In California, August 31 is the last day of the legislative calendar, the last day that the state Senate and Assembly can pass bills. If the deadline falls on or just after a weekend, the legislature crams, working Saturday and Sunday late, often past midnight. The days and nights are a frenzy of negotiation and hurried votes, the pace quickening as the end nears.
The August 31 deadline day is an especially insane grind. This year the legislature worked through about a hundred bills and considered many more. A bill would be rushed out of committee, introduced, read, debated, negotiated, voted on, reconciled, and voted on again – bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam. Some bills had been around long enough that the legislature knew what they contained, so the vote was “easy.” Others were obscure or newly rewritten, so legislators had to rely on staff or lobbyists to tell them what was in the bills. And then there was the gamesmanship, the procedural and parliamentary rules that legislators use to stall and kill bills, something I will get to in a moment.
This year’s end-of-session was more intense than usual: A thick haze of smoke hung over the Sacramento, a reminder of the wildfires raging in the state. Legislators that were dealing with or had been exposed to COVID were allowed to vote by proxy. Everyone else had to be in the Big Tomato. Legislators kept to their offices, strategizing and negotiating on Zoom before ambling out to vote on bills, in their respective chambers. There was no way to avoid the issue of the pandemic.
Most media coverage of the session focused on AB 3088, the COVID eviction bill that started life with good protections for renters and ended in a watered-down mess thanks to pressure by the real estate lobby and a clock clicking quickly towards September 1, the day the current eviction protections expired. There was also a lot of press coverage on parliamentary procedure.
Around dinnertime on the final day, Democrats in the State Senate switched up the rules. Debate on bills going forward would be limited to two people for each bill. The two speakers had two minutes each to state their cases. Besides the two and whomever was presiding over the vote, legislator’s mics would be muted. Democrats said that the limits were being imposed to hasten voting on bills. Republicans called bullshit and fussed about tyranny and liberty. There was yelling. There was cursing. There was drama. There was negotiation. There was a “re-set.” And then there was Republican stalling – the one thing the Democrats’ were trying to avoid and that the Republicans promised not to do.
Through the weekend, I had my eyes on seven police reform bills that were up for vote. It is rare that the legislature entertains seven bills on one issue. It happens usually in a time of crisis, but I’ve never seen it with police reform. Hell, seven police reform bills making it to the floor during a full session is a rarity in itself. Most police reform bills die in committee, never making it to the full legislature, not to mention both houses. This year is different.
The 2020 legislative cram on police reform saw:
- AB 1185 – mandates independent reviews of sheriff departments, agencies that usually go without scrutiny, though their rates of abuse are high.
- AB 1196 – bans police from using a variety of choke-holds.
- AB 1506 – allows for state investigations of local police shootings.
- AB 1299 – makes it harder for police departments to hire bad cops.
These four bills passed both chambers and are on the governor’s desk for signing. The three other police reform bills were:
- AB 66 – bans police from using rubber bullets, tear gas, and other force on protesters.
- SB 731 – strips police of qualified immunity, opening up the possibility of bad cops getting charged for breaking the law, including in cases of abuse.
- SB 776 – opens up public records for bad cops.
The four bills that passed did so with Republican votes, including from some right-wing legislators. When Assembly Bill 1506 was up, Orange County Republican Senator John Moorlach actually cried while making a statement in support. It looked like the session would see a clean sweep for police reform, a hope that turned out to be extremely optimistic.
After the dinner “re-set,” which rescinded rules to prevent stalling, again, a tactic the Republicans promised that they would not do, Republicans started to stall in order to run out the clock.
Senate Bill 776 passed both houses, however the Senate and Assembly versions needed to be “converged.” The Republicans burned time before convergence could happen. AB 66 passed the Assembly, but the session was over before it got a Senate vote. SB 731, the most important of the seven bills, passed the Senate and had the votes for a Yea in the Assembly, but, again, Republican stall tactics kept it from getting a vote.
The three police reform bills that died will most likely be reintroduced next session, though one lobbyist I talked to worried that momentum on police reform that resulted from summer-long protests against out-of-control police and systemic racism might slacken, and that the window for passing state-level reform will close. Given the difficulty of achieving even minor police reform any time such concern is reasonable; however, times they are a-changin’.
