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Why Goodwin Liu Should Be California’s Next Attorney General

The California Supreme Court Justice is motivated not by politics but by making equal justice under the law a reality for all Californians.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Why Goodwin Liu Should Be California’s Next Attorney General

The California Supreme Court Justice is motivated not by politics but by making equal justice under the law a reality for all Californians.

I was sent to juvenile hall for the first time when I was around 14 years old and ended up being incarcerated for a total of 27 years. Starting in 2015 and since my release in 2018, I have documented the experiences of people in California’s prisons and life after incarceration in the podcast Ear Hustle. Many people close to me are in prison, and I, like all Californians, care about public safety. It should come as no surprise, then, that I have a strong opinion about Governor Gavin Newsom’s pick for California’s next attorney general.  

I urge Governor Newsom to appoint California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. He is the strongest candidate to lead the state’s Department of Justice. 

Justice Liu is the right person to be attorney general because he is motivated not by politics but by making equal justice under the law a reality for all Californians. When Justice Liu is required to apply an unjust law, he has the moral courage to address it frankly, as when he recently criticized the expense and injustice of California’s capital punishment system and called on voters and lawmakers to find a better path forward.

I met Justice Liu in 2017 in the media center at San Quentin where I was incarcerated.  He was visiting the prison with his staff. He takes them to San Quentin every year to meet with prison staff and incarcerated people because he believes decisionmakers should put themselves in close proximity to people impacted by their decisions.

I was deeply moved that a busy judge took seriously the obligation to understand the impact of his decisions, and modeled that attitude for his clerks and staff. And I was reminded of this recently when he invited me and John “Yahya” Johnson, another formerly incarcerated person, to speak to California Supreme Court attorneys and staff. He did not invite us as a gesture or performance; he really wanted to hear from us.  

This does not mean I have agreed with every decision Justice Liu has made on the bench. He has voted to affirm death penalty and Three Strikes sentences, which I find inherently unjust. It was because of the Three Strikes Law that I received a disproportionate 31-years-to-life term for attempted second degree robbery, and I was released after serving 21 years only when Governor Brown commuted my sentence. So I expect I will not agree with every decision Justice Liu might make as an attorney general.

But Justice Liu has been the California Supreme Court’s leading voice on racial justice and criminal justice reform. He called out abusive policing in Black communities last year in a case about Darren Burley, a Black man in Los Angeles who was suffocated to death during an arrest long before George Floyd. And Liu spoke out in defense of a 13-year-old Black girl last month who was charged with resisting police. He has written opinions that curb excessive sentencing and facilitate parole. He has denounced the erosion of Miranda rights, particularly those of children, inspiring lawmakers to enact stronger protections for juveniles in law enforcement custody. And he has criticized the school-to-prison pipeline and racial discrimination in jury selection—opinions that again prompted the legislature to act

When he ran for office in 2018, Governor Newsom promised to lead on criminal justice reform. Appointing Justice Liu as attorney general would fulfill that promise, and the governor would be rewarded by an electorate that has repeatedly shown its appetite for addressing the many unjust and unsustainable features of our current system.

More than most people, I know the importance of having a good attorney. All of us would be fortunate to have Justice Liu represent us as our state’s top lawyer.

Earlonne Woods is the co-creator and co-host of the award-winning podcast Ear Hustle, which has been downloaded nearly 50 million times.

Gavin Newsom’s High-Stakes Choice For California Attorney General

By appointing a reformer to replace the outgoing Xavier Becerra, Newsom has the chance to begin dismantling a sprawling, bloated system of prisons and jails that incarcerated nearly a quarter-million people as of 2018.

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gavin Newsom’s High-Stakes Choice For California Attorney General

By appointing a reformer to replace the outgoing Xavier Becerra, Newsom has the chance to begin dismantling a sprawling, bloated system of prisons and jails that incarcerated nearly a quarter-million people as of 2018.

California Governor Gavin Newsom may soon be charged with hand-picking the next chief law enforcement officer of the most populous state in the country.

President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Xavier Becerra, a longtime congressman who became the state’s attorney general in 2017, to serve as the administration’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. In the aftermath of the Democratic victories in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs, it seems likely the Senate will confirm Becerra sometime in the coming weeks.

Like many Democratic attorneys general, Becerra spent most of the last four years dealing with the Trump administration’s myriad attacks on people, democracy, and/or the planet. Among the initiatives Becerra’s office opposed in the courtroom were the president’s efforts to build a border wall, undermine California’s cap-and-trade program, implement a Muslim ban, hollow out the Affordable Care Act, limit reproductive rights, and end the DACA program in which hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people participate. His office has spent at least $43 million to sue the Trump administration more than 100 times. 

Without an overtly hostile federal government to deal with, Becerra’s replacement will have a considerable amount of time and resources to dedicate elsewhere—and a real chance to overhaul a sprawling, bloated system of prisons and jails that incarcerates more people than any state not named Texas.

Becerra will leave office with a spotty record on issues of police misconduct and accountability. Although he voiced support for some reforms after the police killing of George Floyd in May, he declined to investigate the police killing of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa, who was shot to death in June by Vallejo police officers who purportedly mistook a hammer at his waistband for a gun. A month later, Becerra backtracked slightly, saying he’d look into allegations that members of the notoriously violent department had destroyed evidence related to Monterrosa’s death, but not their substantive role in causing it. In 2019, Becerra’s office declined to file charges against two Sacramento police officers who shot 22-year-old Stephon Clark at least seven times in his grandmother’s backyard, killing him. Police said they thought an object he held in his hand was a gun; it was, in fact, a cell phone. 

Becerra also made headlines for fighting to conceal information about police misconduct, despite a state law that took effect in 2019 that specifically required him to make some of this information available for public disclosure. He even threatened a pair of journalists with legal consequences unless they destroyed a list of thousands of cops across the state who have been convicted of various crimes—a list the reporters obtained via a public records request. (Becerra’s office insisted that its inclusion was an accident; the list, according to KQED, identified officers who stole from their departments, filed false reports, committed perjury, and even one who donned a fake beard to rob a bank.) Spending by law enforcement-affiliated organizations on Becerra’s 2018 re-election campaign—a reliable barometer of a prosecutor’s bona fides as a reformer—exceeded $200,000.

In California’s rapidly shifting political landscape, however, traditional prosecutorial politics aren’t playing as well as they used to, as voters look for leadership from DAs who understand that the tasks of keeping people safe and putting people in prison are not synonymous with one another. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, recently-elected district attorneys George Gascón and Chesa Boudin ran for office on explicitly pro-reform platforms, defeating incumbents whose performances were insufficiently progressive for their constituents’ liking. In Contra Costa County, Diana Becton was appointed as the district attorney in 2017 and re-elected to a full term the following year. Becton, Boudin, Gascón, and San Joaquin County DA Tori Verber Salazar recently formed the Prosecutors Alliance of California as a progressive counterpart to the California District Attorneys Association. Together, its members represent four counties that are home to about a third of the state’s population.

Voters are also increasingly receptive to policy ideas that treat courtrooms as more than a system for meting out punishment. In 2020, Los Angeles paired the election of Gascón with the passage of Measure J, requiring the county to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to housing, mental health treatment, and other social services while prohibiting officials from spending that money on policing or incarceration. In San Francisco, voters chipped away at the power of the police department by repealing an archaic law that prescribed a minimum size for the city’s police force. Statewide, Californians restored the franchise to people convicted of felonies who are on parole, and rejected a proposition that would have boosted incarceration by reclassifying certain misdemeanors as felonies. Although they rejected an effort to replace cash bail with a controversial “risk assessment” system, reformers continue to explore alternatives to a cruel, regressive system in which one’s ability to get out of jail before trial is contingent on wealth. 

Lawmakers have certainly taken notice of this trend. The new attorney general will take office with Assembly Bill 1506, which requires state prosecutors to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians, now in effect. Already, legislators are working on another bill that would make it easier to revoke the certifications of police officers who are convicted of serious crimes or fired for misconduct, thereby preventing them from getting hired elsewhere. Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, wants to see the new attorney general embrace this legislative push for transparency. “We’re hopeful the governor will select someone that’s up for that challenge and opportunity,” she said.

Historically, candidates for state attorney general have been less ambitious would-be reformers than candidates for local prosecutor, since conventional wisdom dictates that winning a statewide race requires appealing to a broader and more ideologically diverse electorate than, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles. But given the demands for change from both lawmakers and the voters who elect them, the power to appoint Becerra’s successor allows Newsom to temporarily solve for this lingering electoral skittishness, expanding the reform movement’s visibility and viability outside of the more traditional bastions of progressivism. In a state that incarcerated nearly a quarter-million people as of 2018, the prospect of long-overdue criminal justice reform should not be attainable only in those counties where progressive DAs already happen to work.   

Newsom’s choice will also reveal a lot about his priorities as he eyes re-election, since his appointee, presumably, will appear alongside him on the ballot in 2022. Among those rumored to be in the mix are U.S. representatives Ted Lieu, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Eric Swalwell; state lawmakers Rob Bonta, Lorena Gonzalez, and Scott Wiener; Becton, the Contra Costa County DA; San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg; and Goodwin Liu, an Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court. Although the federal lawmakers are perhaps the biggest names, given the narrow Democratic majority in the House, Newsom would have to think hard about picking an attorney general who would create a congressional vacancy, especially in a purple district like Porter’s. (Two of Biden’s nominees, Marcia Fudge to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Deb Haaland to the Department of the Interior, are also members of Congress, but sit in safe Democratic districts unlikely to flip.)

Some members of the state’s criminal justice reform community have already voiced their support for Becton, a former state court judge, pointing to her track record of pushing for changes to the juvenile justice system, among other things. “She’s shown a desire to engage in criminal justice reform in meaningful ways for the people who need it most,” says Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, who represents parts of Becton’s Contra Costa County. 

Others have singled out Liu as especially well-suited for the job in this particular political environment. Writing in the Sacramento Bee, UC Berkeley School of Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky calls Liu “the court’s leading voice on criminal justice reform,” noting that several of his opinions spurred state lawmakers to address racial discrimination in jury selection, expand the availability of Miranda rights for juveniles, and reform the availability of post-conviction relief for people convicted of crimes based on false evidence. 

Newsom’s choice of a new attorney general is also important because of how frequently the office serves as a springboard to bigger things for its occupants. His predecessor, Jerry Brown, began his second tenure as governor after serving as attorney general from 2007 to 2011; Becerra’s predecessor, Kamala Harris, won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2016 and, of course, became Vice President of the United States four years after that. (If you want to go back even further, Earl Warren went on to serve as governor for a decade and, after that, as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.) By replacing Becerra as attorney general with a proven, committed reformer, Newsom would seize a golden opportunity to meaningfully address mass incarceration and the policing crisis that fuels it—and perhaps empower his appointee to be even more impactful in the not-so-distant future.

CORRECTION: This commentary originally misstated the number of active DACA recipients in the United States. There were around 645,000 as of June 30, 2020, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

They Took Umbrellas to a Black Lives Matter Protest. The D.A. Hit Them with Gang Charges

Police and prosecutors routinely treat white domestic terrorists with kid gloves, but use the full force of the law against protesters calling for an end to police violence against Black people.

(Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

They Took Umbrellas to a Black Lives Matter Protest. The D.A. Hit Them with Gang Charges

Police and prosecutors routinely treat white domestic terrorists with kid gloves, but use the full force of the law against protesters calling for an end to police violence against Black people.

In Washington, D.C., members of a pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol and killed a police officer are so far being charged mainly with disorderly conduct and unlawful entry. The man photographed with his feet on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk faces three charges that carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison. After the violent siege, some members of the mob simply returned to their hotel.

Many were quick to point out an apparent double standard when compared to the way police in D.C. treated Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer—like when they tear gassed protesters to clear the way for a Trump photo op, or when row upon row of National Guard troops stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in anticipation of the sixth day of George Floyd protests. A similar double standard is now on display in Arizona.

In Maricopa County, 15 people who attended a Black Lives Matter protest where traffic cones were knocked down are being charged with rioting, aggravated assault, and assisting in a criminal street gang, all serious felonies that could land them in prison for decades. The gang charges are based only on the fact that the group carried umbrellas, wore black, and used the phrase “all cops are bastards.” The 15 Black Lives Matter protesters were forcibly arrested on the night of the protest. One was shot with pepper bullets; another spent two weeks in jail.

The 15 protesters are facing serious consequences. They now have an arrest for serious felonies on their records. They’re living with the specter of prison hanging over them. Some are spending money on lawyers to fight the charges. They could spend years in prison and could suffer all the collateral consequences of having a criminal record, which makes it harder to obtain jobs, housing, and some government assistance. And if convicted of a felony, they would lose the ability to vote.

“It’s outrageous,” said Paul Gattone, an attorney for three of the protesters. “I was shocked when I came on the case and saw they had charged them with organized street gang activity. They are trying to say that ACAB is an organization like the Crips and the Bloods, that they have an organization and they’re prone to violence. This is not an organization. These are just individuals that came together to protest.”

It's hard to come away with any other realization than public safety isn't likely the driving principle of policing in America.Jared Keenan, ACLU

But when a large group of armed far-right protesters descended upon the Maricopa County Elections Office night after night in November to “stop the steal,” the police presence was noticeably less intense. No tear gas was deployed and no arrests were made. The group included Infowars host Alex Jones, U.S. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Jake Angeli, who was seen wearing a fur hat, horns, and no shirt during the storming of the Capitol that resulted in the deaths of five people. Angeli, whose real name is Jacob Anthony Chansley, has since been arrested and faces unlawful entry and disorderly conduct charges.

“Throughout the summer and into more recent anti-lockdown and election protests,” said Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, “it became shockingly clear that the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the police are going to take two different approaches to protesters that they view as their political enemies and those who they have sympathy toward.”

It’s a pattern that has played out across the country. Time and again, police and prosecutors have treated white, right-wing protesters with kid gloves, but responded to Black Lives Matter protesters with the full force of the law. In D.C., a police officer posed for selfies, others shook hands with a member of the mob. At least 28 current law enforcement officers even attended the rally that sparked the invasion of the Capitol. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, where people were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, officers were filmed giving water to armed militia members, including Kyle Rittenhouse, and saying, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” Moments later, Rittenhouse killed two people. Last week, an Iowa man who deliberately drove into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters and injured several people was given a deferred judgment, meaning he will serve no prison time and the arrest will be expunged from his record, so long as he does not commit any more crimes in the next three years.

Meanwhile, police were caught on video after video this summer violently attacking peaceful Black Lives Matter activists: Officers shot multiple people in the eye, leaving several blinded in one eye. They pushed an old man down to the ground with such force that he bled from his ears, and rammed vehicles into protesters. In New York, two lawyers who allegedly set fire to an empty NYPD cruiser during a Black Lives Matter protest are facing life in prison—and a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 years—because federal prosecutors chose to seek such a sentence. Prosecutors in Utah also raised the threat of life in prison against Black Lives Matter protesters in Salt Lake City who allegedly smashed windows and put red paint on the district attorney’s office.

“In Phoenix, local police muster overwhelming numbers to quash Black assembly, censor Black activism, and criminalize Black leaders with mere hours of notice before a peaceful protest,” said Lola N’sangou, executive director of Mass Liberation Arizona. “But in D.C., with weeks to prepare, local police sat idly by as the violent crowd scaled walls to occupy the Capitol building.”

On Oct. 17, about 20 people gathered in downtown Phoenix to march for justice for victims of police violence. The group was made up mostly of young people, including three 17-year-olds, an honors student from Arizona State University, and a Harvard student. The group marched down the streets of Phoenix chanting “Black lives matter.” Some of the protesters moved traffic cones and signs into the middle of the street. Some carried umbrellas, which protesters have used to protect themselves from tear gas and projectiles.

Eventually, police officers donning helmets and bulletproof vests closed in on the group. With a weapon drawn, an officer told them to get on the ground, which they did. Police ripped away the umbrellas. Dozens of officers surrounded the protesters, video footage shows. Police handcuffed the kneeling protesters, yanked them to their feet, and put them in the back of cruisers. Police used pepper bullets on at least one of the protesters.

In arrest forms, police officers said the protesters belonged to “a group known as ACAB All Cops Are Bastards.” Police said some of the group members threw smoke devices. They submitted charges for felony aggravated assault on a police officer (one protester allegedly dug his nails into one officer’s left thumb while being arrested), obstructing a public thoroughfare, hindering prosecution, unlawful assembly, and rioting.

The case was assigned to the first responder bureau, which was established by Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel after she took office and handles crimes against first responders. The bureau was created with the help of former Phoenix police officer Tom Van Dorn. The lead prosecutor on the case, April Sponsel, is married to an Arizona state trooper. Sponsel brought gang charges against the protesters, in addition to many of the charges submitted by police.

Last month, Sponsel filed motions to allege at least six aggravating circumstances against the protesters, which enhances the criminal penalties the protesters will face if convicted. Prosecutors allege that the protesters committed offenses that “involved the infliction or threatened infliction of serious injury,” involved the use or possession of a deadly weapon, “specifically umbrella and/or smoke bombs,” and wore a mask during the offense.

While police and prosecutors claim the protesters are part of a gang called “ACAB,” protesters and their attorneys say many of the people who attended the Oct. 17 protest didn’t even know each other.

“The only person at the protest who I previously knew was my boyfriend,” one of the protesters, Amy Kaper, said in an affidavit submitted to the court. “I had no contact by and through social media, texting, or in any other manner with any of the protesters before that evening.” Kaper is a healthcare worker studying to get her master’s degree and has no criminal record, according to the affidavit. Her boyfriend was also arrested. 

Ryan Tait, a defense attorney who represents one of the protesters and previously worked for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said that he and his client strongly dispute the gang charges. “Assisting a criminal street gang is a charge that enhances a sentence,” Tait said. “It has serious consequences. It puts you in a category” where the penalties are enhanced and opportunities for a reduced sentence are cut.

“Ryder is a nurse who lives in Prescott who has never been a member of a gang, is not a member of a gang, and does not know anyone who is involved in this case,” attorney Katie Gipson-McLean said of her client, Ryder Collins. “He didn’t go downtown to participate in the protest, nor did he participate in any protest. He’s an amateur photographer, which is what brought him downtown that day.”

In a statement, the county attorney’s office said the prosecution was not political and that it supports everyone’s First Amendment rights, but “will not allow violence to take over our streets.” 

“While some will attempt to describe these defendants as ‘protestors,’ a grand jury found probable cause to charge this group with crimes, including the planning of violence,” the MCAO said. “As County Attorney Adel has publicly stated numerous times, MCAO is committed to protecting the safety of everyone in this community, law enforcement and demonstrators alike.”

After the deaths of George Floyd and Dion Johnson, who was killed by an Arizona state trooper last May, Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched in the streets of Phoenix to demand justice and change. During the first four nights of protests in Phoenix, police arrested nearly 350 people, including four undocumented people who then faced deportation. Police used tear gas and non-lethal projectiles on protesters, in one case breaking a man’s arm. They targeted protest leaders and accused them of committing crimes the activists say they did not commit. Local police have surveilled police reform activists and victims of police violence in Maricopa County, but have not extended the same monitoring to far-right groups.

Last week, Adel’s office declined to bring charges against the Phoenix police officer who threatened to shoot Mayor Kate Gallego, stating that they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer’s statements constituted a true threat. According to a police report, Officer Steve Poulos, a 22-year veteran with the department, said “If the mayor defunds the police, I’m going to shoot her.” When his sergeant told Poulos he was not going to shoot the mayor, Poulos doubled down on his threat. “That’s a promise,” he reportedly said.

“Overall, when you look at the way police and prosecutors have reacted to people protesting government killing of black and brown people—the mob was not treated by police the same way at that time,” said Jared Keenan with the ACLU. “It’s hard to come away with any other realization than public safety isn’t likely the driving principle of policing in America.” 

Several of the defendants have been offered plea deals, but it’s unlikely any will take it. According to an attorney familiar with the case, the plea requires the defendants to plead guilty to two felony offenses, including the street gang charge. In Arizona, those charges cannot be expunged or later downgraded to a misdemeanor, and if they ever got in trouble with the law again, they’d be put in a higher sentencing category with harsher penalties.

Some of the defendants have trials set for early March and April, though that date is likely to be pushed back as their attorneys fight the charges against them. 

“We cannot remain silent when the disparate impact of our criminal punishment machine is laid bare,” said N’sangou from Mass Liberation. “In 2020, peaceful protesters were criminalized by the thousands merely for calling to end generations of police violence. But in the first week of 2021, we watched a violent insurrection breach the halls of Congress with almost no opposition.”

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated Tom Van Dorn’s relationship to the First Responders Bureau. Van Dorn helped create it, but now oversees the agency’s Investigations Bureau and the Public Safety Liaison Team, which reviews police shootings and in-custody deaths. Sherry Leckrone leads the First Responders Bureau.

