DETROIT — The Movement for Black Lives is opposing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, arguing the bill doubles down on reform strategies that have historically failed to center marginalized communities and address police violence nationwide, according to a blistering letter to congressional leaders, first shared with The Associated Press.
The movement, which was formed in 2014, is a coalition of 150 organizations nationwide that helped drive the global protests against racial inequity last summer. It is demanding Congress create new, comprehensive legislation to confront disinvestment, mass incarceration and systemic racism in America.
While the Justice in Policing Act has been called one of the most ambitious efforts in decades to overhaul policing, the movement is concerned it doesn’t address the root causes that have led to Black Americans dying at the hands of police. The House passed the bill earlier this month, but the movement’s opposition presents a new roadblock for Democrats. Even though the party controls both chambers of Congress, a tough road lies ahead for Senate approval.
“Over this summer, communities lifted up solutions that would truly address the root causes of police violence and terror,” the movement wrote in a letter addressed to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and to Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and shared with the AP on Wednesday. “Justice in Policing, by its very name, centers investments in policing rather than what should be front and center — upfront investments in communities and people.”
The bill, which is named for the man whose killing by police in Minnesota last Memorial Day sparked global protests against racial inequity, would ban chokeholds and “qualified immunity” for law enforcement while creating national standards for policing in a bid to bolster accountability. The bill is supported by President Joe Biden and has received support from some of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations.
“The officer that killed George Floyd was looking at the camera as he killed him,” said Bass, who authored the bill, prior to the House vote in an interview with the AP. “Why? Because he felt he could operate with impunity.”
The movement said that while it does support the end of qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement from certain lawsuits, it believes the bill in its current form focuses on reactive measures and “incrementalist reforms.”
Instead, the movement is pushing political leaders to enact the BREATHE Act, which it proposed last July and believes addresses the fundamental causes of police violence.
The AP first reported that the BREATHE Act would transform the nation’s criminal justice system through sweeping changes, such as eliminating the Drug Enforcement Administration and the use of surveillance technology, abolishing mandatory minimums and ending life sentences.
The bill, designed by the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project, would also redirect funding toward communities to address the nation’s systemic racial injustices.
“It’s not just about after the fact accountability,” said Gina Clayton-Johnson, the lead BREATHE Act architect and leadership team member of the Movement for Black Lives’ Policy Table. “There’s this thought that Black people are dying at the hands of police officers because individual officers are bad actors, but it is actually a systemic issue, and if you understand it to be systemic, then the solutions must also be systemic.”
The letter lists five central concerns driving the opposition, including the fact that the movement believes the act will provide new money to the “very systems that have always served to kill, cage, and destroy the families of Black people.” The movement also criticizes the act for failing to center the voices of “community members who are closest to the problem.”
“The bill bans federal use of chokeholds, ignoring the reality that police have killed Black people in this manner regardless of whether these bans are in place,” the letter states. “A no knock warrant ban would not have saved Breonna Taylor’s life, just like a ban on chokeholds did not save Eric Garner’s life. The JPA fails to address the root causes and realities of policing in this country.”
Individual organizations are still signing onto the letter, but organizers said the movement is mobilizing 165,000 active supporters to contact their elected officials, as part of their push against the Justice in Policing Act.
But the movement faces a significant uphill battle in securing needed political support from lawmakers who will be key in pushing forward the BREATHE Act or revamping the Justice in Policing Act.
“This is a radical transformation, challenging the very tenets of the system,” said Nadia Brown, a Purdue University political science professor, who added that change is often incremental in politics. “And that’s a tough act to get Americans to believe — even those who stand with and understand policing in the United States as being a wholly racist and unjust system.”
But the stakes are equally as high for Democratic leaders who were elected in part because of the organizing led by many Black activists on the ground seeking transformative change, Brown said, including some younger generations of voters.
“There are large and vocal populations that will not be satisfied,” Brown said. “You can’t divorce racism and the liberty of Black bodies from policing. And that’s what the Movement for Black Lives is trying to get us to think about.”
And Clayton-Johnson believes transformative change is what’s owed to all Black Americans, including Black organizers and voters who turned out in significant numbers to help elect Biden and other Democrats last year.
“Black people have organized, have pushed and created the pathways for you to sit in the seat that you are in and it is because there has been a hope and an understanding that you will deliver on a commitment to race justice and equality,” said Clayton-Johnson, also executive director of the Essie Justice Group.
“We are owed the opportunity to be safe and that includes first and foremost to be safe from a criminal legal system that has been harming us and taking the lives of Black people and of our loved ones for years,” she said.
Stafford is an investigative reporter on The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kat__stafford.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.