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It might be different this time: Lawmakers, activists more optimistic about police reform

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Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue near the Trump International Hotel during a protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 3, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Tasos Katopodis | Getty Images

Between the thousands marching across the globe, the legislation moving through government channels and even the actions of some private businesses, it’s clear that something is different this time.

An eruption of protests following George Floyd’s death last month has spread wider than any comparable movement in recent history, analysts say, with hundreds of thousands turning out in all 50 states — and even overseas — to demonstrate against police brutality and racism.

Floyd is not the only unarmed Black person whose death at the hands of police has driven protesters into the streets demanding change. But lawmakers and activists alike are seeing signs that this political moment, which comes amid the coronavirus pandemic and an already-vicious presidential election season, could finally bring to fruition some of the reforms they’ve pushed for years.

“I’m hopeful and I’m optimistic that this is the straw that has broken the camel’s back,” New York City Councilman Rory Lancman said in an interview.

A different moment

Lancman, a Democratic council member from Queens, has reason to believe the political winds have shifted.

In 2014, he introduced a bill banning police chokeholds following the death of Eric Garner, a Black man who died in Staten Island in 2017 after an officer held him by the neck. The bill had failed to gain enough support to override a veto by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who vowed to reject the legislation after two NYPD officers were killed in Brooklyn.

Members of Black Lives Matter Greater NY and allies held a protest rally in Times Square on June 4, 2019 demanding justice.

Erik McGregor | LightRocket | Getty Images

But in the wake of Floyd’s death, Lancman’s bill has gained enough support for a veto-proof majority, even as it has been broadened to ban officers from restricting “the flow of air or blood by compressing the windpipe, diaphragm, or the carotid arteries” during an arrest. Floyd died after a since-fired Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with murder.

Lancman said the current civil unrest is the “deepest, broadest wave of public outcry” for criminal justice reform he’s seen in his time in office. “This moment allowed us to move [the bill] forward with confidence,” he said. 

That momentum appears to have carried over to Congress, where Democrats this week put forward sweeping police reform bills in the House and Senate. The bills would overhaul police precincts across the country, in part by banning the use of chokeholds, ending “no-knock” search warrants in drug cases and applying new oversight measures to departments.

Republicans, led by South Carolina’s Tim Scott, one of only three Black U.S. senators, are working up their own alternative legislation to address the policing system. President Donald Trump announced on Thursday a proposal that steered clear of major police reform.

At the local level

A participant holding a Defund The Police sign at the protest. Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Brooklyn in a massive march to demand justice for George Floyd, killed by Officer Derek Chauvin and to make a loud call for the defunding of the police force.

Erik McGregor | LightRocket | Getty Images

Randy Shrewsberry, executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform and a former police officer, said “we’re in full support of” the calls to defund the police.

“There has to be a reevaluation from us collectively as a society as to what we are expecting the police to be in our day-to-day lives,” Shrewsberry said. “We are in big favor that there needs to be a reduction in funding [and] a reduction in manpower,” he said.

Timothy Lovelace, a Duke University law professor and legal historian of the civil rights movement, said Floyd’s death, which was captured on video, “added to the pain” from other recent instances of unarmed Black men and women being killed. Lovelace cited the shootings of Ahmaud Arbery in February and Breonna Taylor in March.

“Far too frequently, we see Black men and women who are being murdered on camera,” Lovelace said. “This leads to lots of frustrations and seems to be a reoccurring cycle.”

Garner and Floyd were unarmed. Both men had also said “I can’t breathe” before they died — pleas that have become rallying cries for protesters. 

But where the officer who put Garner in a chokehold did not face criminal charges, Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder. The three ex-officers who had assisted Chauvin’s arrest of Floyd have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin poses for an undated booking photograph taken after he was transferred from a county jail to a Minnesota Department of Corrections state facility.

Minnesota Department of Corrections | Reuters

The protests against police brutality and racism have also reignited a debate over whether monuments and other displays of Confederate symbols should be removed from public spaces. And there has been an impact on popular culture, as well.

Some police-focused entertainment content is also getting canceled. ViacomCBS announced it was dropping “Cops,” the reality show that has followed police officers on duty for 30 years. Cable network A&E also announced that it was ending production of a similar show, “Live PD,” and Investigation Discovery’s version, “Body Cam,” has been removed from the network’s schedule. 

“My sense is that the outrage and the recognition of the injustices have now reached almost every segment of society,” Lancman said.

The Covid connection

The coronavirus pandemic, which has forced state leaders to virtually shut down their state economies in an effort to slow transmission, may be providing additional oxygen to the protests.

“Many Americans have more time to turn their attention to social justice issues because of the Covid-19 crisis,” as well as “new space and new time to protest,” Lovelace said.

Shrewsberry concurred: “Part of this is that we’re home right now and we’re not distracted by running back and forth to the office. … You know, none of this is new. This has been going on long before George Floyd died.”

Demonstrators protest outside of the state capital building on May 31, 2020 following the May 25, death of George Floyd in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Scott Olson

President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion with African American supporters in the Cabinet Room of the White House on June 10, 2020.

Doug Mills | Getty Images

Trump has reacted aggressively to the protests, demanding “law and order” from state and city leaders to quash the violence that has sprung up at some demonstrations, while Biden has vowed to work to heal the country’s racial wounds that undergird the unrest.

The protests have been largely peaceful, though violence and looting have broken out in multiple cities on some nights of demonstrations, especially in Minneapolis.

Regardless, recent polls show that a majority of Americans support the protests. 

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