What Traffic Enforcement Without Police Could Look Like

Because traffic stops all too often escalate into deadly incidents, calls have grown to disentangle traffic enforcement from police—and a measure to do so has already passed in Berkeley, California.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.)

What Traffic Enforcement Without Police Could Look Like

Because traffic stops all too often escalate into deadly incidents, calls have grown to disentangle traffic enforcement from police—and a measure to do so has already passed in Berkeley, California.

Traffic stops are the most common way people come into contact with police, and those encounters can often turn deadly. A Minnesota police officer pulled over Philando Castile for a broken taillight, then shot at him seven times when Castile tried to provide the officer with his license and registration, killing him. A Texas state trooper pulled over Sandra Bland for not signaling when she changed lanes. Three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. A New Jersey state trooper pulled Maurice Gordon over for speeding, then shot him six times, killing him.

In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there have been more calls to rethink America’s reliance on police as a cure-all to societal issues they are ill-equipped to deal with. Some cities are beginning to reconsider requiring armed officers to also play the parts of homeless services worker, mental health and substance use counselor, school safety agent, security guard, and traffic enforcer. 

In November, San Francisco launched a program to send behavioral health and medical professionals instead of police to respond to 911 calls involving nonviolent people experiencing mental health crises or substance use issues. The Seattle City Council voted to disband a team of police and outreach workers tasked with responding to homeless people and instead reinvest the team’s funding in community programs to help the homeless. In Portland, Oregon, the mayor and superintendent agreed to remove police officers from the city’s schools and put the $1 million budgeted for school resource officers back into the community. And in Austin, Texas, the City Council voted to cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget to open a family violence shelter and fund violence prevention programs, housing services, substance use and mental healthcare services, and more. The council intends to shrink the department’s budget and responsibilities even further by civilianizing many of its current duties, like dispatch and forensics.

Of all the functions that could be separated from the police department, one of the most significant would be the removal of traffic enforcement. Over 24 million people each year come into contact with police during a traffic stop, according to data from the Department of Justice. And traffic stops can be especially dangerous and discriminatory for people of color: Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers, and as much as twice as likely to be searched, according to a study of 100 million traffic stops conducted by the Stanford Open Policing Project. And 11 percent of all fatal shootings by police in 2015 occurred during traffic stops, according to a Washington Post database of police killings.

“It’s one of the most common ways we see policing situations unfold into disturbing and scary consequences for over-policed communities,” said Jordan Blair Woods, a criminologist and legal scholar at the University of Arkansas School of Law. That’s why, Woods said, it’s important to consider ways to provide a non-police alternative to traffic enforcement.

In an article in Stanford Law Review, Woods puts forth a framework for how local governments can disentangle traffic enforcement from the police department. Under the framework, local governments would reassign most traffic enforcement to separate traffic agencies that are independent from the police department. The agencies would employ unarmed monitors to enforce traffic laws, though exceptions would be made for violations that involve certain crimes that police would still investigate, like hit-and-runs or driving a stolen vehicle. Traffic agencies would also handle any automated traffic enforcement, taking the responsibility to review red light cameras and issue tickets away from the police.

Under the proposed framework, police would no longer be able to make routine stops for minor traffic violations, like speeding or failing to signal. This would mean tens of millions of stops that are conducted each year would be carried out by unarmed traffic monitors, rather than armed police officers who have escalated benign situations to the point of death time and again. Police wouldn’t be able to pull over men like Phil Colbert, who was driving to get lunch with his dad when an Arizona police officer tailed him for 10 minutes, then pulled him over, interrogated him, and demanded to search his vehicle—all for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.

The traffic monitors would not be able to detain, search, or arrest people like police can, and wouldn’t conduct criminal investigations—they would simply enforce traffic laws by conducting stops and issuing citations. Monitors could, in limited circumstances, request police assistance when they uncover a more serious offense, like a DUI, while making a stop. This proposal wouldn’t bar police from conducting felony vehicle stops if they had sufficient evidence that the vehicle was involved in non-traffic related felonies, like robbing a bank, nor would it stop police from being able to investigate crimes that jurisdictions deem serious traffic offenses, like ones that pose imminent harm to people.

“What we have now is a system where traffic enforcement has really been co-opted for criminal enforcement, even though we know from empirical data traffic stops aren’t really good for crime control like drug or weapon interdiction,” Woods said.

Although any proposal to limit the power of police is bound to draw pushback, particularly from powerful police unions, Woods posits that leaving traffic enforcement to monitors would actually benefit police by freeing up their time and resources to concentrate on serious criminal investigations, like rape and murder, and improving public perceptions of police. 

Removing police from traffic enforcement may sound revolutionary, but it’s not unattainable—the city of Berkeley, California, has already passed a proposal to do so. The proposal, passed in July, calls for the creation of a department of transportation (BerkDOT) to shift traffic and parking enforcement away from the Berkeley Police Department. Unarmed BerkDOT agents would instead be responsible for carrying out traffic stops, though the details and funding still need to be ironed out. 

“If we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on Americans’ most common interaction with law enforcement—traffic stops,” Rigel Robinson, the Berkeley City Council member who proposed the initiative, said on Twitter. “Driving while Black shouldn’t be a crime.”

Proposals similar to the one passed by Berkeley were explored in Cambridge, Massachusetts; St. Louis Park, Minnesota; and Montgomery County, Maryland, last year. Elsewhere, bills have been proposed that would bar police from pulling people over for minor traffic infractions, like tinted windows, faulty brake lights, or dangling air fresheners. New York’s attorney general recommended that the NYPD stop handling traffic stops. And in 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., moved the city’s automated traffic enforcement away from the jurisdiction of the police department to the Department of Transportation. 

“The goal is to make traffic stops about traffic,” Woods said of the move to decouple traffic enforcement from police. “And in doing that, address the disparity we currently have in traffic enforcement, disparities that can lead to people of color losing their lives.”

Democrats’ Win in Georgia Shows What Voters Really Want From Government

It’s time for political leaders, no matter their party, to listen to voters—and provide financial relief from the pandemic.

Voters enter a polling station at the Zion Baptist Church on Jan. 5 in Marietta, Georgia.
(Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

Democrats’ Win in Georgia Shows What Voters Really Want From Government

It’s time for political leaders, no matter their party, to listen to voters—and provide financial relief from the pandemic.

The thing about quarantine is that it’s expensive. Rent was still due. Medicines didn’t cost any less. Grocery bills probably rose, and with schools closed there were most likely more meals to put on the table. And for many people, the COVID-19 pandemic meant income disappeared. Ordinary people felt the cost of quarantine; the same cannot be said for Republicans in Congress.

The urgent need for more aid—delivered regularly as long as the pandemic lasts—made the outcome of Tuesday’s contest in Georgia feel obvious. People are hurting. A $600 check, nine months after a $1,200 relief payment is an insufficient lifeline for many. Republicans, led in the Senate by Mitch McConnell, heard people asking for help and still refused to offer enough cash to keep American families afloat. This meant that, in the closing days of the Georgia runoff, the election became in many ways a referendum on whether more direct payments would be coming. 

We elect our government, ostensibly, to work for us. To ensure we have access to basic services and infrastructure, to fight for fairness, and, yes, to protect us from harm. After four years of watching our government largely do the opposite—inflicting immeasurable damage and abandoning principles of fairness while methodically destroying basic infrastructure—it’s easy to forget what government is really for. Four years of public malfeasance can instill a feeling that being not just abandoned but often actively harmed by our elected officials is inevitable. When we feel divided and alienated, we doubt the enforceability of even our most basic rights.

Despite our apparent division, recent polls showed that people on the left and right were quite unified about wanting their government to do more to alleviate the financial pain of the pandemic. Americans overwhelmingly supported larger relief payments, with 81 percent of likely voters wanting $2,000 checksincluding 80 percent of Republicansand nearly two-thirds in favor of monthly payments.

This polling turns the common narrative about progressive Democrats on its head. Although the policies of Senator Bernie Sanders and “The Squad” are often described as fringe or extreme, their position on large stimulus payments is in line with the opinion of most Americans. 

People are hurting, and they not only want but need their government (which they’ve been funding out of their own pockets year after year) to give something back. When the government failed to do so, many people didn’t have a hard time identifying who was responsible for that failure: Senate Republicans and, specifically, McConnell. It was McConnell and his Republican supporters who took a position wildly out of step with the stated desires of the American people. Try as they might to cast themselves as middle of the road, these Republicans were, in fact, acting as extremists, in conflict even with their own president. It’s hard to imagine people more out of touch than those who ignored public demand for aid. 

Now that Democrats have most likely won both Senate seats in Georgia, there is hope that Congress can do something for the people who have been hurting. The last four years have given many the impression that the American public is easily duped—that leaders can harm those they have promised to protect while claiming the mantle of heroes. That what those in power actually do once elected no longer matters if they are skilled enough at lying. This election showed that the people aren’t so readily fooled anymore. There was a policy at issue—relief payments—and the people overwhelmingly wanted one thing but watched their elected leaders do the opposite. Those Republican candidates are now set to be booted out of office; even though they belatedly got behind larger relief checks, they were carrying the intransigent McConnell as a liability rather than a standard-bearer. 

Moving forward, as Democrats ascend to power, there are many lessons to be taken from Georgia. One quiet but essential takeaway is especially vital, though: We can no longer play by traditional party-line rules and must move more boldly into the world of big ideas. When you ask people for their party affiliation, the answer might not give you a clear sense of what they really want out of their government. In this recent polling, we saw self-declared Republicans nationwide taking a position more in line with Sanders than McConnell. Elected officials who stick to outdated models of party-line policy and don’t remain rooted in the public mood also risk losing their footing. But those who listen to what their constituents are asking for—even if those requests are big—will be rewarded by a more enthusiastic voter base. People will vote on the issues that keep them up at night, the issues that make them grip the steering wheel a little harder and worry about their kids. They don’t care if these problems are hard to solve, or require creative, unprecedented solutions. They are looking for leaders who are uninterested in traditional, lazy platitudes and half-truths. Leaders driven by the real challenges American families face. 

It shouldn’t be groundbreaking to point out that voters are firing politicians who refuse to follow the will of the people. But in 2021, this feels like a vital and important milestone. We are moving out of years of degradation, and toward a new future in which the challenges to come will require leaders bold enough to meet them. 

Emily Galvin-Almanza is co-founder and executive director of Partners for Justice, a program focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration. She is also a senior legal analyst at The Appeal and an anchor of “The Appeal Live.” You can follow her on Twitter at @GalvinAlmanza.

Sean McElwee is a co-founder and the executive director of Data for Progress. You can follow him on Twitter at @Sean McElwee.

Ethan Winter is an analyst at Data for Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @EthanBWinter.

The Future of Voting Rights Is at Stake in the Georgia Runoffs

By winning a narrow majority in the upper chamber, Democrats could at last stop the Republican assault on voting rights—if its centrist members have the courage to do so.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, wave to the crowd during an outdoor drive-in rally on Dec. 5 in Conyers, Georgia.
(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The Future of Voting Rights Is at Stake in the Georgia Runoffs

By winning a narrow majority in the upper chamber, Democrats could at last stop the Republican assault on voting rights—if its centrist members have the courage to do so.

The presidential election is over and Donald Trump’s term is sputtering to an ignominious end, but whether the federal government can do anything of significance after he leaves the White House remains very much in doubt. Republicans are one seat away from maintaining control of the U.S. Senate, and it is a safe bet that another two years of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership would render all but the most anodyne planks of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda irrelevant. Since no Georgia Senate candidate won a majority of the vote on Election Day, the fate of the Democratic agenda now rests on a pair of winner-take-all runoffs between two Republican incumbents and their Democratic challengers: Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock in one race, and David Perdue and Jon Ossoff in the other. 

The stakes could not be higher: A Democratic sweep would yield an evenly divided Senate of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties, this split would unify the House, Senate, and White House under Democratic control—albeit by the slimmest of margins. Just nine weeks after Biden managed to win Georgia by a mere 12,000 votes, polling shows that the runoffs, too, are very, very close. As money pours into the state, some observers believe that ad spending alone could eclipse half a billion dollars by Election Day, Jan. 5, making these among the most expensive races in Senate history.

Of the many looming battles that hinge on the results, the chance for Democrats to finally halt the conservative movement’s relentless campaign of voter suppression might be most consequential. Just as Barack Obama’s landslide presidential win a decade ago prompted a disastrous wave of voter ID laws and voter roll purges, especially in the historically red states where he made inroads, GOP lawmakers are already signaling their intent to roll back many of the pro-democracy measures that led to the highest voter turnout in more than a century in 2020. Republican fearmongering about “rigged” elections is not just about pacifying Trump; it sets the stage for reactionary opposition to pro-democracy reforms well after he leaves office. 

Determining who can participate in elections is tantamount to deciding them, and in the aftermath of an election plagued by Trump’s baseless allegations that widespread voter fraud determined the outcome, America’s ambitious experiment with representative democracy more or less hangs in the balance. The Georgia runoffs give Democrats a fighting chance not only to put this crisis front and center, but to actually do something about it. 

In 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision, the civil rights icon and Georgia Representative John Lewis excoriated the justices for confusing improvements in nonwhite representation with an absence of racist attempts to suppress it. “Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote,” he said. “I want to say to them, ‘Come and walk in my shoes.’”

In the sudden absence of federal backstops to prevent discrimination, Republican lawmakers quickly began working to disenfranchise constituencies whose participation in politics they found inconvenient; in 2016, a federal court found that North Carolina’s post-Shelby County reforms targeted Black people with “almost surgical precision.” A 2018 Brennan Center for Justice analysis found that jurisdictions covered by the scuttled aspects of the Voting Rights Act went on to purge their rolls at a significantly higher rate than noncovered jurisdictions. Shelby County, the authors concluded, has had a “profound and negative impact.”

In March 2019, after winning the House of Representatives for the first time since 2008, Democrats made addressing the voter suppression crisis their first order of business by passing the For the People Act, a landmark election reform bill to expand mail-in voting and early voting, streamline the 50-state patchwork of voter registration procedures, and crack down on voter roll purges. More than five decades after fighting for the Voting Rights Act as an activist, Lewis took to the House floor to make the closing argument. “We all know that this is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an American one,” he said. “Today, we are able to do our part in this long fight for the very soul of our nation.”

Last December, Democrats passed a separate bill, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, to reinvigorate those provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the Court’s decision in Shelby County. After Lewis’s death in July, the bill was renamed in his honor.

Republicans, evidently, did not agree with Lewis’s assessment. The For the People Act received zero Republican votes in the House, and its counterpart earned just one. Neither bill went anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tellingly castigated the For the People Act—legislation that made voting easier for everyone—as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

Georgians are especially well-acquainted with the consequences. In the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race, Republican Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams, who was vying to be America’s first Black female governor, by less than two points amid a host of controversial election irregularities that disproportionately affected Black voters. Kemp was the incumbent secretary of state at the time, meaning that he was, incredibly, in charge of administering the same election he sought to win, and his work as secretary helped shape the 2018 results: Between 2012 and 2018, Kemp oversaw the purging of more than 1.4 million names from the state’s voter rolls. During a period of intensive statewide voter registration efforts by activist groups—including the New Georgia Project, which Abrams, then a state lawmaker, founded in 2013—his office froze the applications of more than 50,000 would-be new voters, almost 70 percent of whom were Black. Shortly before Election Day 2018, Kemp even published a statement on the secretary of state’s website accusing Democrats of trying to hack Georgia’s election systems, recycling a centuries-old ploy for casting doubt on the integrity of elections. In March 2020, the state attorney general’s office closed its investigation of this purported “hacking” episode after finding no evidence of wrongdoing.

Together, the narrow margin of Kemp’s victory and his actions that likely contributed to it drew national attention, turning Georgia into a modern-day poster child for voter suppression. Two years later, residents are paying attention as the runoff approaches: According to a poll conducted by The Justice Collaborative Institute and Data for Progress, 53 percent of all likely voters, including 72 percent of Democrats, say they’re more likely to back Senate candidates who support passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. (The Justice Collaborative Institute and The Appeal are both independent projects of The Justice Collaborative).

Federal judges, in theory, are supposed to police states that violate their residents’ right to vote. But the Shelby County decision hamstrung their ability to do so, and Trump and McConnell have spent four years stocking the bench with more conservative ideologues who are inclined to look the other way. In a series of alarming decisions this year, the Supreme Court bent over backward to thwart state-level efforts to make it safe and easy to vote during the pandemic. Even more troublingly, although its conservative supermajority ultimately declined to overturn the election on Trump’s behalf, it left open the door to intervene in future elections that are perhaps more competitive than this one. 

By winning two more Senate seats, Democrats could reverse this trend and confirm judges who will take seriously their obligation to protect voting rights from self-interested politicians intent on entrenching themselves in power. A unified Democratic government could also pass legislation to make anti-democratic stunts like Brian Kemp’s a thing of the past, and the already ambitious bills the Democratic House passed during this Congress could serve as a floor for reform, not a ceiling, in the next one. A new and improved version of the For the People Act might, for example, explicitly limit the Court’s authority to strike it down; as U.S. Representative-elect Mondaire Jones of New York has argued, it could also address the danger posed by the Court’s conservative supermajority by expanding the Court itself. 

The issue of voting rights is especially personal for Warnock, a reverend who previously served as chairperson of Abrams’s New Georgia Project—and whose Atlanta church, Ebenezer Baptist, Lewis regularly attended before his death. Warnock and Ossoff have made honoring the late congressman’s legacy central to their campaign trail pitch. “We can pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act,” Ossoff tweeted on Nov. 16. “But only if we win the Senate.” 

Sweeping the Georgia runoffs would also give Democrats control over the confirmation process for Cabinet members, who under Trump were happy to abuse their powers in service of Republican politics. Attorney General William Barr, for example, helped promote conspiracy theories about the purported dangers of mail-in voting. And as his defeated boss railed about the perils of a “rigged” election, Barr fueled this sense of grievance by encouraging prosecutors to investigate “specific instances” of alleged voter fraud that may come to their attention. In 2017, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross began working to add to the census a question about respondents’ citizenship—part of a broader conservative effort to use the census results to shift political power from Democrat-leaning Hispanic communities to whiter, more Republican ones. The Department of Justice authored a letter to provide a purported rationale for this choice, and the explanation on which they settled—that collecting this information was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act—was so absurd that not even the Supreme Court’s conservative majority was willing to buy it. 

Simply redirecting the executive branch’s time and resources to the task of protecting voting rights will be a significant improvement over the status quo, even absent sweeping legislation to further that effort. Biden’s Cabinet has the power to undo much of the damage the Trump administration did to this country’s fragile democracy, and if Democrats win the Senate, their Republican counterparts will be powerless to stop it.

Victories in Georgia would hardly guarantee victories in Washington, of course. Unless a Democratic majority is also willing to abolish the Senate filibuster, a committed minority of Republicans would still be able to block most legislation they don’t like. (Cabinet and judicial nominees are not subject to filibuster.) And for now, the party’s centrist coalition remains publicly leery of this prospect. “That’s bullshit,” said Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, when asked about abolition in June. “The whole intention of Congress is basically to have a little bit of compromise with the other side.” Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Jon Tester of Montana have also expressed reluctance to ring this bell that cannot be unrung. 

Perhaps Manchin and company are as committed to preserving archaic Senate rules as they say. But it’s easier to defiantly take positions like theirs when McConnell’s status as majority leader shields them from having to answer for it. Winning the Georgia runoffs would hold up a mirror to the Democratic Party, shifting accountability for government’s failures from McConnell’s obstructionism to lawmakers who care more about burnishing their moderate bona fides than using their power to make people’s lives better. Even if the caucus’s more stubborn members cannot be pressured to eliminate this supermajority requirement, the agenda-setting power that comes with Senate control also matters: With Democrats in charge, voting rights legislation that the Senate never considered under McConnell could receive committee hearings, a debate on the Senate floor, and perhaps even a cloture vote. All of these could be prime opportunities for Democrats to make clear to Americans which party and which lawmakers care about protecting democracy, and which don’t.

Whatever the fate of voting rights legislation in the upcoming Congress, a Democratic Senate can still make voting rights a priority for the other two branches of government. At the very least, the ability to confirm Biden’s judicial and Cabinet nominees would soften the blow of the possibility of failing to overcome an anti-democracy filibuster, and ensure enforcement to the greatest possible extent of those protections that are already in place. 

All of these lofty ambitions depend on what happens in Georgia, though. By sending Warnock and Ossoff to Washington, voters in John Lewis’s home state have the chance to repudiate its legacy of voter suppression in dramatic fashion—and, perhaps, to ensure that it doesn’t happen in Georgia or anywhere else again.

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.

The Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped Landlords From Evicting Tenants—And It’s About To Get Much Worse

Landlords have continued forcing renters out of their homes, despite a patchwork of protections from federal and local governments. Now, with the CDC moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, millions of Americans could be evicted.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

The Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped Landlords From Evicting Tenants—And It’s About To Get Much Worse

Landlords have continued forcing renters out of their homes, despite a patchwork of protections from federal and local governments. Now, with the CDC moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, millions of Americans could be evicted.

