President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday, the two-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, that he would sign an executive order promising to deliver the “most significant police reform in decades.” The president promised that the order would create a national database of police misconduct, strengthen pattern or practice investigations, and ban chokeholds for federal agencies.
“I’ve called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but Senate Republicans have stood in the way of progress,” Biden said in a tweet. “That’s why this afternoon, I’m taking action and signing an Executive Order that delivers the most significant police reform in decades.”
Floyd, a Black father, died in police custody on May 25, 2020, after being pinned under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for more than nine minutes. Chauvin was convicted of murder, his heinous crime captured on witness video.
It sparked protests throughout the country and added a devastating emphasis on the need for criminal justice reform. Another recent tragedy renewed calls for action that Black activists have been sounding for decades.
A white man who authorities suspect intentionally targeted a grocery store in a majority Black community killed 10 people at that store last weekend having touted the white supremacist “great replacement” theory. It claims, laughably and without regard for historical proof of the inverse, that white people are being driven out of the country by people of color. So the gunman, identified as 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron, allegedly drove more than 200 miles from his hometown of Conklin to terrorize this Black community—a community that, it’s worth noting, had to advocate for years to even get a supermarket.
The Center for Policing Equity, a research center focusing on equity and inclusiveness in policing, asked in a statement responding to the shooting:
“Can we even imagine a nation that devotes as much time and capital to remedying racist terrorism as it does to ensuring the right to further it? We must look beyond today’s language of consolation to see what those in power are actually doing. Offers of prayer made even while removing protections is a promise of faith without works. It is a spiritual death that leads directly to Black death.”
Gendron was arrested and will have his day in court, but white men convicted of crimes ranging in seriousness from gun possession to murder have not been the primary focus of prosecutors historically. That badge of dishonor is forced upon Black people.
While 53% of the 128 mass shootings in this country tracked by the data company Statista were carried out by white shooters, Black shooters only accounted for 16%. Still, white people convicted of murder only made up 29% of total murder offenders tracked by the FBI in 2019. Black people accounted for nearly 40%.
Republicans would have you believe that such a disparity means Black people are simply more dangerous, but the experts observing disparities across the board in the criminal justice arena know better.
White people convicted of federal firearms crimes only accounted for 30% of defendants in a 2021 report from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization targeting equity. Forty-nine percent of federal firearms defendants were Black.
Dr. Jonathan Metzl, author of “Dying of Whiteness,” told the Kansas City Star there was “certainly a racial politics on who got to carry a gun.”
“There were African American men who tried to open carry and would get attacked or shot,” Metzl said. “They’re seen as criminals.”
Darrell Hargraves told the newspaper he’s always believed in the Second Amendment right to bear arms. He said he felt “betrayed” when he was arrested for carrying a firearm having formerly been convicted of a robbery. Hargraves said he grew up surrounded by gun violence, so he carried a gun for protection. He said he had turned his life around, starting a remodeling business in 2009, and he was actually arrested in 2018 while working on a property.
“I do understand there are individuals that regardless of race are harming people,” Hargraves told the Kansas City Star. “My problem lies … in unfairness, the unfairness in sentencing, the unfairness in prison, the unfairness in not assessing the overall situation.”
In the Kansas City Star article published on Tuesday, the newspaper’s analysis of federal crime and sentencing data revealed that while Black people accounted for only 12% of the state’s population, they accounted for 81% of those convicted in the Eastern court jurisdiction of illegally possessing firearms over the last seven years. For the Western District, that number was 54%.
Don Ledford, a spokesman for the Western District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told the Kansas City Star that race does not factor into prosecutorial decision-making or sentencing recommendations. “Therefore, we don’t track defendants or cases on that criteria,” Ledford said.
That is precisely the problem.
Attorneys for the Brennan Center for Justice wrote in a 2007 report on racial disparities in federal prosecutions that disparities exist at “every stage of the criminal justice system.” “African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be arrested than white citizens, more likely to be charged once arrested, and more likely to be convicted and imprisoned once charged,” attorneys wrote for the nonprofit.
The report details the recommendations of 12 former prosecutors, many of whom had served as U.S. Attorneys, for the Department of Justice. “Prosecutors should consider racial and ethnic disparate impacts when setting priorities and should partner with law enforcement to eliminate racial and ethnic bias in charging practices,” they wrote in one recommendation. They detailed others that include prosecutors leading equity task forces, collecting data on systemic disparities, and training law enforcement officers to eliminate racial bias. “Prosecutors should support sentencing policy reforms designed to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the federal criminal justice system,” the legal experts wrote in another recommendation.
Those recommendations weren’t adopted 15 years ago. Since then, Republicans have blocked the passage of the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would have earlier banned no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and racial and religious profiling as well as establishing a national database to monitor police misconduct.
The National Urban League, a civil rights and advocacy organization, tweeted about Biden’s announcement:
“While a limited exec. order is no substitute for the broad federal legislation we’ve sought, it represents a measure of meaningful change & a critical acknowledgment of the pervasive systemic racism that has shattered the trust btwn police and communities of color.”
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