Earl Ofari Hutchinson
May 25, 2021, came and passed with absolutely no sign that Congress would mark that day, the first anniversary of the George Floyd murder, with the passage of the police reform bill in his name. President Biden did not refer to getting passage of the bill on that date when he met with members of the Floyd family at the White House. The initial optimism that the bill would become law a year after Floyd’s murder has long since evaporated.
Now there are continued reports that Black South Carolina GOP Senator Tim Scott is the point man for the GOP in trying to broker some kind of compromise deal with Democrats to get Senate passage of the bill. On the surface, that looks promising. Scott and the GOP’s purported sticking points are the proposal to strip qualified immunity from police officers. This is the legal shield that bars lawsuits against cops who overuse deadly force. There are other issues such as putting a guideline of what’s a legally acceptable level of use of force and what can an officer be prosecuted for and on. The inference though is that these are hurdles that can be overcome through intense negotiation and compromise.
Assuming that the fifty senate Democrats hold ranks, it will take ten GOP senators to back the bill to get final passage. This, not legal nitpicking over this point or that point in the language of the bill, is the real problem.
The House passed the bill in March 2021. Not one Republican voted for it. In the months since then, not one GOP House member has budged from their opposition. If anything, the GOP position on police reform has hardened. The GOP’s absolute refusal to back any proposed commission to investigate the January 6 Capitol riots is a grave warning that the GOP has drawn a hard line on anything the Democrats propose that deal with law enforcement. With Fox News and the conservative media screaming that violent crime is surging, that police morale has plunged, and blaming Black Lives Matter for it, this almost certainly has further stiffened the GOP’s willingness to fight any measure that seems to undermine police power.
Expect the GOP to play even harder on the public fear that any diminishing of police authority will put the public in mortal jeopardy. They’ll fan the public terror of violent criminals running loose in the streets.
There’s more. The bill got muddied when Republicans and more than a few Democrats flatly warned that they would not support a bill that called for defunding the police. The perception that this was the Democrats’ aim was blamed for the defeat of a handful of Democrats in moderate swing districts in the presidential election. Democratic House leaders took great pains to assure that defunding the police had nothing to do with the Floyd bill.
President Biden during the presidential campaign and whenever he’s been asked about it since has repeatedly said that he does not back any measure to defund the police. The defunding of the police call has been yet another red flag that the GOP has waved to slur and discredit Black Lives Matter and counter any talk of police reform.
There’s one even more formidable hurdle: the police. Despite mountains of anti-police-abuse protests, demonstrations, civil disturbances, proposed state, and congressional police reform bills and measures — and even solemn pledges by police officials and unions to crack down on abusive officers — the record still stands that cops are nearly impossible to fire or discipline, let alone prosecute.
Police unions raise tons of money from their rank and file and a wide base of outside supporters. That money and power pack a wallop. They reward elected officials who tout them and punish elected officials who make even the mildest critical remarks about abusive police practices, by pumping lots of cash into their defeat. The unions ensure that city and county budgets are bloated with funding for police operations, weaponry, and massive numbers of personnel.
Police unions have been wildly successful in watering down, if not outright killing, many police reform measures in state legislatures. That includes those in even the most liberal, Democratic-controlled states, such as California. Police unions bank that their broad general support of the public on policing guarantees that reform efforts won’t go too far. Nowhere is this more telling than when it comes to prosecuting cops who blatantly overuse deadly force.
Since the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering Floyd, a number of Blacks and Latinos have been slain by police, as usual, under questionable circumstances. It’s almost as if the police are sending a hard message that the Chauvin conviction meant nothing and that we will make no change in the way we police Black and Latino communities.
As it now stands, there’s no timetable for getting Senate passage of the Floyd bill. The hope is that this is not an ominous sign for the bill’s fate.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is I Can’t Breathe—The Never-Ending George Floyds. (Middle Passage Press) He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. His political affairs commentaries can be found weekly on thehutchinsonreport.net.