One woman got into a car accident, lost her job, and fell behind on rent. Another said she is stuck at home with her children while schools are closed and tried to work out a payment plan with her landlord but never heard back. A man said he had applied to Marshalls, Costco, and Bath & Body Works, but struggled to find work and fell behind on rent. All were told they had to be out of their homes by Dec. 22.

One after another on Wednesday, a judge at the Country Meadows Justice Court in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and 4.5 million residents, ordered dozens of people to leave their homes within five days or be forced out by a constable. Landlords filed for evictions against over 2,300 people in the county last month alone, and nearly 20,000 since the pandemic began, according to data collected by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

Landlords across the country have continued to evict tenants throughout the pandemic, despite a patchwork of protections put in place by federal, state, and local governments. While eviction moratoriums have helped keep millions of people in their homes, loopholes in orders like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s have allowed landlords to continue filing evictions and actually remove people. Now, with the CDC’s moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, millions of people could soon be forced out of their homes during another wave of the pandemic, increasing their risk of infection or death from COVID-19. Public health experts have linked an estimated nearly half a million COVID cases and roughly 10,000 deaths to evictions nationwide.

In any given year, roughly 1.5 million evictions occur across the United States. Between 2.4 million and 4.9 million households could face eviction once the federal moratorium expires, according to data collected by the Census Bureau.  

“Having that many happen all at once—you could see entire neighborhoods empty out of people,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project. “Instead of a handful of homeless people pitching tents together, you could see developing world style favelas or developments cropping up in the U.S. because of the sheer number of people who could be displaced.”

In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which included an eviction moratorium and a requirement that landlords give renters 30 days’ notice before moving ahead with an eviction. The moratorium expired July 26, but the 30-day notice helped keep some people in their homes for roughly another month after that, until Aug. 26. On Sept. 4, the CDC issued a temporary order to stop evictions, recognizing that losing one’s home “increases the likelihood of individuals moving into congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, which then puts individuals at higher risk to COVID-19.”

To use the protection provided by the CDC’s moratorium, tenants must sign a declaration stating they cannot make full rent payments due to loss of income or extraordinary medical expenses, have made their best efforts to obtain rent assistance and make timely partial payments to their landlord, earn less than $99,000 and would likely become homeless if evicted. 

While the order has helped keep many people in their homes, it left many others unprotected from the start, and was further weakened by an additional guidance issued by the CDC.

“One of the most significant flaws is that the moratorium is not automatic, renters need to know it exists, know they are eligible, and know what steps they need to take in order to get the protection,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And the federal government “hasn’t done anything to enforce the steep penalties in the order against landlords who illegally evict. Landlords are getting away with illegally, in some cases, evicting tenants.”

Renters need to be aware of the CDC’s moratorium—and show up to court—in order to take advantage of the protection. At the Justice Court in Maricopa County on Wednesday, only a handful of the 30 or so renters with evictions filed against them were present, and of those, even fewer tried to use the CDC protection to contest the eviction. Most of the evictions were for nonpayment of rent. The judge ruled against almost everyone who did not show up and signed a judgment against them stating that they need to move out of their home by Dec. 22.

In October, the CDC released guidance allowing landlords to contest declarations from tenants and begin eviction proceedings for nonpayment of rent, so long as they do not actually evict tenants protected by the order until Jan. 1. The guidance placed an even greater burden on renters, and created a situation where as soon as the order expires, people may be forced out of their homes. From the beginning, the order only barred landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent, meaning so long as landlords said they were evicting tenants for another reason, they could still proceed. And ultimately the rent is still due: Once the moratorium expires, renters will still be on the hook for mounting debts they cannot afford.

In Houston, landlords have filed for over 18,000 evictions since the pandemic began. Over 1,600 tenants in California have been evicted between March and July, despite state and federal protections. Nearly 3,000 writs of possession were ordered in seven Florida counties in October, meaning sheriff’s deputies have been given permission to remove people from their homes in all of those cases. Landlords in Maricopa County wrongfully moved to evict over 900 tenants who were protected under the CARES Act, according to the Arizona Republic. Overall, in the 27 cities that Princeton’s Eviction Lab tracks, landlords have filed for over 150,000 evictions during the pandemic. In Oregon and California, police have been authorized to forcibly remove people occupying homes. Just before Thanksgiving, California Highway Patrol officers were caught on camera using a battering ram to open the door of a “reclaimed” vacant home and dragging people out of another residence as they screamed in protest.

To prevent people from losing their homes en masse during the pandemic, the CDC could extend the moratorium. Congress could pass a bill that includes $25 billion in rental assistance and a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium. Waiving late fees and court fees accrued by renters would also help, as would passing some form of relief for those who have already been displaced, like limiting a landlord’s ability to deny people housing if they were evicted during the pandemic. And even if the federal government doesn’t step up, state and local governments can still pass their own measures to protect renters and keep people housed.

“The solutions aren’t complicated, they just require the powers that be to have the right priorities,” said Dunn from the National Housing Law Project. “We need eviction moratoria to stop the problem of more people being displaced and put out on the street. Then we also need significant rental relief funding, so [tenants] can apply for grants and use that money to pay their landlords, who have maybe been under financial pressure to pay their mortgages.”

These Cops Lied In Court. But Since The D.A. Isn’t Keeping A Brady List, They Could Testify Again

The case illustrates the importance of keeping lists of police officers with histories of misconduct or dishonesty, the defense lawyer in the case says.

(Photo by Getty Images)

These Cops Lied In Court. But Since The D.A. Isn’t Keeping A Brady List, They Could Testify Again

The case illustrates the importance of keeping lists of police officers with histories of misconduct or dishonesty, the defense lawyer in the case says.

The next time a case is built on the credibility of Brockton Police Officer Derek Scully and Detective Ryan Quirk, the accused may be unaware the officers have been caught lying in the past. 

That’s because the Plymouth County district attorney’s office in Brockton, Massachusetts, does not keep a Brady or Do Not Call list, which notes officers with histories of misconduct or dishonesty. In a case that comes down to the word of the accused versus the word of the officer, a Brady list can mean the difference between freedom and decades behind bars. 

This was the situation for Emmanuel Casseus. In April 2019, Scully and Quirk pulled him over for a traffic violation. 

Claiming they feared for their safety, they ordered Casseus and his passenger, who are both Black, out of the car and frisked them. Scully said he then entered the car on the driver’s side  and shone his flashlight into the gap of the closed center console. When he pressed onto the flaps, he said, he saw a firearm, then lifted the flaps and retrieved the gun. 

But this was not what happened, Superior Court Judge Debra Squires-Lee ruled. And though the judge did not explicitly say the officers had lied, she clearly found that the officers’ testimony included multiple statements that were not truthful. The judge found that, contrary to the officers’ testimony, they exhibited no fear for their safety. The console was closed and locked, making it impossible to see or gain access to its contents as Scully described, according to the judge’s ruling. 

Squires-Lee based her ruling, in large part, on a recording of the incident taken by Casseus’s friend, Frandy Garcon. At the time of the stop, Casseus had been on FaceTime with Garcon, who began recording after the police approached the car. The officers cannot be seen in the video, but it captures what they said during the stop. 

“I was really afraid for my friend’s life,” Garcon told The Appeal. “White officer, my friend is African American. It’s nighttime. Anything can happen.”

Last month, Squires-Lee ruled that ordering Casseus out, frisking him, and searching his car violated his constitutional rights. 

“Everyone’s going to take the police side if there’s no tape,” said Garcon. “They’re more credible. Well, what makes them more credible? Because of the badge?”

Casseus was charged with firearms and traffic violations. He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. On Dec. 4, the prosecutor’s office notified the court that, based on the judge’s ruling, they were unable to prosecute the case.

“Knowing that I’m facing time as I’m dealing with everything in my everyday life, it’s like my mind’s not on this, but I can’t forget it,” said Casseus. “It’s in the back of my mind that I’m facing the amount of years that they’re trying to throw at me.”

On April 14, 2019, at about 10 p.m., Casseus went the wrong way down a one-way street, then made a U-turn to correct himself, and continued to drive. Moments later, Scully and Quirk pulled him over. They’d already run his plates, according to the police report and their testimony at the suppression hearing. There were no warrants associated with the car or its owner, Casseus. The car was properly registered, insured, and inspected, and Casseus’s license was active.  

Scully testified that when he approached the car, Casseus and the passenger took their hands from the center console area. Casseus put his hands in his lap, and the passenger put his hands between his legs, according to Scully. Their movements, he said, were “very abrupt.”

“What concerns did that raise in your mind?” the prosecutor asked Scully. 

“Officer safety right away,” he replied. “I wasn’t presented with a license or registration. They were empty-handed essentially. So it makes me believe that they were either retrieving or concealing a weapon that could hurt me.”

They ordered Casseus and his passenger out of the car based on “furtive movements,” Scully and Quirk testified, and frisked them. (In an affidavit submitted to the court, Casseus stated that he had presented his license and registration.) Scully said he then went into the car. 

“I went to the center console and I had illuminated the gap in between where the center console meets, folds together, and I pressed onto it and at that point in time with [sic] illuminating my flashlight through the gap inside, I recognized a firearm inside the center console,” Scully testified, reiterating the account in Quirk’s police report. Scully said he lifted the flaps of the console and saw the gun.

But the statements the officers can be heard making in Garcon’s recording repudiate the officers’ version of events, as do the mechanics of the center console. The defense entered the recording into evidence during the suppression hearing. 

Almost immediately after approaching the car, Quirk ordered the passenger out and frisked him. On the recording, Quirk can be heard saying, “It is what it is.” At the hearing, Quirk could not remember why he said this, but the judge wrote in her ruling that she presumed his statement was in response to the passenger asking why he was being searched.

Scully then told Casseus to put his hands over his head and exit the car. He, too, was frisked. 

On the recording, Scully can be heard saying, “Yo, Quirk, he got the key?” Quirk replied, “He got it?” 

“Yeah, he should,” Scully said. “I think it’s in his pocket.” One of the officers can be heard asking Casseus if he had the key.  

About a minute later, Scully said, “You know you stole something.” One of the officers then asked, “You don’t have [inaudible] the keys to the console?” 

About four and a half minutes after Casseus was ordered out of his car, Scully asked Casseus for his license to carry a firearm. “Woo,” Quirk immediately said. 

“I conclude that the glove box was locked and that it took Scully nearly four minutes to gain access,” Squires-Lee wrote in her ruling. The timing, she wrote, “is consistent with wanting to gain access to a locked glove box, and then somehow forcing the box open.” 

“Neither Scully nor Quirk acted or spoke as if they had any concern for their safety,” she continued. Quirk’s exclamation of “Woo,” she wrote, “conveys excitement and not concern.” 

It was impossible to see inside the console when it was closed, with or without a flashlight, according to her ruling. The console could not be accessed when locked and, when unlocked, it could only be opened by pressing a button on the console, the judge wrote. (Scully testified he did not press this button.) 

The defense had submitted video recordings, according to the transcript, of attempts to gain access to the console and view its contents when it was closed.

“We were pressing on it, banging on it pretty hard and there was no give whatsoever. We were not able to see in,” testified former police officer and former private investigator Michael Giordano. “It had to be unlocked and the button had to be pressed for it to open. We tried every other way to open it and it would not open.”

Brockton Police Department spokesperson Darren Duarte emailed The Appeal: “Although taking an illegal gun off our streets may have saved lives and prevented a future tragedy, it must be done within the bounds of the law and respecting our citizens’ rights.” Neither officer has been disciplined or investigated for their conduct in this case and both officers are still working with the police department, Duarte wrote in response to The Appeal’s questions. The Plymouth County DA’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

In recent years, police accountability activists have demanded that prosecutors create Brady lists, which have become a touchstone of reform-minded prosecutor’s offices. Acts of dishonesty, such as lying on the stand or in police reports, can land an officer on a Brady list.

The lists are named for the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland, which mandates that prosecutors disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. Exculpatory evidence includes information that the defense can use to impeach a witness’s credibility, such as, in Casseus’s case, dishonest statements made by police officers. 

“The fact pattern here shows the importance of maintaining and having Brady lists because it’s important for people in the future to know where investigators or officers involved in cases may have reported untruthful information or engaged in actions that ran afoul of a person’s constitutional rights,” said Casseus’s attorney, Jason Green.  

In October, the DA’s spokesperson told The Enterprise: “All of our prosecutors are aware of their obligations and requirements as members of the Massachusetts Bar to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence.” The story was about Brady lists generally and was unrelated to Casseus’s case. 

Because of systemic racism, people of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal legal system, making the lists a matter of racial justice. Police are more likely to stop and search Black drivers, according to several studies. About 57 percent of Black people who were exonerated since 1989 were the victims of official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. 

The type of injustice Casseus experienced happens all the time, said Garcon, who is Black. 

“A police car gets behind me, I’m scared for my life,” said Garcon. “I see my friend being respectful to officers and [the officer is] still aggressive like that. That’s traumatizing. That’s traumatizing.”

What Biden Can Do To Address The Student Debt Crisis

Civil rights organizations and Democrats in Congress are calling on the president-elect to provide relief to millions of borrowers once he takes office.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.)

What Biden Can Do To Address The Student Debt Crisis

Civil rights organizations and Democrats in Congress are calling on the president-elect to provide relief to millions of borrowers once he takes office.

Hundreds of thousands of borrowers with disabilities already qualify to have their student debt canceled—yet the Department of Education is still collecting payments. 

Approximately 45 million United States residents hold over $1.7 trillion in student debt, and disability rights advocates say the Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) Discharge program is just one of several dysfunctional parts of the system that have contributed to the current student loan crisis. 

But borrowers need not wait for Congress to intervene. When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, he and his education secretary can provide relief to millions of borrowers—from reforming existing debt relief programs to granting broad-based debt cancellation. And that’s exactly what borrowers, labor unions, students, and members of Congress are calling on the incoming president to do.

Biden is under increasing pressure to use his executive powers to cancel student debt, especially as the suspension on loan payments is set to expire early next year. The federal CARES Act imposed a moratorium on most federal student loan payments through Sept. 30. President Trump then extended the moratorium through the end of the year; last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the moratorium would be extended through Jan. 31. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommended cancelling monthly federal student loan payments for the duration of the COVID-19 national emergency.

“We should not be collecting from borrowers in this moment, but at the end of the day that just kicks the can down the road,” said Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center. Yu contributed to a report on debt relief released last month by the Student Borrower Protection Center and Dēmos.

More than three-quarters of borrowers do not feel financially secure enough to resume payments on federal student loans until June 2021 or later, according to a survey released last week by the advocacy group Student Debt Crisis and the technology company Savi. 

“Every night I lay awake staring at the ceiling worried about student debt,” a borrower identified as Colleen says in Student Debt Crisis and Savi’s report on the survey. “If it weren’t for food stamps I would not have any food in my home. I cannot live.”  

Another borrower is quoted as saying, “My health has declined and now I have more medical bills. I do not know how I will afford my medical bills and doctor visits and medication once I begin making payments.” 

Borrowers, Biden told reporters last month, are “having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying their rent.” However, he has not publicly provided many details for his debt relief plan. Biden’s website states that he will “include in the COVID-19 response an immediate cancellation of a minimum of $10,000 of federal student loan debt.”

But civil rights organizations, as well as his Democratic colleagues in Congress, are calling on him to do much more. 

More than 200 organizations signed on to a letter to Biden last month, urging him to use his executive powers to cancel federal student loan debt on his first day in office. And in September, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a resolution calling for the next president to use his executive authority to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board, the typical borrower owed more than $20,000 and had monthly payments of more than $200. 

“The President of the United States has the power to broadly cancel student loan debt, help close the racial wealth gap, and give a big boost to families and our economy,” Warren said in a statement announcing the resolution. 

Twenty years after starting school, the median Black student borrower has $18,500 in loans remaining, while the median white borrower has $1,000 in loans, according to a report released last year by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University. Of student borrowers who started college in 1995-1996, 49 percent of Black borrowers and 33 percent of Latinx borrowers defaulted, compared with 20 percent of white borrowers.

“Across the board student debt cancellation is a racial and economic justice issue,” Representative Ayanna Pressley said in a statement to The Appeal. In March, Pressley and Representative Ilhan Omar introduced the Student Debt Emergency Relief Act, which would cancel at least $30,000 per borrower. 

“On day one of his Administration, President-elect Biden will have the executive authority to cancel billions in student debt with the stroke of a pen—he must do exactly that,” she said.

The TPD program for students with disabilities is emblematic of the flaws in the existing initiatives that are supposed to help student borrowers. The 1965 Higher Education Act allows debt forgiveness for students with “total and permanent disabilities” that have lasted or are expected to last for five years. But the Department of Education’s onerous conditions for borrowers, which go beyond the act’s requirements, prevent most from receiving any relief. 

As of February, over 400,000 borrowers with qualifying disabilities had not had their debts forgiven, according to a report released last month by the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration

“The Department of Education has created a lot of unnecessary bureaucratic barriers,” said Bethany Lilly, director of income policy at The Arc. Lilly is also an author of the “Delivering on Debt Relief” report.

Once a person is deemed eligible by the Social Security Administration, which determines disability benefits, the Department of Education notifies a borrower of their eligibility. And from there, a bureaucratic maze begins for the borrower, who is already navigating the challenges of living with a chronic and sometimes degenerative disability. The DOE requires the borrower to submit an application online or via a paper form.

“Those folks who, by definition, have challenges working, are being asked, instead, by the Department of Education to fill out complex paperwork,” said Lilly.

For those who are eligible but do not apply, the DOE can still pursue civil actions to collect unpaid debt. Even though Social Security payments cannot be garnished to pay back private debt, the Department of Education can reduce all but $750 of a borrower’s monthly Social Security benefits to collect debts owed on a federal student loan. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommended ceasing this practice, and cancelling student loans through executive action for borrowers with a total or permanent disability.

The Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration estimates that between May 2016 and November of last year, the DOE used the Treasury Offset Program—which collects past-due debts to government agencies—to collect about $20 million from more than 20,000 people receiving Social Security benefits.

“DOE is aware that these people qualify for student loan forgiveness, but they are still collecting garnishment from them,” said Lilly.  

For those who do apply, their loans are suspended during a three-year monitoring period. But their loans can be reinstated during the monitoring period if, for instance, they don’t return required paperwork. Between March 2016 and September 2019, loans were reinstated for nearly 40 percent of people in the monitoring process, according to data obtained by NPR from the Department of Education.

“Lots and lots of people were not able to deal with those bureaucratic hurdles,” said John Whitelaw, who wrote a section of the debt relief report with Lilly. 

“The monitoring period is not statutorily required,” continued Whitelaw, who is advocacy director for the Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. in Delaware. “Get rid of the monitoring period. You don’t need it.”

Biden’s Department of Education can ensure more borrowers receive the relief they’re entitled to, according to a report released in October by the National Student Legal Defense Network as part of its 100 Day Docket Series.  

The DOE can issue an interim final rule, which immediately suspends all debt collections for borrowers deemed eligible by the Social Security Administration, according to the report. It can also begin the administrative process of changing its rules to automate debt relief and eliminate the monitoring period, according to Student Defense’s report. 

“Everything for people with disabilities can be done either by the president directly or by the Department of Education,” said Whitelaw. 

Researchers Estimate Mass Incarceration Contributed To More Than Half A Million Additional Cases Of COVID-19 Over The Summer

The report found that spread inside correctional facilities contributed to community spread, particularly in California, Florida and Texas.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown / Photo by Getty Images)

Researchers Estimate Mass Incarceration Contributed To More Than Half A Million Additional Cases Of COVID-19 Over The Summer

The report found that spread inside correctional facilities contributed to community spread, particularly in California, Florida and Texas.

Between May 1 and August 1, mass incarceration contributed to more than half a million cases of COVID-19 across the country, the bulk of them outside of correctional institutions themselves, a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative estimates.

“Prisons are ongoing super spreader events that are not hermetically sealed from society,” said the report’s coauthor Gregory Hooks, professor of sociology at McMaster University. 

Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 250,000 people incarcerated in state prisons tested positive for COVID-19, according to an investigation by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press. Staff can bring the virus into prisons and jails, and carry it to the outside community. 

The researchers estimated a typical county could expect about 800 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents during the three month period. They found that counties with higher rates of mass incarceration saw large numbers of additional cases over this baseline. This was also true when they examined multicounty areas that are economically connected—for instance, areas where many people live in one county and commute to another. 

“Mass incarceration impacted COVID-19 caseloads in multicounty economic areas and states,” the authors wrote. “Nationally, this impact reached a tragic scale: mass incarceration contributed to more than a half million cases over the summer of 2020.”

