AFT town hall features discussion on police reform and racism

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With the country entangled in public health and economic crises along with an overdue reckoning with racism, the AFT devoted its July 14 telephone town hall discussion to racism and police reform. Ultimately, these crises intersect and have exposed America’s inequities, all of which are made worse by the leadership of this country, said AFT President Randi Weingarten. Weingarten was joined in the conversation by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and LeRoy Barr, secretary and staff director of the United Federation of Teachers.

Police car lights

Sen. Harris, along with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, has introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the first-ever comprehensive police accountability and reform legislation on the federal level. Barr has taken a role in the AFT’s anti-racist leadership program and in implementing the actions called for in the AFT executive council’s recent resolution on confronting racism and supporting Black lives.

“We are trying to take this on in a real way, which is why we asked Sen. Harris to join us,” said Weingarten. “We want to focus on the anti-racism work we have to do, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, when people are willing to say something is wrong in terms of the systemic racism in the country. That’s why we wanted to have this conversation.”

In her extensive career as a district attorney and later attorney general for California, Harris has pushed for police reform. The legislation she is working to pass in the Senate is part of her vision for reforming the criminal justice system.

“We all know that this is a rough time. Our country is raw and her wounds have been exposed,” said Harris, echoing the view that the country is in the midst of three crises. “This pandemic has put a magnifying glass on disparities and people have taken to the streets to shout out against the system of racism in America.”

There are two systems of justice in America, said Harris. “We have a lot to do to get closer to achieving the ideal of equal justice under law.”

Harris is working to make equal justice under the law a reality with legislation to create a racial disparities taskforce that would include educators, healthcare professionals, community-based advocates, economic experts and government and tribal leaders. The taskforce would convene around the need for collection and dissemination of data based on racial disparities.

“This is important because racial disparities are front and center with the data on who is getting sick and dying from COVID-19, as well as long standing health disparities for Blacks who are more like to suffer from chronic disease like asthma and other illness,” said Harris.

Harris’ Justice in Policing Act would establish: a national standard for the operation of police departments; mandate data collection on police encounters; reprogram existing funds to invest in transformative community-based policing programs; and streamline federal law to prosecute excessive force and establish independent prosecutors for police investigations.

“The measure is designed to be narrowly tailored to address what we need to do to around accountability and consequence. As a former prosecutor, I know that the terms consequence and accountability are focused on the accused and never at the system or those working in it,” said Harris.

“In many of our contracts we have tried to negotiate solutions when people raise issues of misconduct or incompetence,” Weingarten said. “We know that due process is important and defending against false allegations is important, but we are suggesting to our brothers and sisters in blue to do some of the same things we’ve tried to do. You can’t let a contract either intentionally or unintentionally become a shield for misconduct.”

The AFT is not new to this space, said UFT’s Barr referring to the union’s work on anti-racism. The AFT has acted to combat racism for generations, including expelling segregated locals; this resolution multiplies our work to address all aspects of racism, starting with criminal justice and education. Last month, the AFT executive council passed a groundbreaking resolution, “Confronting Racism and in Support of Black Lives,” that lays out 19 commitments to combat systematic racism and violence against Black people, including the separation of school safety from policing and police forces.

“We know that our school communities want to be safe,” said Barr, noting that the effort to transform school security to help achieve a safe and welcoming environment for students and staff “will look different in different parts of the country. We can arrive to a solution to this issue and translate this moment into sustainable action.”

Harris encouraged listeners to seize the opportunity of this moment. “You have been seeing the cracks and fissures and injustices in the system every day. For the first time in a long time, the public is seeing what you’ve been seeing. Your activism and voice  plays an important role in how we can maneuver out of this crisis,” she said. Harris also took a moment to remind listeners about the upcoming election. “The opportunity of the crisis of the moment is that it is close to an election. People are aware of the inequities so let’s help them see the connection between their lives and voting in November.”

[Adrienne Coles]