Though Trump wages a law & order fear campaign, the pendulum on issues of criminal justice and policing are swinging from right-wing, lock-em-up law & order to progressive reform. In recent years, following a public embrace of common sense, Republicans have softened their stance on harsh sentencing and rehabilitation. They see economic benefit in reform (less government spending, privatization of rehabilitation). High profile cases of abuse, such as the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, also make it difficult for Republicans to deny the need for minor police reform. Of course, there is Trump, the Blue Lives yahoos, police unions, and elected sheriffs; however, these voices, loud though they may be, are being challenged within the GOP, and are certainly a minority in the Real World.
If you are thinking, “You’re in California, so, of course police reform is hot”; stop. While California is a “blue” state, it is not necessarily progressive. Radiating north and south of Sacramento, the Central Valley gets very right-wing, especially towards the “State of Jefferson” and Bakersfield. Republicans have a decades-long lock on the four corners of the state. The Sierra Foothills are loaded with conservatives. And, while the state’s elected Republicans are forced to play parliamentary procedure to get their way in the legislature, they still are a presence that must be dealt with.
California is less a “progressive stronghold” than it is a political frontier. Right now, California’s push for police reform is at the cutting edge, but this is a new thing. The last time the Golden State was leading the nation on criminal justice it was from the right. California rejected rehabilitation before other states. It introduced mandatory minimum sentencing, as well as determinate sentencing, before it was “cool.” It went on a prison-building spree before other states did, spending more money on “high tech” supermax lock-ups than most. California pioneered getting “tough on crime” at the ballot box, through propositions. It invented Three Strikes legislation and was way ahead of the rest of the country on victim’s rights measures.
From Ronald Reagan on, California’s governors have been advocates of harsh criminal justice measures and strong supporters of law enforcement. Our last governor, Jerry Brown, was notoriously pro-cop and anti-police reform. While many progressives have hopes that Gov. Gavin Newsom will break with this long law & order tradition, some are cautiously optimistic, most are wait-and-see. Activists have worked at criminal justice and police reform too long to take anything for granted.
When most California politicians embraced of tough-on-crime, radical and progressive activists were pioneers in the criminal justice reform and police reform movements. Good activism meant that politicians had to fight to build prisons. Sentencing enhancement and determinate sentencing were met with resistance. Everything from capital punishment to increased police funding saw thousands of activists fighting the law enforcement/prison lobby.
For decades, California had/has overcrowded prisons, warehouses full of racially-profiled innocents, non-violent drug offenders, harden criminals, and very dangerous men. The prisons were a hot pit of abuse and a petri dish of criminality, where little was done to reform and prepare prisoners for a life outside of institutions. Prisoners’ rights advocates fought hard to correct this situation, focusing on overcrowded jails and prisons.
In 2011, decades of activism resulted in Brown v. Plata, a state Supreme Court case on prison overcrowding. In a 5:4 decision, the court ruled that the…
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had violated inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights protecting them from cruel and unusual punishment. The Court upheld a lower court’s three-judge panel’s order to decrease the population of California’s prisons from approximately 156,000 inmates to 110,000 inmates. In addition, they determined that overcrowding was the cause of inmates’ inadequate medical and mental health care. As a result, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had to redistribute inmates and parolees to decrease the overall population to the mandated levels.
The state legislature responded to Brown v. Plata by passing a public safety realignment bill that put the onus of housing and rehabilitating prisoners on the counties, a mandate that had a profound ripple effect, not just on the future reforms, but in activists’ confidence that change can happen. Current events and protests have led us to discussions about doing away with qualified immunity, banning chokeholds, and creating more oversight of police; however, none of this happens without decades of activism by prisoners’ rights advocates, criminal justice reformers, and those fighting police abuse. Additionally, if not for dedicated and sustained activism, the public’s attitudes towards progressive change would not been softened so that a shift in opinion could happen.
The public’s evolution on criminal justice and policing is major, not just in depth but in mass. Most of the public supports reform. A nationwide July 2020 poll by Gallup found that 58% of American believe we need major changes in policing. Another 36% thinks that we need minor changes. Only 6% of the population supports the status quo. Add it up: 94% of Americans want some kind of change in policing, and most of the 94% desire major change.