During this time period, the report estimates that spread inside correctional facilities contributed to more than 100,000 additional cases of COVID-19 in California alone—more than any other state in the country. Since the start of the pandemic, just over 30,000 prisoners and about 8,800 staff in California prisons have been confirmed to have COVID-19, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Ten staff and 101 prisoners have died from what appear to be complications from the virus, according to the department. 

“How many additional cases do you get from being in an economic area in which people are incarcerated?” Hooks said. “It turns out you get quite a few.”

The report estimates that mass incarceration contributed to more than 90,000 additional cases in Florida; over 50,000 in Texas and Illinois; and almost 40,000 in New York. Seven states were estimated to have more than 200 additional cases per 100,000 residents: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, and New Jersey.

In metropolitan economic areas with less mass incarceration—0.74 incarcerated persons per square mile—there were roughly 60 additional cases per 100,000 residents, according to the report. In the most densely incarcerated areas, this number more than tripled to over 200 additional cases. The hardest hit metropolitan areas were found in Los Angeles/Long Beach/Riverside, California; New York City/Newark, New Jersey/Bridgeport, Conn., and Chicago/Naperville, Indiana/Michigan City, Wisconsin. 

The report’s findings reflect the crisis created by two American policy failures—mass incarceration and an abhorrent response to the pandemic, Hooks said. 

“This was a synergistic policy failure,” he said. “There’s a synergy between the policy failure in criminal justice and the policy failure in this pandemic.” 

Since the pandemic began, prisoners, their families, and attorneys have petitioned courts, legislatures, and governors to release incarcerated people. In March, they warned that the virus would spread rapidly in prisons and jails to both prisoners and staff. But their prescient warnings have been largely ignored.

Elected officials can still act to save lives during the current surge, which is only expected to worsen during the coming winter months, said Hooks. States can decrease the number of people incarcerated through an increased use of clemency and expanding parole, he said. 

“We have too many people held in unsafe places,” said Hooks. “It’s not too late to do some good on this thing.”

In New York, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has refused to use his clemency powers to release thousands of elderly and/or medically vulnerable state prisoners, as well as those held on technical parole violations. 

In fact, Cuomo has contributed to an increase in the state’s jail populations. In the spring, Cuomo and state legislators rolled back the state’s bail reform law, adding more misdemeanor and felony charges that would be eligible for cash bail. According to a report by the Center for Court Innovation, “from July through November 1, the effect of those amendments alone has resulted in a 7 to 11 percent increase in the pretrial jail population.”

“Governor Cuomo continues to ignore the plight of incarcerated, vulnerable New Yorkers as COVID-19 rages through his state prisons,” said Katie Schaffer, Director of Organizing and Advocacy at the Center for Community Alternatives, in a statement on Dec. 14, the same day the first person in New York received the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“The Governor must act now to save lives behind bars by granting clemency to older and immunocompromised people and ensuring that all vulnerable New Yorkers, including incarcerated people, be prioritized for early, voluntary access to authorized vaccines,” she said.

D.C. May Give People Convicted As Young Adults A Chance At Resentencing

The D.C. Council is set to vote on a bill aimed at giving people who committed serious crimes before their 25th birthday an opportunity to petition a judge for resentencing.

Halim Flowers
(Photo by Joshua Vaughn)

D.C. May Give People Convicted As Young Adults A Chance At Resentencing

The D.C. Council is set to vote on a bill aimed at giving people who committed serious crimes before their 25th birthday an opportunity to petition a judge for resentencing.

Where Halim Flowers grew up, drugs and violence were always nearby. His father struggled with drug addiction and left town just before Flowers turned 11, according to a profile of Flowers in the Washington City Paper. At 12, Flowers began selling drugs. He stopped going to school and began using drugs and alcohol.

“It was just a downward spiral,” Flowers told The Appeal. 

One day in 1996, Flowers, then 16, attempted to rob a drug house but was thwarted when the men inside tried to grab his gun. Flowers left. Later, a friend returned to the apartment and shot one of the occupants, killing him. Prosecutors say Flowers went with him; Flowers maintains he didn’t go back to the apartment. He was charged with felony murder.

In 1998, he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison. While incarcerated, Flowers wrote poetry, published books, enrolled in courses at Georgetown University through their Prison Scholars Program, and served as a mentor in the D.C. Department  of Corrections Young Men Emerging Unit

Then, in 2016, the D.C. Council passed the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which allows people who committed serious crimes before their 18th birthday to petition the court for resentencing after they have served at least 15 years. The law asks judges to consider the defendant’s personal history and circumstances, their commitment to change and rehabilitation in prison, statements from victims and prosecutors, and other factors, before deciding whether the petitioner’s sentence should be modified.

Thanks to the measure, Flowers was released last year after spending 22 years in prison. 

Now, a new bill could allow more people like him a chance at resentencing. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council will vote on the Second Look Amendment Act, a measure to raise the cutoff age for potential resentencing to 25 from 18. The act is part of an omnibus public safety bill and it’s likely to pass—it passed unanimously during the council’s first of two votes on the bill.

The law that freed Flowers and the Second Look Amendment Act both build upon Supreme Court decisions that found it is unconstitutional to sentence people under the age of 18 to death or to mandatory life without the possibility of parole. The rulings were influenced by neuroscience research showing that children and young adults’ cognitive abilities, particularly when it comes to controlling impulses and assessing risks, are not fully developed, and the understanding that young people show a greater capacity for change and rehabilitation.

There is a growing understanding nationwide that the cognitive differences between adults and children mean children should not be held to the harsh sentencing standards as adults, even when they commit serious crimes. But research also shows that emerging adults, ages 18 to 25, are also developmentally distinct from adults: Like children, emerging adults’ brains are still developing. As a result, they are often more impulsive and emotionally immature than older adults, and make poorer decisions—but also have a greater likelihood of changing their behavior as they age.

“The research has been moving in a direction that says 18 is just too young,” said Joette James, a clinical neuropsychologist. James is the chief inpatient and outpatient neuropsychologist at HSC Pediatric Center in Washington, D.C., and has testified as an expert witness in death penalty cases and cases involving children. “This is not contested research. It has been demonstrated over and over and over again.”

“There has been a body of research that shows emerging adults are a distinct developmental group,” said Lael Chester, director of the emerging adult project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab. “The transition takes years. There’s no magic birthday. … It is imperative that the justice system recognize this robust body of research and react accordingly.” 

“We want to evaluate them based on what we know about adolescent development,” Chester continued, “we don’t want to put our head in the sand and say we don’t know anything about this and go on about business as usual.”

The Second Look Amendment Act is part of an emerging trend to extend youth resentencing measures to young adults. In California, people who committed a crime before the age of 26 and have already served 15, 20, or 25 years in prison (depending on the original sentence) are required to receive parole hearings once they become eligible for a hearing. A parole board then determines whether they are eligible for release. Illinois passed a similar measure in 2018. It allows some people who have already served at least 10 years for a crime they committed before they were 21 years old to petition for early release on parole. Lawmakers in Colorado and Florida have also proposed legislation that would give people under the age of 25 a chance to get their sentences reconsidered after they have served a certain amount of time.

If D.C.’s second look bill passes, at least 300 people could be eligible to apply for sentence reduction, according to the Washington Post. The bill has the support of the council and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. Mayor Muriel Bowser initially expressed support for the bill, but has more recently expressed opposition to it. And the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., formerly led by Trump appointee Jessie Liu, has strongly opposed the measure, as has the D.C. Metropolitan Police. Since the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act passed, D.C.’s U.S. attorney’s office has opposed nearly every petition for early release of youth offenders.

“The victims of these crimes and the community at large should not be jeopardized by the Council’s rush to expand the [Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act],” said Liu in a press release issued last year that pinned her office’s opposition to the bill on a perceived threat to public safety and what she considers a lack of consideration for the victims of the people who could petition for release.

While some victims may wish to keep those who harmed them or their loved ones incarcerated, others feel differently

In a letter to the editor published by the Washington Post, April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, took issue with what she called the “fearmongering” and “weaponizing of some survivors’ experiences” from one of D.C.’s advisory neighborhood commissioners and Liu.

“As a black woman and mother who has survived sexual assault and intra-community violence, I will not tolerate being spoken for,” Goggans wrote. “I support the Second Look Amendment Act without any reservations. Keeping people in jail does not make us safer.”

Research has shown people are less likely to commit crimes as they grow older. By the time people are eligible to potentially get their sentences reduced under D.C. law, they will have already aged at least 15 years and will be out of the adolescent or emerging adult phase of cognitive development and into their 30s.

Charles Allen, the Ward 6 council member and chairperson of the judiciary committee, said in late November that 55 people have been given reduced sentences under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, and none of them have reoffended, DCist reported

“What the U.S. attorney’s office is recommending is contrary to the goal of public safety,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. “Long sentences are not a deterrence to crime. We’re now at a time in our society where there’s more willingness to realize that we need to invest in ways other than long prison sentences to make our community safer.” 

Since Flowers was released from prison, he has received fellowships from the Halcyon Arts Lab and Echoing Green which allow him to continue creating visual art and worked with Kim Kardashian West on a documentary about America’s justice system.

“Now, as a 40-year-old adult, I find it to be very inhumane,” Flowers said of lengthy or life sentences for children and emerging adults. “I think it runs afoul of our Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. But I also found it to be as American as apple pie. That’s what America does to Black people.”

Ghandnoosh—and the Model Penal Code, a proposed criminal code created by the American Law Institute to standardize U.S. penal law—say that ideally, the opportunity to get one’s sentence reviewed by a judge or parole board after serving part of the sentence ought to be extended to everyone, not just people under 25.

“This is a really exciting piece of legislation, but given the scale of the problem that mass incarceration is, we should always ask, is it enough?” Ghandnoosh said. “Half of the prison population [nationwide] is convicted of a violent offense,” she added, noting that the population of people who would be considered older or elderly in prison is rapidly growing because many are stuck serving long sentences in prison with little to no chance for release. “If we want to end mass incarceration, we have to revisit these long sentences we’ve put on people for these violent crimes.”

Some lawmakers and elected officials have already taken steps to allow more people to get a second look at their sentences. State legislatures in New York, Maryland, and West Virginia have all introduced bills to allow incarcerated people to get their sentences re-examined after serving a significant portion. At the federal level, U.S. Senator Cory Booker has introduced a bill that would allow people who have served 10 years in prison to petition a federal court to get their sentence reviewed by a judge. Like D.C.’s second look act, the bill gives judges the final say on whether the petitioner is ready to leave prison and re-enter society.

Newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón issued a special directive to his deputy DAs on Dec. 7, changing the office’s sentencing policies and requiring that they reevaluate and consider resentencing people who have already served 15 years in prison. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby also recently announced she has launched a similar sentencing review unit. Across the country, district attorneys like Gascón and Mosby have created review units designed to give lengthy past sentences a second look.

“If we really are going to do anything about mass incarceration, decriminalizing marijuana isn’t going to do it,” said Barbara Fedders, an assistant professor at the UNC School of  Law, where she directs the Youth Justice Clinic. “It’s going to be these sort of things—taking a second look at people who have been convicted of violent crimes.”

CORRECTION: This article initially mischaracterized Muriel Bowser’s position on the Second Look Amendment Act.

Terry McAuliffe’s Record on the Death Penalty Is Out of Step With National Trends

McAuliffe is running to become Virginia governor a second time. If he wins, he would be the only active Democratic governor to have carried out executions in office.

Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe speaks at a Biden campaign event on March 1.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Terry McAuliffe’s Record on the Death Penalty Is Out of Step With National Trends

McAuliffe is running to become Virginia governor a second time. If he wins, he would be the only active Democratic governor to have carried out executions in office.

On July 6, 2017, William Morva was killed by lethal injection in a Virginia prison. He had been convicted of killing Derrick McFarland, a hospital security guard, and a sheriff’s deputy, Eric Sutphin. No one in Virginia has been executed since. 

State legislators, the U.N. special rapporteur for arbitrary executions, the European Union, the U.N. special rapporteur for mental health, and one of Sutphin’s daughters asked then-governor Terry McAuliffe to stop the execution. 

Morva, who was severely mentally ill, was suffering from delusions at the time of the murder, according to his attorneys. When he was not incarcerated, he ate raw meat and pine cones, believing he suffered from an intestinal disorder. 

But McAuliffe refused to intervene. “I personally oppose the death penalty,” he said in a statement, announcing his decision to decline Morva’s clemency petition. “However, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views.”

After Morva’s execution, Sutphin’s daughter, Rachel, told local news outlet WTOP News, “A lot of people, they want families to have this moment that heals them or makes things completed. And for me, it did not.”  

“It was instead, more hurt,” she said. “I felt, well, now there are two people dead.”

On Wednesday, McAuliffe announced he’ll be running for governor for a second time. During his first term, from 2014 to 2018, he oversaw three executions, including Morva’s, putting him out of step both with his democratic gubernatorial colleagues and growing opposition to the death penalty. 

“In my personal opinion I think he was the worst governor we had on the death penalty since George Allen,” said Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Allen, a Republican, was governor of Virginia from 1994 to 1998. Twenty-four people were executed during his term, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

Between 2014 and 2020, 160 executions were carried out by state governments, according to DPIC. Of those, only two Democratic governors oversaw any executions—the other was former Missouri governor Jay Nixon, who oversaw 17 of them. Republican administrations carried out the remaining 140. 

McAuliffe’s website does not state his current position on capital punishment, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment by publication. On Friday, gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy tweeted, “As a former public defender, I have seen the inequities in our criminal justice system firsthand. As Governor, I will repeal the death penalty in Virginia.”

In 2016, McAuliffe led efforts to keep secret the pharmacies that provide drugs used in lethal injections. “These manufacturers will not do business in Virginia if their identities are to be revealed,” McAuliffe said at the time, the Washington Post reported

“He repeatedly tried to manipulate the legislature into passing execution drug secrecy despite significant opposition within his own party,” said Stone. “It was maddening for us in the organization for someone who said he was personally opposed to the death penalty. He was just as agressive in his public policy work on the death penalty as any pro-death penalty governor we’ve had.”

Executions are on the decline in Virginia overall, reflecting national trends. Since 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, the second most in the nation, according to DPIC. But today, it’s on the precipice of abolition. Next year, the state legislature is expected to consider a bill to repeal the death penalty. A death sentence has not been handed down since 2011, and there are only two people on Virginia’s death row. 

“We are very close to death penalty abolition in Virginia,” said Stone. “We think we’ll be significantly set back if Terry McAuliffe is the next governor of Virginia. We just don’t think he would support abolition based on our prior experience.” 

Twenty years ago, only twelve states, plus the District of Columbia, had abolished capital punishment and one state had a governor-imposed moratorium, according to DPIC. As of today, 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, have banned capital punishment, and in three states, governors have imposed a moratorium, which pauses executions during the governor’s term. 

Even in the 28 states with a death penalty, few executions occur, according to DPIC. Between 2016 and 2019, 90 people were executed. Almost that many people were executed in 2000, when states put 85 people to death. Of those, 40 were executed in Texas under then-Governor George W. Bush. 

“The death penalty has been fading at the state and local level for several years now,” said Brandon Garrett, author of the book, “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.” “Death sentencing rose for a decade beginning in the 1970s and by the late 1990s all of a sudden death sentencing started to collapse.” 

Up until July, the federal death penalty system reflected the punishment’s increasing unpopularity. Before this year, the last federal execution was carried out in 2003, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Between 1970 and 1999, no federal prisoners were executed. 

But then on July 14, the federal government—under President Trump and Attorney General William Barr—executed Daniel Lewis Lee. Two days later, they executed Wesley Ira Purkey. On July 17, they executed Dustin Lee Honken. On Aug. 26, they executed Lezmond Charles Mitchell. On Aug. 28, they executed Keith Dwayne Nelson. On Sept. 22, they executed William Emmett Lecroy, Jr. On Sept. 24, they executed Christopher Andre Vialva. 

“What we’re seeing from the Trump administration is a historical aberration,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of DPIC. “No president in the 20th or 21st century has ever carried out this many civilian federal executions in a single year.”

On Nov. 19—after President Trump’s defeat—the federal government executed Orlando Cordia Hall. President Grover Cleveland, in 1885, was the last president to oversee a federal execution during a presidential transition, according to DPIC. Several more executions are scheduled to occur before President-Elect Joe Biden, who opposes the death penalty, takes office: Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10, Alfred Bourgeois on Dec. 11, Lisa Montgomery on Jan. 12, Cory Johnson on Jan. 14, and Dustin Higgs on Jan. 15. 

“That’s the case of a repudiated presidency trying to carry out executions before another president who disagrees with that policy takes office,” said Dunham. “These executions are an intent to kill, not an intent to carry out justice.”

Four years ago, advocates tried to stop this macabre scenario from playing out. They urged President Barack Obama to commute the sentences of all federal death row prisoners before President Trump, an ardent supporter of capital punishment, took office, according to Natasha Minsker, a member of District Attorney George Gascón’s transition team on the death penalty. “When President Obama left office many people were pleading with him to clear the federal death row,” she said. “People remained hopeful until the moment Trump was sworn in.”

But during his lame duck period, Obama only commuted the sentences of two people on death row.

“President Obama took no steps to forestall the kind of mass execution that we’re seeing now,” said Dunham. “The administration knew or could have known about the significant defect in the trials of all the people who are currently being executed or have been executed.”

Montgomery, who’s scheduled to be executed next month, has been diagnosed with severe mental illness. As a child she was sex trafficked and sexually and physically tortured

Brandon Bernard, who was executed Thursday, was only 18 when his co-defendant shot the two victims. Several jurors in his case spoke out to oppose his execution. Campaigns to commute Montgomery and Bernard’s sentences have attracted thousands of supporters. 

While it would take congressional action to repeal the federal death penalty, Biden can still commute the sentences of the remaining people on death row. Federal prosecutors can also choose not to seek the death penalty and Biden’s administration can choose not to seek execution dates, said Garrett. “Federal death sentencing and executions can come to a grinding halt,” he said. 

This piece has been updated with additional quotes and context.

Historic Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Passes House of Representatives

It’s the first time a full chamber of Congress has approved such a measure.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Historic Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Passes House of Representatives

It’s the first time a full chamber of Congress has approved such a measure.

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to decriminalize marijuana, voting 228 to 164 in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. It is the first time that a full chamber of Congress has approved such a measure.

The companion bill in the Senate, sponsored by Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, has not been put up for a vote. 

Prior to today’s vote, the bill’s sponsor in the House, Representative Jerry Nadler, urged his colleagues to support the MORE Act.

“This long overdue legislation would reverse the failed policy of criminalizing marijuana on the federal level and would take steps to address the heavy toll this policy has taken across the country, particularly on communities of color,” he said in a statement

Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates, but Black people are more than three times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana, according to FBI data

The bill would create an office to fund services “for individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs including … legal aid for civil and criminal cases, including expungement of cannabis convictions,” the bill states. The bill also prohibits the denial of federal public benefits on the basis of certain cannabis-related convictions.

In November, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota voted in favor of marijuana legalization ballot initiatives. And earlier this week, the United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs removed cannabis from Schedule IV, which includes some opioids. 

“The nationwide wins this cycle demonstrate a strong mandate for progressive marijuana legislation,” Barbara Lee wrote in The Appeal earlier this week. “The chance that this legislation passes the Senate and is signed into law is no longer a pipe dream.”

Biden’s Attorney General Needs to Think Like an Immigrant Rights Activist

With aggressive legal maneuvering, the incoming head of the Justice Department can reverse some of Trump’s most lasting harm and take steps toward a more humane immigration system.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photos from Getty Images.)

Biden’s Attorney General Needs to Think Like an Immigrant Rights Activist

With aggressive legal maneuvering, the incoming head of the Justice Department can reverse some of Trump’s most lasting harm and take steps toward a more humane immigration system.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised that he will “end the Trump Administration’s draconian [immigration] policies … and restore America’s moral leadership.”

It’s hard not to be skeptical about that, given Biden’s propensity for masking tepid platforms in ambitious language. And Biden’s promise ignores that the United States’s immigration system was a human rights disaster before Trump (Biden’s former boss holds the title of “deporter-in-chief”), and that the damage that nativist zealots have since done to that system is not easily reversible.

But if Biden is actually serious about injecting some morality into the U.S. immigration system, his administration must be bold. Like the xenophobia czars of the Trump White House, the incoming administration must be willing to buck policy-making norms—something Biden’s lane of Democrats are often reticent to do—which means taking the fight for immigration justice to new venues.

Given the unlikeliness that Democrats in Congress will be able to substantively change immigration law anytime soon, much advocacy energy has been focused on what Biden can do to tighten the leash of the U.S. deportation machine’s attack dog agencies, like ICE, under the Department of Homeland Security. But to get at the heart of some of the cruelest policies and practices, the administration will also have to weaponize the often overlooked but immensely consequential legal arm of the immigration system, via the Department of Justice and its head, Biden’s yet to be named attorney general.

