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Racial Justice & Civil Rights

Civil rights have taken on renewed salience since the murder of George Floyd, but the duty and principle of achieving real racial justice in America has gone unfulfilled since the first Black individuals were shackled, kidnapped and delivered to American shores against their will more than four centuries ago.

I have worked for years to confront many related systemic challenges, including pushing for new national standards, resources and protections that would lift up communities of color, make policing safer for everyone, protect vulnerable people from harmful pollution, and put the safety and well-being of our communities first. This has included working to expand resources for community policing strategies, ending the sale of Pentagon surplus weapons of war to local police departments, requiring the use of body cameras and much more.

Recent Events

The challenge of racial justice and systemic violence in America's policing was driven painfully home when a peace officer serving in the Schenectady Police Department was filmed with his knee on the head and neck of a civilian, Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud, for more than two full minutes before brutally beating the man.

I shared that I was enraged and heartbroken to see this violence, that I have been told these practices are neither taught nor used by our local departments, and I called for answers, accountability and transparency. While the calls supporting that basic call for truth and corresponding reform were far greater in number, the backlash from a small vocal minority has been aggressively defensive and often extremely vulgar.

Our Schenectady NAACP generously offered me an opportunity to speak at their press conference the following weekend. Here is my full statement as it was delivered at that event:

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you, and stand with you, today. While circumstances prevent me from being there in person, I have asked my trusted advisor Colleen to share a few words that I hope will convey the gravity of my feelings in this moment. 

On May 25th, more than a month ago, police officers in Minneapolis responded to a call about a forged check. That call resulted in one of those officers kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, killing him brutally and senselessly. 

I would like to believe that, even if George Floyd had not been killed, we would still have responded with outrage and demanded reform.

I would like to believe that his recorded cries for help, cries of “I can’t breathe” and for his departed mother would still have haunted us and awakened our moral conviction that brutal practices now commonplace in American policing must change. 

I would like to believe these things. 

In the past several weeks, leaders across our communities, our state, and the House of Representatives where I serve have responded with serious reforms. Mayor McCarthy signed a citywide ordinance banning knee-to-neck policing. Our state advanced serious reforms as well. And our Justice in Policing Act passed the House, banning chokeholds, no-knock warrants and raising the bar of accountability and transparency to safeguard the rights and safety of our community members.

Those measures are important, the people who fought for them and fight for them still deserve our thanks and praise.

But on Monday, July 6th, a police officer in Schenectady responded to a call about slashed tires. He confronted the person suspected of this crime in front of his own house. That call resulted in the officer chasing, tackling, and kneeling on the head of Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud, a member of our community, for at least two minutes and five seconds.

And beating him in the process. 

These are not matters of opinion, they are recorded fact. 

This incident and the one in Minneapolis are not the same, but they are too similar to ignore.

A member of our community was brutalized under the knee of one of our law enforcement officers.

There is no combination of factors, causes or events leading up to it that make this acceptable or inevitable.  

Some people have tried to make this about other things. 

To me it is simple. This incident reflects either a failure by the officer or a failure of the underlying policies that allowed it to happen.

And I have to say, this abuse is made far worse when other public servants watch this brutality and write it off as inevitable, justifiable, or commonplace.

Something has to change. 

Earlier this week I expressed my outrage and heartbreak over this incident.

I called for answers and accountability. I have been met with screamed obscenities.

Let me be clear: I absolutely believe in the intentions of our police officers. And I believe they are up to the challenge of this moment.

That challenge includes seeing brutality for what it is and calling it out. It includes responding not with defensiveness or diversion but with the voice of service.

It includes working with everyone to build the reforms we need to truly prioritize public safety, community safety and, yes, officer safety.  

Because we have safer communities when we have trust, when we can communicate openly, and see we share a common purpose.

This is our community, these are our streets, this is our nation to build and rebuild with each new generation.

As long as this kind of violence is allowed, whether singular incidents or under the protections of policy, it makes building trust impossible. It makes all of us less safe.

We are all hurting.

For some it has lasted four months, for others 400 years.

This COVID pandemic is attacking Black Americans faster, they are dying from it younger and at twice the rate of white Americans.

That is the face of systemic racism. 

On the heels of George Floyd’s murder, a bipartisan pair of senators attempted to get an anti-lynching bill passed in the U.S. Senate. It was blocked.

That is the face of systemic racism. 

In March, Breonna Taylor was murdered In her sleep, by peace officers, in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky. Her name is one of many, many, too many.

Racial violence is recorded fact, both by incident and across our systems and most venerated institutions. And the wounds it has caused have festered, and new wounds added, for a very long time.

We must find a path here that will allow us to stop these self-inflicted harms, to heal, and begin to repair a long-broken trust.

As a very small part of that effort, I spoke with Chief Clifford on Wednesday. He informed me that the Schenectady Police Department is taking steps to implement reforms and make sure this brutality cannot happen again.

We must ensure that outcome. The practice of knee-to-head must be banned. This incident must receive a full and independent review. Most importantly, the people of this community must have a voice in how our department, and our law enforcement officers, respond.  

