By Dan Walters | CalMatters
The tsunami of righteous indignation over the suffocation death of a black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis policeman, like all crises, creates both opportunity and peril for political figures.
It will certainly impact President Donald Trump’s already iffy chances for re-election, given his tone-deaf response to Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests. It’s an opportunity for challenger Joe Biden to solidify his lead and improves the prospects of California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris to become Biden’s running mate.
Harris, whose own presidential campaign crashed after she accused Biden of being too friendly with racist colleagues in the Senate, is openly seeking Biden’s nod to be his vice president. Since Floyd’s senseless death, she has portrayed herself as a champion of civil rights and law enforcement reform, but her record leaves her open to accusations of cynical opportunism.
As the Los Angeles Times detailed last year, while she expressed sympathy for the victims of unjustified police violence, “Harris, the state’s first black attorney general, steered clear of the legislative brawls over bills on policing, including what became a groundbreaking law to curb racial profiling. Harris also rejected pleas by civil rights activists to investigate deadly police shootings of young black men in Los Angeles and San Francisco.”
When the Floyd protests erupted, Gov. Gavin Newsom immediately took up the marchers’ cause — and he had credibility because last year he signed landmark police reform legislation, sparked by the shooting death of a young black man, Stephon Clark, by two Sacramento police officers.
The law aimed to undo long-standing law and custom that made it virtually impossible to prosecute officers for unjustified use of deadly force — the sort of reform that California Congresswoman Karen Bass now wants to make federal law.
As protests raged, Newsom directed California’s police training agency to stop teaching the carotid hold, which renders a suspect unconscious by constricting the carotid artery in the neck, and wants legislation to make the carotid hold illegal.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “a carotid hold that literally is designed to stop people’s blood from flowing into their brain, that has no place any longer in 21st-century practices and policing.”
Newsom, however, also recognized the truism that “you’ve got to change culture, not just laws” and added, “We passed that (lethal force) bill in August, but it hasn’t stopped the violence. It hasn’t stopped the mistrust.”
Beyond police practices, Floyd’s death also brought much-needed attention to the fact that 155 years after the Civil War, too many black Americans remain stuck at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, even in a state as wealthy and superficially “progressive” as California. It is, therefore, an opportunity to address that disparity, but how?
Newsom is backing Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, which would repeal Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that abolished race-based affirmative action in college enrollment, public contracts and other official acts.
Advocates say affirmative action is needed to help blacks and members of other poverty-stricken ethnic groups gain education and economic power, but critics says it will disadvantage Asians and others who have succeeded on their own.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat who wrote the lethal force bill, is also carrying ACA 5. But Weber is also the Legislature’s most vocal champion of improving the education of poor students, mostly black and Latino, so they can succeed in higher education and the job market.
Closing the “achievement gap,” as it’s called, may be the most important step California could take toward lasting racial justice.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.
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