With an activist attorney general, the Biden administration could sidestep congressional hurdles and rewire the immigration system in fundamental ways. Rather than simply holding ICE back from enforcing mass detention and deportation, the Justice Department could give tens of thousands of immigrants a chance to escape its clutches.

Instead of being part of the judicial branch like all other federal courts in the United States, the immigration legal system falls under the executive branch—specifically, the Department of Justice. And as head of the Justice Department, the attorney general has tremendous power over immigration courts.

Perhaps most consequentially, the attorney general can, unilaterally and at will, snatch cases from the appellate level of the immigration court system and issue their own decisions on them, in the process setting wide-reaching legal precedent. Use of this selective precedent-setting power increased under George W. Bush during the conception of immigration enforcement as homeland security. But until Trump’s election, attorneys general mostly took up cases in order to address what they saw as pressing bureaucratic issues or immigration judges’ honest misinterpretations of immigration law.

Trump’s attorneys general—first Jeff Sessions, then Matthew Whitaker (acting), and now William Barr—have taken this power to a new level. In four years, they’ve commandeered more cases than any administration since the inception of the modern U.S. immigration system, cherry picking issues to inflict what will likely be lasting damage to the application of immigration law.

Many of the cases Trump’s attorneys general targeted have centered on asylum and other persecution-based protections against deportation. In two decisions, for example, Sessions and Barr unilaterally classified certain types of migrants as being ineligible for asylum. Though federal courts intervened to overturn much of the more wide-reaching of those decisions, it still had the temporary effect of blocking almost all migrants fleeing gang violence and unchecked domestic violence—two of the biggest reasons refugees arrive at the U.S. southern border—from winning asylum. Another Barr decision made it virtually impossible for certain victims of designated terror groups to gain asylum—like former child soldiers and people forced to work for such groups under threat of death. And in yet another pair of cases, Barr severely restricted who can claim protection under the international Convention Against Torture, which is one of the most common ways immigrants who become ineligible for asylum avoid deportation to countries where they’ll be persecuted.

In addition to limiting asylum and other protections against deportation, Trump’s attorneys general have used their precedent-setting power to expand the categories of immigrants who are eligible for deportation in the first place. In one case, Barr declared that immigrants with two or more convictions for driving under the influence over a 10-year period are ineligible for “cancelation of removal”—a provision that allows for some who have lived in the U.S. for an extended period to have their deportation proceedings terminated—because DUIs indicate that they don’t pass immigration law’s “good moral character” standard. In another case, he expanded the number of criminal convictions that could trigger deportation proceedings. And in yet another case, Barr effectively blocked the practice of state criminal courts shielding people from deportation by modifying their sentences.

When Sessions headed the Justice Department, he also set several precedents that limited judges’ ability to manage their chaotic dockets by removing delayed or stalled cases. In addition to other Trump administration policies, like the euphemistically named Migrant Protection Protocols (otherwise known as the “remain in Mexico” policy), these Sessions decisions have contributed to a skyrocketing immigration court backlog under Trump—from 516,000 cases nationwide in September 2016 to more than 1.2 million last year and this year, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Larger court backlogs mean longer case wait times, and, for many immigrants, more time spent in immigration detention or in unsafe camps on the Mexican side of the southern border.

Though immense, the attorney general’s power over the immigration court system isn’t completely unchecked; the office’s precedent-setting decisions can be challenged in federal courts. In fact, advocates successfully sued to overturn key aspects of two of Trump’s attorneys general’s highest-profile and potentially most harmful decisions. In one, Sessions declared that, “generally,” claims “pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence … will not qualify for asylum”—a guidance that would have eliminated protections for a huge proportion of Central American and other migrants if the courts hadn’t stepped in. And in another, Barr barred immigration judges from holding bond hearings for asylum seekers who fled to the U.S., in effect subjecting them to mandatory detention for the duration of their months- or years-long immigration court proceedings.

Yet despite such oversight, the attorney general still holds wide-ranging and rarely checked power over the interpretation and application of immigration law in the United States. And Biden’s Justice Department needs to wield that power.

When it comes to the Biden Justice Department’s immigration policy, it’s clear that the central mandate is to reverse the harm of Sessions’s and Barr’s cherry-picked precedent-setting decisions. The incoming attorney general needs to take up their own cases and reorient interpretation of immigration law in ways that will yield more positive asylum cases, restrict the parameters for deportation proceedings, facilitate more releases from detention, reduce the immigration court backlog, and more.

Biden could also reverse the staffing choices of the Trump Justice Department, which promoted judges with questionable records and some of the highest rates of asylum denial to the appellate level of the immigration court system.

But Biden’s attorney general should go further than merely reversing the worst of the Trump administration’s immigration legal work. They should also seek to remedy some of the deficiencies built into the immigration legal system that have for years enabled coldhearted deportations and asylum denials.

As Sessions’s and Barr’s casework makes clear, immigration law is full of vague, malleable phrases and concepts, the definitions of which are only laid out in ever-evolving legal precedent. “Material support,” “good moral character”—a Biden attorney general could work within the vast confines of these terms to build a more humane immigration system.

Specifically, a Biden attorney general should work to redefine one of the most important phrases in asylum law: “particular social group.” U.S. law, based on international refugee law, stipulates that, in order for the government to grant a migrant asylum, the dangers from which they fled their home country must fit into one of five categories: persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” But this presents a big problem: These categories date back to the aftermath of World War II, and don’t take into account the sorts of reasons people become refugees in the 21st century—like targeted gang violence, or domestic violence with near full impunity for abusers, both of which, in many places, are just as deadly and just as inescapable as race-, religion-, nationality-, or politics-based persecution.

As a result, modern asylum seekers and the lawyers who represent them are forced to seize upon the vaguest of the five acceptable causes of persecution—“membership in a particular social group”—and attempt to explain why the violence they fled fits into the definition of such an amorphous term. This dynamic is under constant debate, and has led to reams of legal opinions and precedent setting forth its parameters.

Trump’s attorneys general have taken advantage of this legal chaos. In 2018, Sessions, obsessed with curbing the flow of Central American asylum seekers, asserted that the two most common types of threats those migrants flee (gang and domestic violence) are incompatible with “membership in a particular social group,” contradicting years of case law. A year later, Barr did the same with another common “particular social group” class: those endangered because of their proximity to a family member targeted by gang violence.

It should be a priority of any legislative immigration initiative to expand the parameters of asylum beyond these outdated categories—not least because the U.S. has had a direct hand in creating the conditions that made uncategorized types of persecution so rampant in certain countries. But until that happens, the immigration court system has to work with these limits, and a Biden attorney general should do everything they can to make the interpretation of existing laws as hospitable and humane as possible.

Chris Gelardi is a New York City-based journalist.

Why Los Angeles Activists Don’t Want Their Mayor In Biden’s Cabinet

Eric Garcetti, who may be considered for a position in the administration, is out of touch with the city’s working class and poor people, activists say. And they fear he’ll bring that sensibility to national politics.

Demonstrators in support of Black Lives Matter protest outside the residence of Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday.
(Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Why Los Angeles Activists Don’t Want Their Mayor In Biden’s Cabinet

Eric Garcetti, who may be considered for a position in the administration, is out of touch with the city’s working class and poor people, activists say. And they fear he’ll bring that sensibility to national politics.

In the midst of the coronavirus-driven recession, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti offered a $20 discount on parking citations—but be sure to read the fine print.

On Oct. 30, Garcetti tweeted, “We’re delivering assistance to Angelenos facing economic hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting Monday, with our new Early Pay LA program, @LADOTOfficial will offer a $20 discount on parking citations paid within 48 hours.”

Local progressive activists say Garcetti’s tweet revealed a broader disconnect with his constituents. “At a time when people can’t afford to pay their rent and haven’t been able to pay rent for months, Garcetti thinks offering a $20 [discount] on parking tickets would be helpful,” Ricci Sergienko, an organizer for People’s City Council and Sunrise Movement Los Angeles, told The Appeal in a text message. 

The mayor, he said, “has no clue what’s going on with working class and poor people in LA.”

Garcetti, who was co-chairperson of President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign, is reportedly being considered for a position in the administration, possibly as transportation or housing secretary. For over a week, under the banner of “Block Garcetti,” Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles has been leading demonstrations outside of the mayor’s home to protest his potential appointment. 

“He failed Los Angeles,” Sergienko said in a phone interview with The Appeal. “We’re going to be out there every day to make sure he doesn’t get appointed to those positions.”

One of those failings, activists say, is his handling of the city’s homelessness crisis. In January, when the homeless count occurred, there were 41,290 unhoused people in Los Angeles, a 16.1 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. 

“It’s an eviction crisis, it’s a displacement crisis, it’s a criminalization crisis,” said Anne Orchier, an organizer with NOlympics LA and a member of the LA Tenants Union. Garcetti, she said, has made Los Angeles into a “playground for the rich.”

In 2018, Garcetti announced that the police could once again begin enforcing the city’s sit-lie ordinance, which ordered that “no person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.” At the time, the mayor told the Los Angeles Times that the law is “a tool that we have before us, that we can and will use.” 

As part of the 2007 settlement in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, the city agreed that, with few exceptions, police would stop enforcing the ordinance until 1,250 more units of permanent supportive housing were built for chronically homeless people. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Lawyers Guild had filed the suit in 2003 on behalf of several people without homes. In 2018, Garcetti said the city had met its obligation, so arrests could resume. (The Los Angeles ordinance is in flux because of a subsequent circuit court ruling that struck down a similar law in Boise, Idaho. The City Council is considering amending local policies.)

In a written statement to The Appeal, Garcetti’s office defended the mayor’s response to the pandemic and his record on homelessness and housing. 

“The Mayor is deeply concerned for Angelenos who are struggling during this devastating crisis, and he is focused on doing everything possible to help lift them up,” Alex Comisar, the mayor’s deputy communications director, said in the statement. “The City has put hundreds of millions of dollars toward homelessness and rental assistance programs since the onset of the pandemic, and the Mayor will always keep looking for more. 

“The Mayor has been clear that we absolutely need more funding from Washington to address the scale of this economic crisis, and he is advocating for that assistance aggressively.”

In response to the pandemic, the mayor’s office has initiated several programs, including free COVID-19 testing for all Los Angeles County residents. As of Nov. 20, the city had tested over 2.24 million people, according to the mayor’s office. At the start of the pandemic, the mayor also imposed a limited moratorium on evictions. “Residential tenants in the City of Los Angeles may not be evicted during the declared local emergency in the City of Los Angeles if the eviction is a ‘no-fault eviction’ and any member of the household is ill, in isolation, or under quarantine,” reads his March order. 

He also temporarily halted evictions for tenants who can show they are unable to pay rent because of circumstances related to the pandemic. Housing rights activists have criticized these types of moratoriums for placing the onus on the tenant, and have demanded a cancellation of rent and an across-the-board moratorium on evictions. 

The mayor’s office says progress has been made on the homelessness crisis, and that Garcetti has proposed record investments in permanent housing, shelters, and services. 

But advocates say criminalization of the homeless has taken precedence over housing and services. In 2016, the Los Angeles Police Department made 14,000 arrests of unhoused residents, a 31 percent increase from five years earlier, even though arrests overall decreased, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times. Two-thirds of those arrested were Black or Latinx, according to the Times. 

“We don’t want [a HUD secretary] who sees police as a viable response to homelessness,” said Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles.

The mayor has also been widely criticized for criminalizing protest, including the most recent demonstrations in front of his home. Police have threatened to arrest protesters for using bullhorns and banging on pots and pans, according to Abdullah. 

“We’ve been met with a militarized police presence every single day in front of his house,” Sergienko said. “Police in riot gear show up.”

And while Garcetti condemned the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers, activists say he emboldened his own police department to brutalize protesters. 

“Eric Garcetti is willing to point to what’s happening in Minneapolis and what’s happening in Louisville, but not look at Los Angeles,” Abdullah said. 

On June 2, he took a knee with demonstrators outside the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, the Associated Press reported. “I hear you,” he said. “I hear what you are saying about the police.” That same day, the mayor reinstituted a curfew, and just days earlier he had called in the National Guard. During the demonstrations, the police beat protesters and shot projectiles at them. Between May 29 and June 2, police arrested more than 2,500 people, the Los Angeles Times reported

In the spring, more than 20 local groups and over a dozen City Council members sent a letter to Garcetti condemning his response to the protests. “Under your leadership, the city chose to further escalate tension and police violence by allowing officers to tear gas and beat grieving but peaceful demonstrators, calling in the National Guard and enacting citywide curfews with little warning and leaving hard-working Angelenos stranded,” they wrote. The signatories also called for a reduction in the police budget by at least $250 million.

In April, Garcetti had proposed raising the LAPD’s budget to $3.15 billion, which would constitute more than half of the city’s unrestricted general fund. In response to public pressure, he advocated for $150 million in cuts to the department’s budget, which was still significantly less than what activists had demanded. 

“Garcetti has been absolutely terrible for the city of Los Angeles and we don’t want his policies to become national policies,” Abdullah said. “We don’t want Garcetti failing up.” 

Against CDC Guidance, Denver Displaces Hundreds Of Homeless People Amid COVID-19 Spike

Cities across the country have continued to displace and criminalize homelessness during the pandemic, though the CDC cautions clearing encampments can heighten the potential for the spread of COVID-19.

In a predawn operation Monday, Denver officials uprooted more than 100 people living in an encampment near the Platte River.
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Against CDC Guidance, Denver Displaces Hundreds Of Homeless People Amid COVID-19 Spike

Cities across the country have continued to displace and criminalize homelessness during the pandemic, though the CDC cautions clearing encampments can heighten the potential for the spread of COVID-19.

In the midst of the biggest spike in COVID-19 cases in the United States since the pandemic began, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered police to displace hundreds of homeless people, leaving many with nowhere to go. 

In the early morning hours on Monday, police officers and city workers cleared an encampment in the city’s River North Art District (RiNo). Between 100 and 300 people are estimated to have lived at the encampment near an empty plot of land along the South Platte River. Videos taken by local organizers and activists show city workers throwing tents and belongings left behind into dump trucks.

The city has plans to open two sanctioned encampments with space for 30 to 60 people each, but they’re not open yet.

“If I could go inside, I would, definitely. Give me a house, give me a place to stay, keep me warm. But it’s not that easy,” Sierra Hamilton, who had been living at the encampment, said at a press conference on Saturday. She said she had been there for about a year and had once been contacted by outreach workers about a Section 8 housing lottery that was scheduled to happen a few days later. She said she wasn’t given any assistance applying for it and was only handed a card. She asked reporters gathered at the press conference if there were any other programs that provide housing assistance.  

Before living on the street, Hamilton said she worked at a 7-Eleven to provide for her two sons but could never make ends meet. “At the end of the week, I had bills to pay, and I had no money. But my sons wanted toys and stuff that they’d see on TV. And I felt horrible for not being able to have that extra money to put away, even though … I spent all these hours away from them.” She said she ultimately decided she’d rather be broke but at least get to spend all her time with her children. Her children are now living with her aunt and uncle in South Dakota.

“If they could just dedicate some land or something … then you wouldn’t have to worry about us,” Hamilton said. “Put a designated area where you want us and then you wouldn’t have to see us either. Maybe it could be like a program.” 

Denver police arrested Hamilton on Monday when they cleared the encampment. She was charged with interfering with police authority.

Since March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that cities allow unsheltered homeless people to remain where they are when individual housing options are not available, since clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the city and can heighten the potential for infectious disease to spread, putting others at risk.

But cities across the country have continually flouted this guidance. In Honolulu, it is illegal to sit or lie on certain sidewalks and public places, and police have conducted dozens of sweeps, citing, arresting, and displacing Honolulu’s homeless population in the middle of a global pandemic. In Phoenix, police and city workers forced hundreds of people out of an encampment close to homeless service providers and installed poles and chains on the easements of the encampment, blocking people from returning to the same spot. And in Portland, Oregon, about 100 people were forced out of an encampment last week, a move that Mayor Ted Wheeler called a “humane response” to homelessness during the pandemic.

The Denver encampment sweep will make it more difficult for the people who were living there to obtain nearby services, which can make it even harder for them to secure housing or jobs. 

“It’s disruptive for them, it’s disruptive for their neighborhoods, and it’s counterproductive,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “By making people move to another location, you are putting people at risk of exposure.”

An official from Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment told the Denver Westword that the city had several reasons to conduct the sweep: complaints from neighbors, the encampment’s proximity to a waterway, public health concerns, and a recent homicide at the encampment. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Instead of displacing and criminalizing homeless people, Alderman said the city ought to find a way to work with the unsheltered population to meet them where they are and provide services, like trash pickup, restrooms, sanitation stations, and security. At the start of the pandemic, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless worked with the Denver City Council and the Hampton Inn to help secure temporary housing in motels for hundreds of people experiencing homelessness. Alderman said a program like that, or other housing methods that look outside the current shelter arrangements, ought to be considered even after the pandemic.

“You can’t punish people when you don’t have the resources to house them,” Alderman said. “What the city needs to do is make investments in housing and incentivize landlords that have empty units” to work with the city to provide housing to those who need it.

There is strong bipartisan support for measures to provide temporary housing to homeless people and limit law enforcement’s ability to clear encampments during the pandemic. Pilot programs conducted in New York City, Vancouver, and Utah have shown that a housing-first approach to homelessness is a cost-effective way to help people get off the streets and back on their feet. Under such an approach, people are provided housing with wrap-around support services, without first needing to meet difficult prerequisites to qualify for housing. This approach recognizes that having stable housing can help people address mental health and substance use issues, and that requiring them to first address these issues to qualify for housing will keep them on the streets.

In Denver, Councilmember Candi CdeBaca, who called the sweeps “inhumane and a violation of poor people’s constitutional rights” has criticized the city’s decision to displace hundreds of people and risk exposing them and city workers who executed the sweeps to potential virus exposure. 

Through a spokesperson, CdeBaca told The Appeal she supports creating more safe outdoor spaces or sanctioned camps as an alternative to conducting sweeps and has called for an eviction moratorium to keep the homelessness crisis from worsening. She has also stressed the need to do more to keep people housed in the first place as a solution to homelessness, and has said the city needs to direct more resources toward getting unhoused people into stable housing.

“I am disgusted by the lack of humanity and lack of effort to implement reasonable solutions that bring every resident in the city into a safe and quarantined environment,” CdeBaca said in a statement released last week.

Police Funding Is a Pivotal Issue in Two Austin City Council Runoffs

Incumbents Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter have been targeted by conservative challengers because of the council’s votes to cut police funding and repeal a ban on public camping.

(Photo by kickstand/Getty Images)

Police Funding Is a Pivotal Issue in Two Austin City Council Runoffs

Incumbents Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter have been targeted by conservative challengers because of the council’s votes to cut police funding and repeal a ban on public camping.

Voters in Austin, Texas, showed support for the city’s progressive policies last month by approving an ambitious public transit plan and decisively re-electing Councilmember Gregorio Casar, who led the effort to reduce and reallocate police spending. But two City Council races will be decided by a runoff election, and two conservative challengers are hoping their support for increasing police funding and criminalizing homelessness can help them unseat the incumbents.

In Texas, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the race is decided by a runoff between the two top vote-getters. In District 6, incumbent Jimmy Flannigan received about 40 percent of the vote in a race against three other candidates, while District 10 representative Alison Alter received about 34 percent in a seven-way race. Flannigan will face off against Mackenzie Kelly and Alter against Jennifer Virden, both of whom trailed their opponents by at least 6 percentage points in the Nov. 3 election. Early voting begins Thursday. Election day is Dec. 15.

Conservative political action committees have targeted Flannigan and Alter in particular, as theirs are the two council districts with the most Republican voters. Their challengers have made a point of campaigning against the City Council’s moves to reallocate police funding and decriminalize homelessness by repealing a ban that barred people from sitting, lying, or camping in public places. Both Flannigan and Alter supported the move to defund police; only Flannigan supported repealing the camping ban. Though it’s unlikely that Kelly or Virden could do much to get their preferred policies passed if elected, given the makeup of the rest of the council, a win for either of them could make it a bit harder for the council to pass progressive policies in the future.

In August, the City Council voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling the academy’s troubled cadet classes. That $20 million will be used to open a new family violence shelter and fund violence prevention programs, housing services, substance use and mental healthcare services, and emergency medical services needs during the COVID-19 crisis, among other investments. Another almost $80 million will be taken from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab. That money will still be spent on funding those civilian functions, just not within the department.

Although conservative PACs are seizing on this as a political vulnerability, some Texas elections suggest calls to defund the police might not be as politically unpalatable as some have recently claimed. Austin police union vice president Justin Berry lost his bid to unseat a Democrat in a key race for Texas’s House of Representatives, despite spending much of his campaign falsely painting Austin as a city besieged by violence and chaos. In Travis County, Austin’s home, voters elected as chief prosecutor José Garza, who has pledged to reduce incarceration and hold police accountable. And council member Casar came out over 40 points ahead of the pro-law enforcement candidate running against him.

