How Black Lives Matter is looking to turn protests into policy change

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The policy document is set to take center stage at the Black National Convention, which aims to create “a vision for Black Lives before the biggest election of our time, and long after.” While its architects recognize it does not have the necessary backing on Capitol Hill — even in a Democratic-majority House — they argue it’s an important marker for activists as they seek to turn the momentum gained through a summer of protest into political wins. How far they go in building support will be a critical test of the movement’s enduring influence, post-George Floyd.

“Certainly, this is a moment politically where I think so many of us are trying to see where the rebellions in the streets will have impact on policy, platform and practice of the major political parties,” said Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. “And, you know, for us, I think the BREATHE Act really represents an opportunity to galvanize voters, particularly Black voters, in this election cycle.”

The BREATHE Act finds its roots in the 2016 policy platform called the Vision for Black Lives. It was drafted in response to the police killings of African Americans like Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Philando Castile and called for a similar divest-invest approach to policing and public safety that Byrd said was often rebuffed “as this lofty, unviable set of ideas.”

But George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer catapulted the discussion over defunding the police into the mainstream and turned Black Lives Matter from a controversial topic into a household phrase. In the latest sign of its cultural significance, athletes across several professional leagues including the NBA, WNBA and MLB this week opted to break their contracts and sit out games and matches in a show of solidarity with anti-racism protesters.

The response has convinced Byrd and other organizers that the BREATHE Act also has the potential to go mainstream. She and others involved with the Black National Convention plan to highlight the proposal Friday as an example of the work organizers are doing not just to protest current injustices, but end them.

“What we want to tell folks is that in this moment, we are ripe for transformation. And we can build that and achieve that if we come together under a shared political vision that touches on policies around reproductive justice and housing and the criminal legal system which includes policing and the environment,” said Kayla Reed, executive director of the organizing group Action St. Louis and co-founder of the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project.

“We don’t have to just get one thing done,” Reed continued. “We can get it all done, because it’s what our communities deserve.”

The BREATHE Act’s terms go beyond criminal justice reform. The plan calls for funding for infrastructure that can withstand climate change-related disasters and federal grants to guarantee clean air and water for all communities. It also supports the passage of H.R. 40, which would establish a committee for the study of reparations; and calls for the expansion of existing health programs like Medicaid under the terms of the Affordable Care Act.

There have been some small signs of progress in building support for the proposal, which has yet to be formally introduced in Congress. When the Movement for Black Lives requested a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus to present the BREATHE Act, Sen. Kamala Harris, stepped up to arrange it.

Sen. Cory Booker introduced a sweeping criminal justice reform bill in 2019 that would reduce mandatory minimums for drug offenses, reinstate the right to vote for the formerly incarcerated and expunge records for those with marijuana offenses. And in July, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, addressed the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee to encourage the party’s top brass to adopt the BREATHE Act as part of its platform.

Harris, now the party’s vice presidential nominee, has made no further commitment to backing the BREATHE Act, however. And the DNC did not adopt the proposal as part of the party platform, though it did include the phrase “Black lives matter” with the promise to study the impacts of slavery and Jim Crow-era segregation on current racial inequities. Booker’s bill is unlikely to make any progress in the current, Republican-held Senate.

Even in the Democrat-controlled House, the legislation is likely to face a frosty reception. Most Democrats in Congress have already rejected the idea of defunding the police. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed a $300 million investment in the COPS program, which would hire more police officers and require that their demographics mirror the communities they serve.

During a virtual panel hosted by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative in July, CBC Chair Karen Bass told POLITICO that elements of the BREATHE Act are already in existing legislation. However, parts of the sweeping proposal, she said, are “more challenging.”

“One of the main points of that bill is that it shows how you can cut federal spending and re-invest in communities and that concept, that principle is something I feel very strongly about,” Bass said. “The wholesale elimination of programs, I think, would be challenging.”

The legislation does, however, have the support of prominent progressives Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who plan to co-sponsor it. And organizers see a handful of new allies in young, Black progressives politicians such as New York’s Jamaal Bowman and Missouri’s Cori Bush, whose primary victories this summer all but assure them of seats in Congress in 2021.

To some organizers, Bowman and Bush’s election wins, which involved ousting older, moderate Democrats, are an important step forward for the young generation of activists seeking to shape policy at the local, state and federal levels.

“I hope that we continue as protesters to go and seek the power [in] Congress and state legislatures and city halls and that we remember the values and principles we wanted the leaders before us to have,” said Clifton Kinnie, a St. Louis-based organizer and founder of Our Destiny STL, a network of young activists in Missouri. “I believe that Cori Bush will not only do that but will do so much more to voice the concerns of the people here. I think this is just the beginning.”

Supporters of the proposal also note that despite the public’s reluctance to embrace calls to defund the police, sweeping police reform measures remain popular. A 2019 study conducted by the Black Futures Lab, a think tank led by Garza, found that 85 percent of the more than 30,000 Black respondents desired more police accountability. A plurality of respondents reported having negative interactions with police and a majority were in favor of more investment in Black communities.

And polling shows support for reform is also growing outside the Black community: According to a Gallup poll, nearly two-thirds of all Americans support Black Lives Matter protests and nearly half say the demonstrations have altered their views of racial justice.

The BREATHE Act, argues Garza, “is actually speaking to the majoritarian values that I think are not only being expressed through these rebellions, but are also being expressed through the ways that people are showing up to participate in cities and states across the country.”

“The movement is making impact and the question becomes, how will our elected representatives and those who seek our votes step up to meet this moment?” she added.

With this in mind, the goals of the Black National Convention are not only to encourage support of the BREATHE Act, but of Black movement work, writ large. The convention will stream on the evening of the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington and on the heels of another police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wis. Organizers hope that by creating a program where Black communities are front of mind, they can garner the support they need to continue organizing across the country and make possible the changes they’ve been advocating for decades.

“This is for everyone who has ever seen the story of someone who lost their lives to police and knew that it was unjust. For someone who maybe came to their first protest this year. It’s for the person who hasn’t gone out to a protest at all but sees the hashtag or sees the conversation,” Reed explained.

“This is not for politicos. This is not for people who are entrenched in partisan politics or party politics. This is for everyday people to understand that our movement is for everyone, that all Black people have the right to be alive and thrive in our communities. And we are fighting for that.”

Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.

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