The Gallup also measured support for specific reforms:
- Requiring officers to have good relations with the community: 97% support (77% strongly support).
- Changing management practices so officer abuses are punished: 96% support (76% strongly support).
- Changing management practices so officers with multiple incidents of abuse of power are not allowed to serve. 98% support (83 % strongly support).
- Promoting community-based alternatives such as violence intervention: 82% support (50% strongly support).
- Ending “stop and frisk”: 74% support (58% strongly support).
- Eliminating police unions: 56% support
- Eliminating officer enforcement of nonviolent crimes: 50% support this idea.
- Reducing police department funding and shifting the money to social programs: 47% support.
Though these stats come from only one poll, the findings are not surprising or unique. As with all surveys, the numbers will change over time, however, other polls and national trends point to growing support for criminal justice and police reform, not law & order. No matter how loud Trump tweets LAW & ORDER, he is in the small minority of Americans (6%) who believe that the status quo is A-OK. The majority of Americans want profound changes in how we deal with crime, particularly in the area of policing.
Over the next two months, Trump and the Republicans will try to bullshit-bury the public’s want for needed change. The right-wing will tell us that we are the 6%, a fringe that doesn’t understand the “heartland,” a gaggle of “coastal elitists” who “look down” on the “common sense” desires of “suburban housewives” and “decent, law-abiding Americans” – and every single word that they say will be a lie.
They will distort a peaceful protest movement by isolating and magnifying relatively rare incidents of property damage. Vandalism will be conflated with violence. They will attempt to sucker us in a debate over “proper protest,” when, in fact, any protest of Trump, abusive policing, and systemic racism is improper in their minds. They want us to turn on each other.
When we refuse to walk into their traps, they will attempt to shame us, claiming that we live in “bubbles” and only want “cancel culture.” When all that fails, they will make up things like AntifaAir, the mysterious plane piloting black clad anarchists, rioters, and looters to Democrat cities so that they can set them on fire. And, when we laugh at that craziness, Trump will threaten to cut federal funding to “anarchist jurisdictions.”
Do not think for a second that the idea of “anarchist jurisdictions” and AntifaAir is any less absurd than equating property damage with “militia” shooting BLM protesters or that civil unrest caused in part by Trump demands four more years of Trumpian “law & order” greatness. Every aspect of Trump and his cohorts’ authoritarian push is moronic, dangerous, and against the public will. Again, people who want progressive change are in the majority.
I emphasize this for one reason: To assert reality. How our desires translate to policy is very important, but to even get to the point where four out of seven police reform bills pass the California legislature, we must first know exactly where we stand. We must speak our stance loud and protect it from lies and distortions with the confidence of citizens who know that the majority of the country rejected Donald Trump in 2016 and Donald Trump and the GOP in 2018. That majority has only grown since. Polling backs that up, but so does common sense.
It is inconceivable that, even a country as fucked up as the United States, sees nearly 190,000 mostly preventable deaths from Trump’s inaction on the pandemic and says, “Cool, carry on!” Rejecting international cooperation on an international pandemic has almost no public support. Tens of millions out of work and small businesses folding every day in the hundreds isn’t a windfall for Make America Great Again Again. Tweet screaming “I NEVER SUFFERED A SERIES OF MINI-STROKES” unsolicited does not thrill the majority of Americans.
While it is tempting to focus on the 20% of the country who is either hateful, crazy, stupid, or a combo of all three, these people are little more than a very loud fringe. While we should not ignore the Trump cult, we cannot give them a greater presence in our minds than they have in reality. Turn down their volume knob and organize to mute their vision of America and Donald Trump.
Be confident that most Americans are good-hearted, clear-thinking people who suffer from the jitters, worry far too much, and underestimate their power. I know that this is not a popular notion, but it pretty much is one in line with what I see and what polls reveal. It in no way dismisses that the country has serious problems or that we need deep systemic change. Rather, I am asserting that we can change things. We have the numbers. What we need is the confidence that we can do it, the will to act, and the patience and persistence to keep in the struggle over the long haul. We must take off the gloves and fight.