“I think while there’s some consternation about the phrasing, in general, there’s a lot of popularity for reallocating dollars from police to other social services,” Chris Harris, a local criminal justice organizer and advocate, told The Appeal last month. “People understand the dire need to end the war on drugs, increase police accountability, and fund other social services in lieu of police.”

District 6: Jimmy Flannigan vs. Mackenzie Kelly

Flannigan is running to continue representing District 6, which includes northwest Austin. He is the chairperson of the council’s Public Safety Committee, a small business owner, and a former president of the city’s LGBTQ chamber of commerce. First elected in 2016 after unseating conservative Don Zimmerman, Flannigan has since voted to reduce and reallocate funding for the police department, supported economic relief and rental assistance for people affected by COVID-19, and voted to turn motels into temporary and permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness.

“By delaying those [cadet] classes, we’ve been able to invest in permanent supportive housing, 911 call diversion, mental health support, substance abuse—a whole manner of different solutions,” Flannigan said in a candidate forum hosted by KUT 90.5, Austin’s NPR affiliate. “It’s precisely the type of reform and innovation we’re seeking. We have not cut DWI enforcement, we have not cut Victim Services.”

Kelly is the president of Take Back Austin, a pro-law enforcement group. She said she joined it because she could “no longer sit back and watch the downfall of our once great home.” Take Back Austin has pushed to bring back the ban on public camping in the city. Kelly herself has denounced the City Council’s move to decriminalize homelessness and has campaigned on a promise to get the camping ban reinstated.

Kelly, who is endorsed by Zimmerman and the Travis County Republican Party, is against cutting the police department’s budget and has claimed the council’s decision to cut police funding will cause a “rise in criminal behavior.” She has stated that she instead supports giving officers “proper resources” and more training. Kelly was recently photographed at a “refund” the police protest alongside the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders, a pro-police group, Austin police officers, and members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group. (After the photo drew controversy, Kelly’s campaign released a statement accusing Flannigan’s campaign of “name-calling and verbal abuse” but did not address the photo itself.)

“I am energized heading into this runoff,” Flannigan told the Austin American-Statesman. “District 6 has had this choice before and this district is not interested in going back to the time of my predecessor when we were the laughingstock of the city and the region.”

District 10: Alison Alter vs. Jennifer Virden

Alter has been representing District 10, which includes parts of northwest and west Austin, since 2016, when she defeated the incumbent, Sheri Gallo, in a runoff. In that race, Gallo initially had more than a 10-point lead over Alter, but Alter pulled ahead in the runoff with about 64 percent of the vote to Gallo’s 36. 

Alter is also a philanthropic adviser and business owner who previously oversaw the University of Texas’s Global Initiative for Education and Leadership. She is a former professor, with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, and chairperson of the council’s audit and finance committee.

During her time on the City Council, Alter has voted to reduce the police department’s budget and redirect that money to social services, moved to increase homeless shelter capacity and permanent supportive housing in the city, and backed the city’s move to turn motels into temporary and permanent supportive housing. Alter was one of the few council members who voted against the repeal of the ban on public camping, because, she said, she “did not believe the City had planned for the subsequent challenges we would face.” 

Though conservatives have painted the council’s move to reduce police funding as one that puts crime victims at risk, no funding to victim services has been cut, and Alter previously voted to increase funding and staffing for the department’s victim services division in light of the police department’s abysmal handling of sexual assault investigations.

Virden, a real estate broker who grew up in Austin, called the repeal of the public camping ban and police budget cuts the “final straws” for her and cited them as motivating factors in her run for office. She has campaigned on promises to “restore police budget cuts,” “end homeless camping,” and reinstate other ordinances that ban panhandling and sitting on sidewalks.

“I do not support ‘defunding the police’ of resources necessary to protect life and property,” Virden told Community Impact Newspaper in October. “I don’t support canceling cadet classes, canceling open positions or having social workers solely respond to family disturbances.”

Some Texas Elections Suggest Voters Aren’t Afraid of Defunding Police

None of the Austin City Council members who voted to cut police funding lost their elections, but a police union vice president who fearmongered about the defund movement did.

(Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Some Texas Elections Suggest Voters Aren’t Afraid of Defunding Police

None of the Austin City Council members who voted to cut police funding lost their elections, but a police union vice president who fearmongered about the defund movement did.

Austin police union vice president Justin Berry lost his bid to unseat a Democrat in a key race for Texas’s House of Representatives. Berry spent much of his campaign falsely painting Austin, which voted to reduce police funding in August, as a city besieged by violence and chaos as a direct result of the movement to defund police. His failure to beat incumbent Vikki Goodwin, who supports Black Lives Matter, suggests calls to defund the police might not be the political poison some have recently claimed.

This election, Democrats hoped to bolster their majority in the U.S. House and take back control of the Senate. Instead, their majority slimmed, and control of the Senate hangs on the results of two runoff elections in Georgia. Some moderate Democrats have blamed the lackluster performance on the more progressive wing of the party and claimed that their support for things like the defund movement cost them votes.

But exit polling shows 57 percent of voters expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and none of the Democrats who ran nationally in swing districts supported defunding the police. In fact, Max Rose, a first-term Democratic congressman whose district includes Staten Island, New York, said he believed police funding needs to increase, and he still lost his seat. And across the country, voters passed ballot initiatives to decriminalize drugs, create civilian oversight of police, and direct more county funding to social services. And they elected prosecutors like George Gascón in Los Angeles and José Garza in Travis County, Texas, who have pledged to reduce incarceration and hold police accountable. 

In Austin, none of the City Council members who voted to cut roughly $20 million from the police department lost their election (two are heading into runoffs, but both led their opponents by at least 6 percentage points in the Nov. 3 election). Councilmember Gregorio Casar, a progressive who led the effort to reduce and reallocate Austin’s police spending, won his re-election bid with almost 67 percent of the vote over a pro-public safety candidate who said crime was out of control in Austin.

“In Travis County, where Austin is, where police funding was cut, we elected a county judge who ran on a pledge to halt the construction of a new women’s jail and support funding of mental health and substance abuse treatment,” said Chris Harris, a local criminal justice organizer and advocate. “In [nearby] San Marcos, a member of a prominent local activist group won a City Council seat over an incumbent who had opposed police reforms.”

“I think while there’s some consternation about the phrasing, in general, there’s a lot of popularity for reallocating dollars from police to other social services,” Harris said. “People understand the dire need to end the war on drugs, increase police accountability, and fund other social services in lieu of police.”

Polling from Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute found that a majority of likely voters support creating new non-police agencies and transferring certain functions that police are doing right now to people who are better trained to do the job, like mental health professionals or other first responders. (The Justice Collaborative Institute and The Appeal are both independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.) 

In Austin, the City Council voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending, and eliminating contracts for things like license plate readers. That money will be used instead to open a new family violence shelter and fund violence prevention programs, housing services, substance use and mental healthcare services, and emergency medical services needs during the COVID-19 crisis, among other investments. Another almost $80 million will be taken from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab, though that money will still be spent on funding those civilian functions, just not within the department.

“People that are claiming defund might have cost them an election are largely running in races where they’re not actually in power at all to do anything about police funding. It’s a local issue,” Harris said. “In Austin, where it was cut, those local candidates all did fine. … It all seems more like an attempt to scapegoat activists, rather than take accountability for election results.”

In response to the George Floyd protests, Austin redirected police funding to social services, and the Texas Black Legislative Caucus put forth a bill to ban chokeholds and require law enforcement officers to render aid or intervene if another cop uses excessive force. Governor Greg Abbott, meanwhile, has pushed for harsher penalties for people arrested at protests and threatened to have state law enforcement agencies take control of Austin’s police force.

Abbott also endorsed Berry, a 12-year veteran of the Austin Police Department with a history of alleged misconduct who once compared Black Lives Matter protesters to the Ku Klux Klan. Berry ran as the Republican candidate for District 47, which includes part of Travis County and of Austin, and lost. Like Abbott and other Republicans, Berry repeatedly mischaracterized what the City Council’s proposal actually does and claimed Austin would soon have the highest homicide rate in the country. 

That’s not true, and it seems voters weren’t buying it—in Austin, they gave Berry the boot, and welcomed the City Council members back. And across the country, voters approved at least 18 ballot measures to increase police accountability and oversight, change police staffing and funding, and make body and dashboard camera recordings more widely available.

“The point of adopting policy positions is to improve the lives of everyday people,” Casar wrote in a recent opinion piece published by the Austin Chronicle. “But for too long, right-wing forces masquerading as centrists have held back real progress by claiming that justice must be put on indefinite hold, for the sake of electoral math.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Is Fresh Off His Book Tour, But Activists Say He Doesn’t Live Up to His National Reputation

Progressive lawmakers and activists say Cuomo has failed to adequately protect those who are out of work, at risk of losing their homes, or living behind bars, where the virus has spread rapidly.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Is Fresh Off His Book Tour, But Activists Say He Doesn’t Live Up to His National Reputation

Progressive lawmakers and activists say Cuomo has failed to adequately protect those who are out of work, at risk of losing their homes, or living behind bars, where the virus has spread rapidly.

A few months into the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo had become a national media darling. His daily streamed press conferences were praised for calming rattled nerves and at times forced the White House to delay its own televised briefings. Last month, he made the rounds promoting “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a book touting his successes managing the spread of the virus.

But Cuomo doesn’t live up to his reputation, New York-based activists and progressive lawmakers say. He’s failed to adequately protect those who are out of work, at risk of losing their homes, or living behind bars, where the virus has spread rapidly.

“I wrote bills to help to make sure that we had revenue raisers. I wrote bills to make sure that we could cancel rent. I made sure that we could have different ways that we could get people out of jail,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. “And yet it just isn’t on the radar for our governor or for our leadership.” 

Come January, Cuomo’s power—and national reputation—will be challenged by Niou, along with a slate of incoming newly elected legislators: Marcela Mitaynes, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Emily Gallagher, Jessica González-Rojas, Zohran Kwame Mamdani, and Jabari Brisport. Most of them defeated long-term incumbents and were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. 

They easily won their seats in the general election, running on platforms to decarcerate jails and prisons, cancel rent, and tax the rich—policies opposed by the Democratic governor.

“So much of our issues with the nature and the reality of our state comes back to the decisions of our executive, of Cuomo,” said Assemblymember-elect Mamdani. “Cuomo is a massive obstacle to building this better world that we not only need but we deserve.”

A recent conflict between Cuomo and the influential Working Families Party suggests the power of progressive candidates may be growing in the state. Cuomo supported a rule change that threatened to leave third parties, including the WFP—which endorsed his primary challenger in 2018—off future ballots if they did not meet a significantly higher threshold of votes on their ballot line in the election. (WFP and Cuomo are said to have a contentious relationship, though the governor often receives the party’s support.) Several WFP-endorsed officials opposed the proposal, which Cuomo later included in his 2020 budget, including Niou, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and state Senator Julia Salazar. U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren also campaigned to ensure the party’s survival. In the end, WFP received more than twice the votes needed in the election to automatically stay on future ballots—and more than twice their 2016 total.

And Cuomo’s existing powers may soon be curtailed. State Senator Alessandra Biaggi is ready to introduce a bill to take back some of the expansive emergency powers that the legislature granted Cuomo during the early days of the pandemic. 

Starting in the spring, Niou said she led efforts to collect and distribute masks to healthcare workers and cleaning staff, as well as food to her constituents. Help from the state was minimal, she said. 

“They gave us 200 gallons of hand sanitizer,” she said, adding that they received no masks. “That was all that we got from Cuomo and they were also in gallons, so we had to buy little bottles and hand fill them.”

Cuomo’s office said in a statement that “the governor and his administration have worked every day since the pandemic has started in order to bend the curve, fight this virus and keep New Yorkers safe.”

The governor’s office said that it also provided smaller bottles of hand sanitizer for constituents to all Assembly members. “There was never a request for masks made to us, but obviously if people did request masks and we had them available, obviously more became available as the pandemic kept coming, we provided them,” the statement said.

Niou said her office received only 1,000 2 oz bottles, and had to buy thousands more empty ones to distribute the bulk sanitizer; she provided The Appeal with her receipts. She maintained that her office requested masks from the state multiple times in April, but did not receive any. “When we asked for masks, we were told they were going to healthcare workers and hospitals and nursing homes, which is fine, but workers in our communities and our families needed them, too. So we got 20,000 masks from the city, and everything else we had to get ourselves.”

She added that she found it troubling that “the Governor wants to quibble about masks and sanitizer to avoid talking about the fact that he’s done so little to address the deeper systemic problems that made New York the epicenter of the pandemic with more deaths than any other state in the nation.”

For New York-based activists, Cuomo’s national image is at odds with the harm he continues to inflict on the state’s most vulnerable residents, who were hit hardest by the pandemic. More than 30,000 people in New York have died from COVID-19. Cuomo has blamed the death toll on President Trump, but according to infectious disease specialists, thousands of lives could have been saved if he had shut down the state one to two weeks earlier.

Instead he minimized the virus’s threat. On March 2, Cuomo said, “What happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” On that day, there were zero new cases of COVID-19 reported in the state, according to the New York Times’s COVID map and case count. On March 31, there were more than 8,000 new cases reported. 

As of Nov. 18, more than 1,700 state prisoners were confirmed to have COVID-19 and 18 prisoners had died from the virus, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.  

“The Cuomo administration and DOCCS have failed New Yorkers impacted by COVID-19 behind bars,” reads testimony presented to state legislators in September by the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign and the Parole Preparation Project. “Their response to the deadly virus specifically for people in New York State prisons has been at best negligent and dishonest, and at worst torturous and deadly.“

Cuomo has refused to use his clemency powers to release thousands of elderly and/or medically vulnerable state prisoners, as well as those held on technical parole violations. Since February, the governor has granted clemency to three prisoners. 

In May, Mamdani and other Democratic primary challengers sent a letter to the State Assembly and Senate leadership, calling on them to pass several measures including the Elder Parole Bill, which would allow people who are 55 years and older and have served at least 15 consecutive years in prison to be considered for parole. The bill is still in committee. 

“You see all these stories about how great he’s doing, but if you represent people that are incarcerated,” said Jared Trujillo, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, “it made us feel like, do our clients’ lives not matter?”

In the spring, Cuomo and state legislators also rolled back the state’s bail reform law, adding more misdemeanor and felony charges that would be eligible for cash bail—thereby exposing more people to pre-trial incarceration during a global pandemic. According to a new report by the Center for Court Innovation, “from July through November 1, the effect of those amendments alone has resulted in a 7 to 11 percent increase in the pretrial jail population.” 

“The steady rise in admissions now threatens to wipe out the effect of the initial reductions, putting more New Yorkers at risk of contracting the virus in the high-risk conditions behind bars,” writes the report’s author, Michael Rempel, the director of jail reform at the Center for Court Innovation. “The overwhelming driver of the increase is a steep rise in the number of people detained awaiting trial.”

In September, Cuomo’s office issued a press release entitled “Governor Cuomo Announces Moratorium on COVID-Related Residential Evictions Will Be Extended Until January 1, 2021.”

“As New York continues to fight the pandemic, we want to make sure New Yorkers who are still struggling financially will not be forced from their homes as a result of COVID,” Cuomo said in the release. 

But no such moratorium exists, explains Jason Wu, a housing attorney and trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. The Tenant Safe Harbor Act permits tenants to argue in housing court that they were financially impacted by COVID-19 and, therefore, should not be evicted for failure to pay rent. However, most New Yorkers are not provided counsel for housing court, who could help them raise this defense. Only tenants in New York City who live in certain ZIP codes and meet income requirements are guaranteed counsel in eviction cases. Those who are spared eviction can still be held civilly liable through liens on their bank accounts or garnished wages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a federal temporary eviction moratorium, through Dec. 31, for nonpayment of rent for those who meet certain criteria.

For months, housing rights activists have demanded that Cuomo cancel rent and impose a true eviction moratorium, but he’s given no indication of doing either, according to Wu. In July, Niou and Salazar introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act of 2020, which would cancel mortgage payments for small homeowners and rental payments for all tenants.

“Cuomo’s response to the housing crisis has been haphazard and piecemeal at best,” Wu told The Appeal in a statement. “He could issue a real eviction moratorium through executive order, or there’s a pending eviction moratorium bill in the legislature.”

And despite a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall and rampant unemployment, Cuomo has resisted calls to increase taxes on the wealthy. Instead, he’s proposed an austerity budget with cuts to hospitals, municipalities, and public schools.

“You can’t cut your way out of a recession,” said Niou. “We need to stop austerity budgeting. We need to make sure we’re investing in people, investing in us as a community. That makes good policy.”

During the first three months of the pandemic, more than a hundred of the state’s billionaires became richer, according to a report by the groups Americans for Tax Fairness and Health Care for America Now. New York City has more billionaires than any other city in the world, with a combined net worth of $424 billion, according to Forbes. The group Make Billionaires Pay has detailed 14 taxes that can be imposed on the state’s wealthiest residents, which would raise approximately $50 billion annually. 

We must be willing to enact equitable revenue raisers by taxing the millionaires and billionaires among us,” state legislators Biaggi and Karines Reyes wrote last week in the New York Daily News. The legislature can use those funds to cancel rent and mortgage payments, and establish a rental assistance program, they wrote. 

“We have not done enough to address the severity of the eviction crisis we face,” Biaggi and Reyes wrote. “With a new slate of lawmakers heading to Albany, this is an opportunity for the Legislature to lead.” 

Legal Aid’s Trujillo hopes the growing number of elected challengers will act as a warning to incumbents in the Democrat-controlled legislature. 

“It’s more than just Cuomo,” he said. “It’s not enough to just have ‘Democrat’ next to your name but just do the bidding of this governor. You have to actually act like a real progressive, otherwise you will lose your seat.”

This story has been updated with comment from Cuomo’s office and additional comment from Niou.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Julia Salazar’s first name.

Americans Are Getting Tired of Willie Horton-Style Fearmongering

In North Carolina, Attorney General Josh Stein’s Republican opponent painted him as soft on crime. Voters re-elected him anyway.

A still from the 1988 anti-Dukakis ad "Weekend Passes."

Americans Are Getting Tired of Willie Horton-Style Fearmongering

In North Carolina, Attorney General Josh Stein’s Republican opponent painted him as soft on crime. Voters re-elected him anyway.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

More than 30 years ago, an infamous television ad promoting George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign wrote a whole new playbook for cynically leveraging racist stereotypes for political gain. In 1988, while Bush, then the vice president, was embroiled in a tight race with Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, a pro-Bush political action committee premiered “Weekend Passes.” The 30-second ad linked Dukakis, then the Massachusetts governor, to crimes committed by a Black man named Willie Horton while he was on furlough from a state prison.

“Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty—he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison,” the narrator warned, as Horton’s black-and-white mugshot flashed onto the screen. A list of his offenses—“kidnapping,” “stabbing,” and “raping”—blared underneath a picture of Horton in custody as the voice-over described them in lurid detail. The message was clear: A vote for Dukakis would be a vote for all of those horrible things happening all across the country, inundating quiet neighborhoods with hordes of glowering, remorseless criminals unafraid of facing any consequences for their actions. 

Perhaps everything you need to know about “Weekend Passes”—its effectiveness, its shamelessness, its staying power in reactionary circles—is that the conservative columnist Ann Coulter praised the saga as Bush’s “finest moment,” and she deemed it “the greatest campaign commercial in political history.”

“Weekend Passes” was devastating for Dukakis, who had already watched his early double-digit polling lead in the race disappear. The Bush campaign, realizing it had struck a nerve, quickly debuted “Revolving Door,” an in-house version of the Willie Horton spot that again portrayed Dukakis as hopelessly lenient on violent crime. “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate,” boasted Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager. Sure enough, his candidate went on to defeat Dukakis in a landslide.

Since then, politicians casting about for a bump in the polls have repeatedly returned to the same crude stereotypes about crime and criminality in an effort to frighten white voters into lending them their support. And for a long time, those willing to exploit these tropes have watched their decision pay off handsomely. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president while making largely the same promise Bush did: to protect voters from brown people they imagined to be keen on terrorizing their communities. 

This sort of sensationalized coverage directly fuels America’s mass incarceration crisis. For politicians, conventional wisdom dictates that when in doubt, it is more prudent to stump for more prisons, longer sentences, and harsher punishments than it is to suggest that policymakers try something else. Every election became a race to see who could tar one’s opponent with the dreaded “soft on crime” label the fastest, and politicians began preemptively infusing their platforms with ever more draconian vows to crush lawlessness underfoot. 

This shift also relegated candidates who might otherwise be inclined to support criminal justice reform to the political sidelines. In the years after “Weekend Passes,” the state-level furlough programs associated with Horton—and used in California during the gubernatorial tenure of none other than Bush’s president, Ronald Reagan—more or less disappeared. Reliance on this rhetoric is not a partisan phenomenon, either: Four years after Dukakis’s loss, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign focused heavily on reassuring nervous prospective voters that a Democratic chief executive would be able to keep people safe. 

