As protests in response to the death of George Floyd, police violence, and systemic racism expand globally, leaders are walking a fine line of how to meet this moment. Gavin Newsom (D), California’s governor, finds protestors and advocates pushing for policies that align with their cries to abolish or defund the police.
Abolitionist and defunding ideals are gaining more momentum in the national discussion, but Governor Newsom recently stated, in response to Oakland protesters, “If you’re calling for eliminating police, no. If you’re talking about reimagining and taking the opportunity to look at the responsibility and role that we place on law enforcement to be social workers, mental health workers, get involved in disputes where a badge and a gun are unnecessary, then I think absolutely this is an opportunity to look at all of the above.”
Despite his policy differences with protesters, Newsom says he supports peaceful protests, saying, “One thing that is crystal clear to me, having seen images that inspired me of peaceful protests, that protesters have the right not to be harassed.” Yet in L.A. County alone there have been 3,000 arrests for primarily nonviolent offenses such as failure to disperse or breaking curfew. Newsom, of course, does not run the L.A. County sheriff’s department. Still, Californians are receiving mixed messages.
This global movement, which is advocating for antiracism, restructuring practices, and restoration for the harms of racial injustice, is happening in the presence of COVID-19. Newsom has been somewhat responsive. In a revised budget plan, he proposed shuttering two state prisons within the next three years, to save the state $400 million annually.
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Newsom has also endorsed legislation that would put an end to police carotid holds in the state. These holds involve putting pressure on the sides of a person’s neck to restrict blood flow. According to analysis by the Los Angeles Times of California Department of Justice data, these holds results in injuries to 103 people (including causing 91 to go unconscious), while killing two between 2016 and 2018.
As well, during COVID-19, California has taken several actions that have, at least temporarily, greatly reduced incarceration. As of May 27th, California had reduced bail to $0 for most misdemeanors and low-level felonies, bringing down prison populations in L.A. and Sacramento County by 30 percent, Orange County by 45 percent, with many other counties releasing hundreds of individuals held in pretrial detention.
Additional measures are likely. One legislative initiative is Assembly Bill 3121 (AB3121), authored by San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber. Titled “Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans,” this bill would establish a task force reparations committee to educate Californians on slavery, as well as recommend direct and indirect state settlements to help remedy generations of inequity and discrimination. The bill passed the state assembly on an overwhelming 61–12 vote and was forwarded to the state senate last Thursday.
California is only a single setting in this global moment of history, but some, such as Courtney McKinney of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, believe it can lead by example. “If California is willing to lead on other conversations around climate, around income inequality and around things like this, there is no way to have any of these conversations without acknowledging what has been done to Black people in this country.”—Chris Cannito