Rep. Karen Bass Reintroduces George Floyd Policing Bill in Congress
Jahi Chikwendiu

When George Floyd gasped his final breath last May after a Minneapolis police officer was captured on viral video kneeling on his neck, Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation and world.

Yet the anguish, demonstrations and demands for an end to police brutality haven’t halted the violence; more than 100 unarmed people have been killed or brutalized by police since then.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) is still fighting for substantive change. On Wednesday, she and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, reintroduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021.  

The bill is a comprehensive approach, intended to hold police accountable, change the culture of law enforcement, and empower communities. It also seeks to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, by addressing systemic racism and bias in order to help save lives.

“Black communities have suffered from police abuse for as long as we’ve been here,” Bass told ESSENCE. “None of us are safe if essentially law enforcement can treat us any way they choose.”

The legislation would ban chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants at the federal level. It would prohibit racial and religious profiling, and mandate training. The bill would also eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement; and establish national standards to operate police departments.

Additionally, the measure would establish a National Police Misconduct Registry to collect data about police encounters. It would streamline laws to prosecute excessive force, and establish independent prosecutors for police investigations. There would be investments in community-based policing and more.

“We have not forgotten the terrifying words, ‘I can’t breathe’ spoken by George Floyd and Eric Garner,” said Rep. Nadler. “And the millions of Americans in the streets who have called out for change in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others.” While the issue of policing can’t be solved by Congress alone, he said, “the federal government has a responsibility to address the issue.” 

Last Congress, the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act passed by a bipartisan vote of 236 to 181. Every House Democrat and three Republicans voted in support of the bill. But the Senate version, co-sponsored by then-Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), was stalled in that chamber by Republican leadership. Instead, the GOP backed their own police reform bill, introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).

Now, supporters are hopeful this time around given the Democratic majority and the Biden-Harris Administration in the White House. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) recently announced that the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a vote on the bill next week.

The Congressional Black Caucus is supporting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021. Previously, the legislation has been endorsed by Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice; and John Crawford, Jr., father of John Crawford III. Other supporters ranged from corporations, to mayors to celebrities. Moreover, many of the nation’s civil rights and social justice groups are backing the bill. 

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On Wednesday, leaders of the National Urban League, NAACP, and National Action Network, were among those taking part in a virtual press conference urging Congress to pass the bill. They were joined by heads of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and several prominent women-led organizations.

“The killing of George Floyd held a mirror up to a truth about the American legal system,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president director/counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It showed us in the most stark and irrefutable way, that there are deep, fundamental problems with how this country allows law enforcement to intimidate, abuse, torture, and kill unarmed Black people.”

“There is a very long history of systemic racism against Black women, men and children by individual white supremacists and by state-sanctioned acts that began during the years of enslavement and continued during the period of reconstruction and Jim Crowism,” said Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, President of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. “Passage of the [bill] is an urgent and necessary action to end unjustified police killings of Black women, men and children.”

Melanie Campbell is president/CEO of National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable (BWR). The BWR/Essence 2020 Poll revealed that criminal justice/policing reform was one of the top three issues that Black voters—especially Black women—wanted the next president and Congress to address.

“The voters have spoken and now is the time for the Congress to deliver what the people voted for and pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” said Campbell. “…These issues are a matter of life and death to millions of people of color and impoverished communities that are unfairly treated by too many in law enforcement in our nation.”

Marc H. Morial, president & CEO of National Urban League, noted that excessive, deadly force against Black Americans runs deep. “The United States’ use of brutal police force to control Black Americans can be traced back to slave patrols of the 1700s and the Black codes of the 1860s-1870s,” he said.

Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, also invoked history. He compared the knee on Floyd’s neck in Minnesota, to the Mississippi lynching of Emmitt Till in 1955.  

“Therefore, the passing of the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act is as important in this time as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was in the era of the civil rights movement of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s,” Sharpton said.

He called on the Senate and all lawmakers to act. “Accountability on all policing must be the law of the land.”

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