But more recently, there have been encouraging signs that voters are growing skeptical of this particular strain of lazy fearmongering. In this year’s race for attorney general in North Carolina, Republican Jim O’Neill linked Democratic incumbent Josh Stein to “looting, rioting, violence, and destruction,” and to “radical” liberals intent on abolishing the police. The national Republican Attorneys General Association chipped in with an anti-Stein ad that prominently featured ominous images of buildings going up in flames. “Stop the burning. Stop the madness,” it urged.

In the end, none of it mattered. In a state where voters backed Donald Trump for president and Republican incumbent Thom Tillis for Senate, they also re-elected Stein, with 50.1 percent of the vote. He won by a similarly narrow margin in 2016.

O’Neill is only the latest also-ran to learn the hard way that law-and-order bombast has its limits. In Virginia’s last gubernatorial election, Republican Ed Gillespie parroted President Trump’s anti-immigrant screeds throughout the campaign, warning voters of an impending MS-13-induced crime wave. He lost by nine percentage points. In the 2015 race for Louisiana governor, Republican David Vitter ran ads accusing the Democratic nominee, John Bel Edwards, of wanting to release “dangerous thugs” and “drug dealers” into “our neighborhoods;” in 2019, Republican Eddie Rispone’s ads featured footage of Trump ranting about “open borders extremists.” Even in this deep-red state, Edwards defeated them both. 

The last four-plus centuries of American life have made abundantly clear that the brand of racism that informs “Weekend Passes” politics is not disappearing anytime soon. But neither is the bipartisan consensus that the criminal legal system is hopelessly broken, and that spending billions of dollars to cage millions of people is an unconscionable waste of public resources and human lives. Voters understand that this country’s Pyrrhic obsession with retribution and punishment has not made anyone safer. Candidates who don’t learn this lesson are just sealing their own fates.

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.

Joe Biden Has to Be More Than the Man Who Defeated Trump

A Democratic president who politely listens to progressive rhetoric while failing to act on it is one who just watches the planet burn a little more slowly.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Joe Biden Has to Be More Than the Man Who Defeated Trump

A Democratic president who politely listens to progressive rhetoric while failing to act on it is one who just watches the planet burn a little more slowly.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Joe Biden has won the 2020 presidential election, but the task of moving beyond Donald Trump’s exhausting, traumatic White House tenure is just beginning. Ahead lies the hard work of governing a sprawling, polarized, damaged country that now exists in a perpetual state of emergency.

Throughout the campaign, Biden often sought to define himself less by the policies for which he stood than by the brand of leadership he’d replace in the White House. The election, he emphasized, was a referendum on “character” and “decency,” and a “battle for the soul of the nation”; his promise was to “restore” it, and return it to some semblance of normalcy. (“You won’t have to worry about my tweets when I’m president,” he promised in July.) The message was consistent: Trump was a nightmare, and Biden—a familiar politician walking a well-trodden path—was the man best equipped to wake the country up from it.

This narrative is comforting. It is also naively misguided at best, and willfully delusional at worst. America was staring down colliding crises of crushing economic inequality, disappearing jobs, unaffordable housing, skyrocketing consumer debt, racist police violence, a disintegrating social safety net, and out-of-control climate change long before Trump took office. Addressing these crises—to say nothing of the raging pandemic that Biden inherits from his predecessor, too—will be no easier or less urgent the day after he leaves it.

For millions of people, the intensity of the cryptofascist horror show that was the Trump administration infused this election with a grim, acute sense of by-any-means-necessary, particularly after Biden emerged as the Democratic nominee. But as he prepares to take office, reviving the intraparty fights of the Democratic primary might be more important than ever. Although he is of course a vast improvement over the man he’ll replace, Biden is also a lifelong moderate who is firmly entrenched within the party establishment. All available evidence from his more than four decades in elected office indicate that, as president, Joe Biden will govern from well within his centrist comfort zone, unless the Democratic Party’s ascendant left flank works to push him out of it.

Whatever you think of his voluminous, often-contradictory, sometimes-troubling record on the issues, Biden has always been a politician, not an ideologue. Supporters of agenda items like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, expanding the Supreme Court, passing a voting rights restoration act, and creating a federal jobs guarantee thus have a real opportunity ahead of them. Even if a closely-divided Senate ultimately prevents the next two years from becoming a bonanza of progressive legislation like many voters hoped, the more popular that these policies become among voters, the likelier Biden is to come around on them, too—and the likelier they are to become part of the party’s pitch in 2022 and beyond.

Biden does not, for example, support Medicare for All, as he memorably explained on the debate stage to his baffled opponent. But those who do support it can now discuss it from within the corridors of power, without immediately triggering a bad-faith smear campaign from a diametrically opposed Republican chief executive. During the Trump administration, their best-case scenario was stopping the GOP from wrecking this country’s crumbling healthcare infrastructure altogether; during the Biden administration, as journalist Zeeshan Aleem argues in The New York Times, Medicare for All proponents can finally go on offense. 

This same logic applies to climate: Biden doesn’t back the Green New Deal, but his embrace of its framework is a meaningful opportunity to push the party left. If the Biden agenda fails to make meaningful progress towards its benchmarks, it will be on him to either change course or explain why he won’t. When asked last month by CNN’s Jake Tapper about Biden’s opposition to a potential fracking ban, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that younger voters in particular are less interested in electing a president who agrees with them on everything than one who is “at least going to be receptive to their advocacy, activism, and protest.” If Biden’s chosen approach proves unsatisfactory, he can likely be moved by these forces on the subject of climate change in ways that Donald Trump obviously could not.

There are encouraging signals that Biden is as willing to listen to progressives as they are ready to challenge him: He has characterized himself as a “transition candidate,” and positioned his presidency as a “bridge” to a new generation of leaders. (“They are the future of this country,” he said in March.) In the meantime, members of that next generation certainly won’t win every argument with Joe Biden, but they’ll win some of them. At the very least, that process will give them the chance to persuade voters who, thanks to the mere presence of a Democrat in the Oval Office, may learn about or seriously consider some of these ideas for the first time. “It will be a privilege to lobby him, should we win the White House,” Ocasio-Cortez told Tapper. “I’m happy to make my case.”

Making that case will be critical, because the principles that have informed Joe Biden’s long career in politics cannot be the ones that define his presidency. Even the agenda on which he ran in 2020 may prove woefully obsolete by 2021. Efforts to reinvigorate the hollowed-out Voting Rights Act are doomed from the moment of their enactment, unless lawmakers also take steps to protect new legislation from Republican justices who will almost certainly move to destroy it. Stopping evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 pandemic is good, but the government must also address the billions in debt that already saddles working Americans riding out a rapidly changing economy. Unless Biden pushes to abolish ICE, an agency that has spent decades terrorizing communities of color, any incremental changes he implements to this country’s cruel, broken immigration system will remain vulnerable to conservative reactionaries who vow to roll them back. A Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate that fights Biden on anything beyond renaming a post office would be frustrating, but it cannot stop him and other Democrats from telling voters why Republicans are wrong, or from making the argument for why people should vote Republicans out of office when the next opportunity arises.  

What President-elect Biden must understand is that there is no such thing as returning America to normalcy. For decades, “normal” politics have failed in myriad ways, and the status quo remains too perilous for too many people for vanquishing Trump, by itself, to be enough. As president, Joe Biden can either be the man who merely ended the Trump era, or the one who also had the courage to help launch a better one. 

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.

In a Blow to the Progressive Prosecutor Movement, Allister Adel Wins the Maricopa County Attorney Race

Voters decided to keep Adel in charge of the third-largest prosecuting agency in the country. She is recovering from emergency surgery for bleeding in her brain.

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel.
Arizona PBS and the Arizona Republic via YouTube

In a Blow to the Progressive Prosecutor Movement, Allister Adel Wins the Maricopa County Attorney Race

Voters decided to keep Adel in charge of the third-largest prosecuting agency in the country. She is recovering from emergency surgery for bleeding in her brain.

Republican incumbent Allister Adel has narrowly won the race for the chief prosecutor in Maricopa County, garnering 51 percent of the vote. Her victory comes as a blow to criminal justice reform advocates who had thrown their support behind her opponent, Julie Gunnigle. Gunnigle was ahead in the polls on election night, but as the remaining votes were counted throughout the week, Adel took the lead by about 36,000. Adel was also rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for bleeding in her brain on election night after suffering a fall in her home a few days earlier. She remains in serious but stable condition, according to a spokesperson.

“We are humbled and incredibly grateful to the voters of Maricopa County for electing Allister Adel as county attorney,” Adel’s campaign spokesperson, Lorna Romero, said in a statement. “We must remain vigilant to ensure each person is treated fairly and equally in our criminal justice system, and that we are holding criminals accountable.”

Adel was appointed in October 2019 after her predecessor, Bill Montgomery, left for a seat on the state Supreme Court. As county attorney, Adel sets policies that influence what crimes are prosecuted and how, what charges prosecutors bring, what sort of sentences they seek, and who to keep in jail before trial. It’s a hugely significant role, since Maricopa County—home to Phoenix and nearly 4.5 million residents—is the fourth most-populated county in the country.

During her tenure, Adel has sought to distance herself from Montgomery’s legacy by making some changes at the office, but critics said these changes were superficial. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has a history of harsh charging and sentencing policies that saddle people with excessively long prison sentences. Charge stacking, or bringing multiple charges related to a single offense, has been commonplace. So has the use of “Hannah priors,” a practice unique to Arizona that allows prosecutors to charge people with multi-charge indictments as “repeat offenders,” even if they have never been convicted of anything in the past. Former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who was in office from 2005 until 2010, also implemented a policy, known as “plead to the lead,” which required people to plead guilty to the most severe charges against them in order to accept a plea deal. 

Montgomery led the office for almost a decade after Thomas’s departure. He was also a staunch opponent of statewide reform proposals who used his bully pulpit to sink legislative efforts to reduce sentences and implement punitive policies as a prosecutor. 

Though Adel has stated that she is “different from [her] predecessor,” some of her charging and sentencing decisions have belied that claim. Her office is seeking to sentence a 61-year-old man with chronic respiratory problems and substance use issues to eight years in prison for failing to return a rental car on time. In her past as a prosecutor in the vehicular crimes unit, Adel sent a young man to prison for 51 years for causing a car accident that injured four people. In June, she told The Appeal she stands by that sentence. Through a campaign spokesperson, Adel also told The Appeal that she would continue to use practices like charge stacking and Hannah priors when prosecuting cases.

In the months leading up to the general election, Adel herself has announced a number of changes at the county attorney’s office, though some have dismissed her efforts as insufficient. In August, for example, Adel implemented a new policy allowing anyone who was arrested for simple marijuana possession to avoid prosecution if they obtain a medical marijuana card. Critics have pointed out that the policy only helps those who can afford a card. 

“The critics are upset that she is a principled and effective leader who is actually getting things done,” Adel’s campaign spokesperson previously told The Appeal.

Her opponent, Gunnigle, had committed to making progressive reforms that would go much further, and pledged to reduce the county’s incarceration rate by 25 percent.

In a concession statement, Gunnigle thanked the voters and expressed support for Adel’s family while the county attorney continues to recover. “I am conceding on this race but we are not conceding on our values,” Gunnigle said. “This office continues to perpetuate some of the worst racial disparities in policing and prosecution in the country. It fails to acknowledge that Black lives matter by refusing to adopt a transparent and community involved process to handle officer use of force cases.”

Adel was endorsed by the Phoenix police union, and her victory is also a setback for police reform advocates, who have criticized her record on accountability. Adel has not committed to creating an independent unit to prosecute such cases, and has declined to bring charges against officers for killing civilians on multiple occasions. No charges have been filed in 52 of the 53 officer-involved shootings that have occurred in Maricopa County since Adel was appointed. Adel did file aggravated assault charges against Nathan Chisler, a Mesa police officer who shot an unarmed man in the hip last December.

Carroll Fife’s Fight For Unhoused Mothers Sparked A Movement Across The Country. Now She’s On The Oakland City Council Ready To Transform The City.

Fife has pledged to reinvest in the local community, aggressively combat the housing crisis, address income inequality, education, healthcare and more.

(Carroll Fife for Oakland City Council Facebook page)

Carroll Fife’s Fight For Unhoused Mothers Sparked A Movement Across The Country. Now She’s On The Oakland City Council Ready To Transform The City.

Fife has pledged to reinvest in the local community, aggressively combat the housing crisis, address income inequality, education, healthcare and more.

A year ago, Carroll Fife helped a group of homeless mothers take control of a vacant home in West Oakland as part of a grassroots effort to show that housing should be a basic “human right.” That protest—and the city’s controversial response to it—propelled Fife into the national spotlight and on Monday, following a concession from her opponent, incumbent City Council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the longtime activist took another step in her fight against inequality: election to the City Council.

Fife won her bid for the council after running on a broad platform promising to address injustice and racial inequities across the city. The platform was part of what she described to The Appeal in October as a long overdue program of dismantling systems of racial oppression that have lingered in America for decades since the civil rights movement.

“My perspective of the U.S. is this country has never atoned for the original sin of having people enslaved and used as property,” said Fife, executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Oakland. “Everything we’re experiencing today is a result of not addressing that.” 

Fife’s platform pushed back on the institutional barriers to Black people that come from a history of oppression. Last November, that pushback was evident in her work with the Moms 4 Housing movement that led to the two-month occupation of the vacant house in Oakland. That protest, which spurred similar occupations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, ended in January after sheriff’s deputies evicted the women. Moms 4 Housing ultimately reached an agreement with the property’s owner, however, that allowed them to move back in. 

Cat Brooks, a 2018 mayoral candidate and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, praised Fife as one of the city’s fiercest campaigners and said her City Council campaign was a chance to capitalize on the work done by local activists for years. Fife has the “right platform and the right message” for the current moment, said Brooks, and her policy priorities reflect a realistic response to the challenges faced by Oaklanders and the country as a whole. 

“The radical is rational, that’s something I’ve been saying since 2018,” Brooks told The Appeal. “Radical infers something so far out there and crazy and not doable, not feasible.”

What’s radical instead, said Brooks, is that in the richest state in the richest country in the world, there are people who are on the streets and in need of housing, shelter, and food. The solutions proposed by Fife, on the other hand, are “humane, compassionate, rational, and feasible,” Brooks said. 

“Socially, morally, and fiscally—the things that we’re talking about are rational and what make sense,” Brooks said.

Fife also ran on defunding the police and reinvesting in the local community, aggressively combating the housing crisis, taxing the rich, and the Black New Deal—a series of programs that include changes to California’s housing and policing crises as well as addressing income inequality, education, and healthcare. 

Although Fife is motivated by undoing the harm of racial injustice toward Black Oaklanders, her policies will help everyone in the city, she told The Appeal. “I believe in equity,” Fife said.  “And I believe in making sure people have what they need in order to thrive so everyone is OK.”

A longtime housing advocate, Fife wants to undo the effects of historic racism in California housing policy which have affected Black residents more than other groups. And with 70 percent of Oakland’s unsheltered population Black—in a city where Black residents only make up around a quarter of the people—there is still a lot of work to do, she said. Step one is ending the commodification of housing which has led to a speculator’s market in the city.

“My perspectives around getting speculators out of our city and decommodifying housing work for everyone,” she said. “Unless you’re a speculator.”

Watching her friends and neighbors “fighting just to exist” played into the decision to run, she told The Appeal, because there was space to help them in the halls of power rather than the street. “I know way too many people who’ve been beaten and broken, who are just trying to live a decent life,” Fife said. “They don’t have representation. They don’t have people standing up for them. And so I wanted to help.”

There are so many stories around housing and police brutality that “illustrate that the system does not work,” Fife said. 

Defunding the police could help address those issues. Although it is seen as a fringe position in media and establishment politics, the policy, said Fife, is a matter of practicality. The department’s $302 million budget gobbles up nearly half of the city’s general appropriations fund, and residents aren’t seeing any benefit to that level of spending. 

“We just don’t have any evidence that it’s actually giving us back the type returns that one might think with that investment,” Fife said. 

“What is the purpose if they don’t come when you call, and they don’t solve incidents after they occur, and if they’re in the process of engaging in illegal activity—such as harassing Black folks, trafficking young women in the sex trade, planting drugs, and killing people,” Fife said. “What are we paying for?”

Dropping the budget by 25 percent and reinvesting that money into community initiatives would change things—rather than relying on reformist policies that, in Fife’s mind, provide little in the way of actually solving problems. Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, the Thurgood Marshall civil rights fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, agreed. 

“I think that she’s right when she describes this kind of reform not working,” Ressl-Moyer said. “That’s rooted in truth, it’s rooted in facts, and it’s rooted in history.”

Oakland residents have been pushing back against the oppressive nature of American policing, and the city’s department has earned that pressure, Ressl-Moyer said. Defunding makes sense, she continued, because people suffering in different aspects of life—be it housing, mental health issues, access to jobs and income—don’t have the necessary, adequate services on hand to help. 

“The city budget is bloated for law enforcement and continually diminishes for health and housing services,” Ressl-Moyer said. “Pulling funding away from policing and into housing is logical and not at all a radical idea.”

Brooks told The Appeal that what’s happening in Oakland at the activist level is part of a nationwide effort by progressives to reclaim the Democratic Party for the left. Challenging establishment party figures, said Brooks, is the logical next step for activists who have seen their goals frustrated at the political level. 

“People with a history of being frontline organizers and advocates are moving their work into the halls of power to effect policy change in places where organizers haven’t necessarily been able to get the goods,” Brooks said.

Although many progressives have given up on the Democratic Party, the reality of the American system doesn’t leave a lot of other options, Brooks said. That has led to organizing to the left of the party and stopped progressives from engaging with power. 

“The Fife campaign is a perfect example of that at the local level,” said Brooks.

George Gascón Wins Race for Los Angeles D.A. in Major Victory for Progressive Prosecutor Movement

Los Angeles County, with the country’s largest jail system and largest local prosecutor office, is considered a crown jewel in a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

George Gascón, right, defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey, left.
(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photos from Getty Images.)

George Gascón Wins Race for Los Angeles D.A. in Major Victory for Progressive Prosecutor Movement

Los Angeles County, with the country’s largest jail system and largest local prosecutor office, is considered a crown jewel in a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

George Gascón will be the next Los Angeles County district attorney, winning a hotly contested race on a platform of greater police accountability and decarceration. The former San Francisco district attorney defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey, the first woman and first Black person to head the office, ending her eight-year tenure. During her time in office, she has largely fought reforms and defended the use of the death penalty

Lacey congratulated her opponent on his expected victory in a news conference Friday morning, and said her consultants had informed her she would not be able to close the gap in votes between them. At the time, Gascón was about 229,000 votes ahead of her in the race, with 53 percent of the vote.

Gascón’s win gives the nationwide movement to elect reform-minded prosecutors one of its biggest victories yet. He said during the campaign that he was looking to bring that wave to Los Angeles. “The problem is that LA County has come to a place where they use the most expensive and the most intrusive tools of the criminal justice system to deal with every behavior, and that is prosecution and incarceration,” he told The Appeal: Political Report in January.

The race, called the “most important DA race in the country,” narrowly went to a runoff in the March primary.  Months later, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, setting off calls for criminal justice reform across the country that buoyed Gascón’s campaign. 

The race for Los Angeles County DA has long been viewed across the country as a test of the criminal justice reform movement, even before Floyd’s death. Los Angeles County, with the country’s largest jail system and largest local prosecutor office, is considered a crown jewel in a nationwide push to elect progressive prosecutors. 

Now Gascón heads into office with a mandate to reshape that office, with a jurisdiction of over 10 million people. He has pledged to take people off death row and reopen investigations into four fatal police shootings that Lacey declined to prosecute. 

Gascón’s campaign platforms have made him an enemy of law enforcement unions, which spent millions of dollars opposing him. His critics say Gascón’s emphasis on alternatives to criminal prosecution and lighter sentencing will bring about higher crime in Los Angeles, pointing to the high rate of car burglaries during his time as San Francisco DA. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has accused Gascón of pursuing reforms that contributed to higher property crime. Gascón has said that he prosecuted the large majority of car break-ins but blamed police for not making arrests in most cases. He points out that San Francisco’s current DA, Chesa Boudin, has pursued similar reforms while crime in the city has gone down overall. 

Gascón co-authored California’s Proposition 47, which reclassified many drug and theft charges from felonies to misdemeanors. His campaign was largely backed by wealthy donors, including a late contribution from billionaire George Soros. 

Gascón says his tenure as Los Angeles DA will be the biggest test yet of the movement to elect progressive prosecutors. Crime rates in the county will be closely watched by his critics and supporters as a reflection of the reform movement’s success or failure. “It will impact elections in other parts of the country, where you have progressive prosecutors that are facing mounting challenges by police unions,” Gascón said in a September interview. “If I win and we can show that it actually works, it will really begin to devalue the scare tactics.”