Because we are, first and foremost, your servants. Our law enforcement officers are officers of the peace. Each one of them puts on the uniform every morning intending to do what is best for this community, to uphold our laws and to keep us all safe. 

So when something like this happens, no matter the outcome, it tells me something deeper must be broken.

Let’s do the hard work of looking honestly and openly at what happened here, and what keeps happening, and why.

Let’s not start from the idea that any of us are here to attack or defend. To build trust, and to heal, first we need the truth, we need sunlight, we need accountability, we need reform.

And I will continue to push for those things until I know the members of our community are safe, that their rights are protected, and that new bonds of trust can be built to achieve our common purpose of liberty and justice for all.

Thank you.

Taking Action to Advance Racial Justice in the United States of America

Recently I was proud to join as a cosponsor of H.R. 7120: Justice in Policing Act of 2020, legislation led by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, as well as Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) that would, among other things, ban police chokeholds, restrict “qualified immunity” that prevents police officers from being sued for misconduct, create a national registry to track officers with a history of misconduct, end no-knock warrant use for drug cases and make lynching a federal hate crime. 

One piece of legislation cannot cure 400 years of racial violence, injustice and economic oppression. Much of our collective work remains unfinished. However, Congress and the President should move without delay to pass and sign into law the Justice in Policing Act of 2020. The American people are demanding immediate action. Let us heed their call at once.

I also cosponsor a number of the component bills included in this legislation. For example, H.R. 125: The Police Training and Independent Review Act would provide federal funding as an incentive for states to:

  1. Require enrollees at law enforcement academies receive sensitivity training on ethics and racial bias, cultural diversity, and police interaction with the disabled, mentally ill, and new immigrants.

  2. Adopt state laws requiring independent investigations and prosecutions of law enforcement officers in cases where one or more of the alleged offenses involves an officer's use of deadly force in the course of carrying out his or her official duties.

Voting Rights

We are a few short years removed from the harmful Supreme Court decision that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Since then, many states have pounced on the decision, passing legislation that put more barriers to those who already have fragile access to the ballot box. This is America. It shouldn’t be harder to vote, it should be easier to vote. In Congress, I am a cosponsor of legislation that updates the VRA and gives everyone equal opportunity to have their voice heard on Election Day.

I also cosponsored H.R. 1: For the People Act, transformative legislation that passed the House in 2019 that would make voting easier, safer and more representative. Among other things this bill would:

  • Create automatic voter registration & online registration tools
  • Expand early voting and makes absentee voting simple, secure and free
  • Permit same-day registration including during early voting
  • Provide states with resources to strengthen election security
  • Replace partisan gerrymandering with independent redistricting commissions

Environmental, Racial & Social Justice

On July 9, 2020, I chaired a hearing on disproportionate environmental impacts related to COVID-19 in his Energy &Commerce Environment Subcommittee, including compelling testimony from national leaders for racial and environmental justice. We have a long road ahead but these conversations need to be happening and we need to start making progress without delay.

I have long advocated for improved health care for incarcerated individuals, a group that is tragically and disproportionately made up of people of color. This passion is the driving force behind the Medicaid Reentry Act, legislation that allows states to restart Medicaid coverage for incarcerated individuals 30 days prior to release, in order to create stronger continuity of care, particularly for mental health and addiction needs, as these individuals transition back into the community.

Systemic Reform & Justice for All

The issues of racial and social injustice are far deeper than just our policing or criminal justice systems generally. I continue to look for other ways to broaden our national awareness and take meaningful steps forward, including cosponsoring H.R. 1636, the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys Act, a bill from Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) that would create a commission to “study the societal forces that have disproportionately impacted black males in America.” The bill has approximately 100 co-sponsors, including one Republican.

I joined some of my colleagues in the New York Congressional Delegation on May 14th, 2020 in calling for a DOJ investigation into the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery case. Transparency and accountability go hand in hand.

I joined with many of my colleagues from all across the nation on June 4th, 2020 in calling for information on the “deployment of Department of Justice (DOJ) law enforcement officers, including personnel from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), to act against protesters in Washington, D.C. without carrying identifying name plates, official insignia, or agency markings of any kind on their ‘uniforms.’”

In that same spirit, I have also been deeply troubled by recent escalations and abuses by those in political power in Washington, D.C. and beyond. In particular, I felt the need to call out the coordinated attack on peaceful racial justice demonstrators in Lafayette Park outside the White House, an attack orchestrated to stage a photo opportunity of the President awkwardly holding a bible in the air in front of a nearby church.

‘Everything he has done is to inflame violence.’ Those are not my words, they are the expression of the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Washington in response to President Trump’s physical assault on these peaceful demonstrators.

This horrifying attack violated the most fundamental of freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, the right to free speech and peaceful assembly.

I encourage President Trump to open the bible he held up as a prop outside the church. In it, he would find a verse from Micah 6:8; “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

May we as a nation work toward justice, denounce violence, love kindness and walk humbly, but hurriedly, on the path to creating a more perfect union.

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