes to the health of black Americans, said Uché Blackstock, a New York emergency physician who founded Advancing Health Equity.
“Black men have the shortest life expectancy, black babies the highest infant mortality rate, black women the highest maternal mortality rate, and this trend persists despite socio-economic status and level of formal education,” Blackstock testified before House lawmakers. “Even the chronic stress of living with daily racism results in the weathering effect: the premature physiologic aging of black Americans’ bodies.”
“Living in this country has essentially made black Americans sick,” she said.
The Democrats’ legislative response, to be unveiled Monday, is expected to feature a series of reforms directly highlighted by Floyd’s death. That list includes legislation designed to rein in racial profiling, crack down on police brutality and hold abusive officers to stricter account.
One proposal, sponsored by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), would ban police chokeholds. Another, championed by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), would create a special panel to examine the social status of African American men around the country. A third would create a federal database for tracking law enforcers with abusive records. A fourth would eliminate so-called qualified immunity, which shields officers from liability for certain acts performed in the line of duty.
All four are expected in the final package, aides said.
It’s unclear if the CBC package will include long-standing legislation, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), to form a commission to study the idea of giving African Americans reparations for slavery.
But Bass, the CBC leader, predicted that the reparations bill would get a vote in the full House by the end of the year.
“It will be voted on out of committee and on the floor before this session is over,” Bass said on a recent conference call.
Beyond the criminal justice provisions, Pelosi said the package would also include efforts to iron out the racial disparities related to education, the economy, health care and the environment. All of them, she suggested, are remnants of injustices stretching back to the first slave ship to arrive in the New World 400 years ago.
“Maybe the sacrifice of George Floyd’s life, sadly, is something that just takes us to a new and better place in how we address all of this,” she said.
The effort seems unlikely to be embraced by Republicans who have already accused Democrats of overreaching in their response to the coronavirus. But sweeping reforms will act as a marker in an election year when the White House and Senate are both up for grabs. And new cases of police violence — ironically targeting marchers protesting police violence — will put only more pressure on GOP leaders to respond in ways that aren’t just rhetorical.
Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already suggested the upper chamber may be forced to adopt some reforms in response to Floyd’s death, and the outcry that’s followed.
“It’s certainly something that we need to take a look at,” he told reporters in the Capitol.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a CBC member and former Orlando police chief who is on Joe Biden’s vice presidential short-list, said in an interview with TIME that she wants to see the Justice Department create a new office that would oversee police hiring standards, training and discipline.
“Our job is to make sure that the administration understands the serious need to do these things, and I would certainly hope that the president and his Cabinet and his entire administration are watching what’s happening on the streets and America,” Demings said.
“America is on fire.”
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