Police accountability was a major theme in the race. Black Lives Matter accused Lacey of being beholden to law enforcement and failing to prosecute police shootings, organizing protests outside her office and home. And while Lacey has presented herself as a reformer, her most vocal supporters often mirrored President Trump’s tough-on-crime rhetoric. Jamie McBride, the face of the LAPD union that funneled $1 million against Gascón, called BLM a “hate group.” 

Although Lacey worked within the DA’s office for decades, Gascón, who immigrated from Cuba at 13, spent most of his career in law enforcement. He grew up in Los Angeles and served in the Los Angeles Police Department for almost 30 years, with stints as chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, and San Francisco before heading San Francisco’s DA office from 2011 to 2019.

At the time of the Democratic primary, Lacey had secured the endorsement of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and other members of the local political elite, though Gascón earned the local Democratic Party’s endorsement. But after Floyd’s death, Lacey lost some prominent endorsements, including Garcetti’s. And BLM protests against Lacey swelled in size over the summer. 

Now Gascón, like Lacey, will have to contend with a vocal Black Lives Matter movement. BLM’s Los Angeles chapter effectively backed Gascón’s campaign, despite his record of never prosecuting a police shooting during his tenure as San Francisco DA. Melina Abdullah, co-founder of BLM LA, says they plan to continue protesting for police accountability, regardless of who holds the DA seat.

Michigan Supreme Court Flips to Democrats

The ideological change is a boon for the left, as states prepare for redistricting in 2021 and the challenges that may come with it.

The Michigan Hall of Justice
(Photo by Steven_Kriemadis / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Michigan Supreme Court Flips to Democrats

The ideological change is a boon for the left, as states prepare for redistricting in 2021 and the challenges that may come with it.

Liberals in Michigan claimed victory in swinging the ideological makeup of the state supreme court.

Republicans held a 4-3 majority going into this week’s election. Democrats were able to flip that advantage with Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, a Democrat, who held on to her seat, and Democrat Elizabeth Welch, who captured the seat currently held by Stephen Markman, a Republican.

Although supreme court justice candidates can be affiliated with a political party, their names appear on the Michigan ballot without that affiliation.

Markman, who is 71, was barred from running for reelection because state law prohibits any person age 70 or over from being elected or appointed as a judge.

Because the state will redraw its districts in 2021, advocates say control of the court will be pivotal to future political battles. 

“It’s true that judges are interpreting the law, but their assessment about the world in which we live, the underlying facts on the ground and different competing principles that animate or are relevant to our government often vary by ideology,” said Leah Litman, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a host of the podcast “Strict Scrutiny,” a project of The Appeal.

In Ohio, where partisan control of the state Supreme Court was also in play, one Republican justice was able to thwart her challenge from Democrat John P. O’Donnell to maintain a majority on the court. Democrat Jennifer Brunner did oust incumbent Judith French, leaving Republicans with a 4-3 majority.

Democrats needed to pick up both seats to flip the court.

Justices for the Ohio Supreme Court serve six-year terms and justices in Michigan serve for eight years.

Republicans have enjoyed a heavily gerrymandered congressional map in Ohio over the last decade. Even though President Barack Obama won the state in 2012, he only carried four of its 16 congressional districts.

Last year, federal courts separately ordered that Ohio and Michigan redraw their district lines because they had been illegally gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. “The bottom line is that the dominant party in state government manipulated district lines in an attempt to control electoral outcomes and thus direct the political ideology of [Ohio’s] congressional delegation,’’ a three-judge panel for the federal District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Western Division wrote in its opinion. In May 2019, however, the U.S. Supreme Court put the lower courts’ rulings on hold.

It’s unclear how much fairer the next decade’s map will be. In 2018, voters in Ohio overwhelmingly approved a new, bipartisan plan to draw congressional districts before the 2022 midterms. The new plan encourages bipartisan agreement to adopt a new congressional map, but if the two sides cannot agree, the Republican Party may still end up empowered to push through a plan to its liking.

The liberal shift in Michigan could mean more rulings that could expand or preserve voting rights, reduce gerrymandering, and protect the powers the executive branch has in responding to emergencies, Litman said.  

In a 4-3 ruling in October, for example, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down efforts, by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to extend her emergency powers and issue orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including new waiting room procedures for healthcare facilities, requirements that doctors offices provide special hours for high-risk patients, and expanded telemedicine and telehealth procedures.

“We all understand how important the U.S. Supreme Court is,” said Litman, “and one reason why the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court is in some ways dangerous is because we don’t have a say in who the justices are.” 

Supreme Courts in states like Michigan and Ohio, Litman said, are different. “You have the opportunity to select the justices who will be making the law for your state on incredibly important issues ranging from voting rights, democracy, criminal justice—it just runs the entire gamut. It’s really important to have a say who the people who are making laws in your state are.”

Holly Mitchell Wins Supervisors Race With Big Implications For Criminal Justice Reform In Los Angeles County

The LA County supervisors are poised to tackle a wide range of criminal justice reforms, including moving children and people struggling with mental health issues out of the criminal legal system, and redirecting millions of dollars away from law enforcement and back into communities.

Holly Mitchell has defeated Herb Wesson in the race for an open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown

Holly Mitchell Wins Supervisors Race With Big Implications For Criminal Justice Reform In Los Angeles County

The LA County supervisors are poised to tackle a wide range of criminal justice reforms, including moving children and people struggling with mental health issues out of the criminal legal system, and redirecting millions of dollars away from law enforcement and back into communities.

Holly Mitchell, long known as a progressive reformer, has been elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors—a sign that transformative changes to the criminal legal system may be in sight for the most populous county in the United States.

The state senator beat former City Council president Herb Wesson Jr. for an open seat on the board, which functions as the governing body of Los Angeles County. Mitchell will replace Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has reached his term limit after 12 years as the county’s District 2 representative.

Since 2016, when progressives Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl were elected, Ridley-Thomas has leaned toward the political center of the five-member board, drawing criticism from local advocates for his record on housing and homelessness, and his entrenchment in establishment politics. With Mitchell’s win, the board now has a solid majority of progressive representatives. 

Her election comes at a time when the LA County supervisors are poised to tackle a wide range of criminal justice reforms, including moving children and people struggling with mental health issues out of the criminal legal system, and redirecting millions of dollars away from law enforcement and back into communities. 

The five members of the board are hardly household names locally, let alone on a national stage. Yet they wield enormous power, representing around 2 million constituents apiece and overseeing an ever-growing $36.8 billion budget for a county government apparatus that includes health and human services, parks and recreation, public works, and law enforcement: the DA’s office, probation department, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

In Sacramento, Mitchell has made a name for herself as a staunch advocate for working families, young people, and the environment. During her decade-long tenure in the state legislature, she served as the head of the Senate budget committee and co-authored bills that work to limit the overreaches of the criminal legal system: granting the possibility of parole to people who were sentenced to life in prison as minors, sealing records for people whose arrests did not result in conviction, expanding voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, and creating a higher standard for police use of force.

“Holly Mitchell has been the biggest champion of criminal justice reform in the state of California at the state level,” Anthony Robles, the campaigns coordinator at the Youth Justice Coalition, told The Appeal earlier this month. His organization has worked closely with Mitchell on a number of bills that have helped extricate young people from the criminal legal system. Most recently, they collaborated on SB 1290, which eliminated debt incurred by minors during trial, probation, and detention before 2018. 

Mitchell will now play a pivotal role in determining how law enforcement is funded in the county, at a time when many community leaders believe that genuine transformation of the criminal legal system is within reach.

“For a long time, county government has been thought of mainly by many people as merely a prosecutor or administrator of penalties,” Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who supported Mitchell, told The Appeal. 

Recently, though, he said, “people are starting to try to reimagine county government, maybe remake it, as a provider of health and hope to people in dire circumstances, and not just their prosecutor or someone who metes out penalties.” 

This shift is in no small part due to the tireless organizing of local racial justice groups, who have been lobbying the Board of Supervisors for criminal justice reform for years. The supervisors proved to be receptive to the demands of community organizers in recent years. They have established a civilian oversight board to monitor the sheriff’s department; moved ahead with the closure of the notorious Men’s Central Jail, and established working groups to study alternatives to incarceration and youth justice reform. After an intense organizing effort by the Reform LA County Jails Coalition, Measure R, a motion to increase the oversight board’s power to hold the sheriff’s department accountable and develop a plan to reduce the county’s jail population, was placed on the March primary ballot. It passed with over 70 percent of the vote

In the months to come, the board will have to continue the Men’s Central Jail closure process, move forward with the findings of a report on youth justice currently being authored by the Youth Justice Coalition, and contend with controversial top sheriff Alex Villanueva.

Mondaire Jones Is Bringing the Fight Against Systemic Racism to Congress

Jones has vowed to support expansion of the Supreme Court, back the Green New Deal, and push for criminal justice reform.

(Courtesy of Mondaire Jones campaign.)

Mondaire Jones Is Bringing the Fight Against Systemic Racism to Congress

Jones has vowed to support expansion of the Supreme Court, back the Green New Deal, and push for criminal justice reform.

Mondaire Jones has won the race to represent New York’s 17th District, becoming one of the first Black LGBTQ members of Congress. Jones, an attorney from Spring Valley, New York, vowed to support expansion of the Supreme Court, back the Green New Deal, and push for criminal justice reform.  

Jones told The Appeal he wants the government to invest in alternatives to incarceration, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, abolish private prisons and the federal death penalty, and legalize cannabis. He also wants to make federal funds for local municipalities conditional on independent procedures for investigating killings at the hands of police.

Jones was raised in Rockland County, which is part of the congressional district he will represent. His district also includes parts of Westchester County. He’ll replace longtime Representative Nita Lowey, who is retiring after 32 years. 

Along with criminal justice reform, Jones said he is prioritizing changes to protect the country from attacks on democracy. Among these, he’s been a strong supporter for expanding the Supreme Court. He advocated for expansion even before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and said that it’s vital to achieving the reforms that former Vice President Joe Biden hopes to achieve if he becomes president. 

“To ensure that legislation has permanence, we must unrig the Supreme Court and ensure that we no longer have a hyper partisan majority that is hostile to Congress,” Jones said. He added that Chief Justice John Roberts’s role has been to “systematically undermine our democratic institutions,” referring to the court’s 2013 ruling that invalidated part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protected voters from discrimination.

Jones thinks that the Court expansion should be included in the For the People Act, a bill passed by the House last year and awaits Senate action that would strengthen voting rights and ethics rules, and limit gerrymandering. He said he also plans to introduce legislation to expand the court and is “looking forward to being the leading voice on this issue in the House of Representatives.” 

Jones, who was endorsed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is also a supporter of the Green New Deal. The legislation, introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts, sets targets for cutting carbon emissions while also creating jobs. Jones said he is committed to tackling the climate crisis and wants to introduce high-speed rail in Rockland County that would get residents to New York City in one ride, as opposed to driving or taking the bus. 

“Nothing else matters if we don’t have a planet to inhabit and we have to start acting like that,” Jones said. 

Francesca Hong Wins A Seat In The Wisconsin Legislature. She’s Fighting For A Living Wage And Workers’ Rights.

The chef and restaurant owner says she plans to support the fight for a $15 minimum wage and other reforms that will make ‘Wisconsin work better for more people.’

(Courtesy of the Francesca Hong campaign)

Francesca Hong Wins A Seat In The Wisconsin Legislature. She’s Fighting For A Living Wage And Workers’ Rights.

The chef and restaurant owner says she plans to support the fight for a $15 minimum wage and other reforms that will make ‘Wisconsin work better for more people.’

Francesca Hong, a small business owner who supports raising the minimum wage and other reforms to help workers, has won her bid to fight for those reforms from within the halls of Wisconsin’s State Assembly. Hong, the child of immigrants, has become Wisconsin’s first Asian American state legislator

In October, Hong told The Appeal that reforms like a higher minimum wage and labor contracts for hourly workers aren’t just about fairness for workers. They’re also a means to strengthen both small businesses and the communities that depend on them. Hong, who owns a restaurant in downtown Madison with her husband, said investing in workers is ultimately better for businesses, like the restaurant and retail industries, that have what she called “a huge problem with labor turnover.” 

A living wage and reforms like contracts for hourly workers, Hong said, would give employees a reason to want to stay in their jobs. “In return, a better-off workforce and more stable local businesses strengthen communities because,” Hong said, “most employees are putting [their] money back into their communities.” Increasing workers’ purchasing power, she added, would make both the businesses they patronize and the communities those businesses are in more self-sustaining.

In a statement to the press announcing her victory, Hong emphasized the role she believes small business owners should play in working “towards more equitable economic infrastructure.”

Saying she is “grateful beyond measure” for the support of her district’s voters, Hong immediately turned to the challenges ahead.

“We must strive to help working class individuals and families to improve conditions in housing, public education, job security and wealth building,” she said. “We must invest in our main streets, taking the lead from independent small business owners, to work towards more equitable economic infrastructure. But above all, we must prioritize racial equity and work to invest in communities that have been defunded and decimated by irresponsible and apathetic GOP leadership.”

Hong plans to support legislation to give tax credits to small businesses that provide hazard pay and paid sick leave for hourly workers. Although improving workers’ pay and working conditions are important issues for her, she said she was also inspired to run by what she called the “inaction from the GOP leadership” during the COVID-19 crisis.

Hong’s criticism about the current state legislature seems to be backed up by the numbers. According to an October report by, Wisconsin’s legislature has been the least active full-time legislative body in the U.S. since states started meeting to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, a legislative committee did meet to block a rule prohibiting landlords from charging late fees on rent during the public health crisis.

Several members of the Republican-led body are landlords, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Since 2011, the legislature has passed a series of Vos-backed bills dismantling tenant rights, including one that allows landlords to put renters’ belongings on the curb immediately after an eviction rather than placing the property in storage.

“I think now we’re having to fight, and folks here in Madison are having to fight for basic human rights, and it’s because of the past 10 years of really regressive policies” beginning when Scott Walker was elected governor in 2011, Hong said. Walker lost his 2019 re-election bid to Democrat Tony Evers.

Even though her desired reforms are likely to face an uphill battle, Hong said one of the driving forces behind her decision to run was her desire to answer the question: “What does it mean to have representation matter?”

“I decided to run for the state legislature because it’s really missing representation” from working-class individuals and people of color, Hong said, “folks who have most often been harmed by government. I think that I’m learning more about those people. I’m thinking about how government has harmed me, and how I don’t want that to be the story anymore.”

“I’m born and raised in Wisconsin, I’m a daughter of immigrants … and to know that there are so many people who do not feel safe, who do not feel like they have the opportunities I have, has really made me re-evaluate what’s going on.”

“The work is expansive, but with constant collaboration and involvement with this community, I am confident we will get shit done together,” she said in her election night statement.

Esther Agbaje, Fighting For Affordable Housing And Prison Reform, Becomes Minnesota’s First Nigerian-American Legislator

“I have always had a focus on public service, always a desire to make sure that I’m using my skills and talents to help people and to make the community around me a little bit better,” she said.

(Courtesy of Morris Goodwin.)

Esther Agbaje, Fighting For Affordable Housing And Prison Reform, Becomes Minnesota’s First Nigerian-American Legislator

“I have always had a focus on public service, always a desire to make sure that I’m using my skills and talents to help people and to make the community around me a little bit better,” she said.

Political newcomer Esther Agbaje has become Minnesota’s first Nigerian-American legislator after winning the seat formerly held by long-time state Representative Raymond Dehn.

In August, Agbaje was one of four progressive newcomers who prevailed over established Democratic legislators in the primary—two in the state House and two in the Senate.

In a discussion with The Appeal in October, Agbaje said her state is facing a “million dollar question:” why are there such huge racial discrepancies in Minnesota given the state’s progressive income tax, and a Fiscal Disparities policy that shifts tens of millions of dollars within metropolitan areas to meet different school districts’ various needs?

“I think a lot of it [is due to] remaining vestiges of segregation and institutional racism,” Agbaje said, which persists even though “we have all of these institutions that are meant to be progressive and support the people of Minnesota.” To counter issues including vastly lower Black home ownership rates, poverty rates, and high school graduation rates, Agbaje plans to support bills to change the income eligibility to qualify for current subsidized housing options and build more affordable housing. 

Housing is a personal issue for Agbaje. While attending Harvard Law School, she volunteered in a legal clinic representing clients being threatened with eviction—work she continues today as a volunteer with Hennepin County’s Volunteer Lawyers Network Housing Court Project. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said, to work with people who are suffering economic hardship, “and our response as a society is to put them out on the street.”

Agbaje is also interested in prison reform, a set of issues she became aware of during her successful lawsuit that forced the state’s Department of Corrections to provide incarcerated people infected with Hepatitis C with antiviral medication in 2019.

The case “opened my eyes,” Agbaje said, to issues including the kind of food incarcerated people are given and “how we look at punishment,” including solitary confinement, which she would like to prohibit. In addition, she said, although she is still learning about incarceration in Minnesota, she is definitely looking forward to “using my platform to advocate for prisoners and making sure that while they are serving their time, they’re not treated unfairly.”

Agbaje said she’d like to ensure incarcerated people have access to educational opportunities and that they and their families aren’t faced with the “costly imposition” of expensive phone calls as they work to stay connected.

As a new legislator representing the city where George Floyd was killed by police, Agbaje has also joined the call to divest from the police department and invest in social support work.

Agbaje is the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and a librarian who worked in homeless services, parents who raised her “with the outlook that you’re always giving back to people,” she said. The drive to give back led Agbaje to continue service work during her postsecondary education, including spending part of her time at Harvard Law School representing poor people facing eviction. It’s also the reason that, while pursuing a master’s in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania, she worked with the city of Philadelphia to create tools to help evaluate the city’s homeless service programs.

As she has traveled in different parts of the country and the world, Agbaje said, she’s had the opportunity to see “people have a lot of the same desires and needs—to come home at the end of the night to their families, to have a good paying job, and to be able to have a stable place to call home.” Those realizations, she said, “are the kind of things that have kept me grounded in my job.”

“I have always had a focus on public service, always a desire to make sure that I’m using my skills and talents to help people and to make the community around me a little bit better,” she said.

Athena Hollins Wins Seat In Minnesota State House, Pledging To Fight For Broad Police Reforms

Hollins’s ‘very personal’ decision to run was sparked in part by the Trump administration ‘catching everything on fire.’ Now she wants to advocate for subsidized child care, police reform, and more.

(Courtesy of Sarah Mayer)

Athena Hollins Wins Seat In Minnesota State House, Pledging To Fight For Broad Police Reforms

Hollins’s ‘very personal’ decision to run was sparked in part by the Trump administration ‘catching everything on fire.’ Now she wants to advocate for subsidized child care, police reform, and more.

Athena Hollins began her successful run for the Minnesota House seat representing the north side of St. Paul before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and before George Floyd was murdered by police in neighboring Minneapolis. 

Her decision, she told The Appeal in October, “was really very personal,” and inspired in part from a belief that current legislators, including then-incumbent Representative John Lesch, weren’t enough to engage the community—“especially communities of color and lower income communities.”

Hollins’ decision was also inspired by the Trump administration. With the federal government “kind of catching everything on fire,” Hollins said she felt compelled “to be as active as possible” in her community.

Before COVID-19, and before the murder of George Floyd, Hollins said her campaign’s first focus was on the need for subsidized childcare. While that focus has “fallen off a bit,” she said, “there are still some things I would love to see,” including legislation to supplement the cost of childcare. 

“Honestly, if we care about children and we are worried about educational discrepancies as they get older … we know that early childhood care and early childhood education is something that is so impactful as we move forward,” Hollins said. In addition to subsidizing childcare, Hollins hopes to advocate for legislation to create a police misconduct tracking system, increase accountability for “predators in the housing market,” and increase both the availability of mass transit and account for the gentrification that can take place when some kinds of mass transit are constructed in different neighborhoods. 

Hollins is one of four progressive challengers who defeated incumbent Democrats in the August primary. (In Minnesota, the Democratic Party is known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.) 

“I’m honored to have been chosen to serve the people of 66B at the Minnesota Legislature. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, not just in tackling the COVID crisis and rebuilding our economy, but in fighting for environmental justice, racial justice, and affordable housing,” Hollins said in a statement.

While Hollins supports reallocating police funding to social services, she doesn’t want to stop there. In addition, she’d like to see her state create a statewide tracking system for both proven and alleged instances of police misconduct.

“It’s too easy for police officers to behave badly in one city and simply leave that department and get rehired in the city right next door,” she said. “Frankly, that’s something we should be looking at on the federal level also, because there’s too much movement between officers from state to state, where there is very little accountability for bad behaviors that have happened previously.” 

In June 2019, The Pioneer Press reported that, in Minnesota alone, arbiters reversed at least 46 percent of police terminations between 2014 and May 2019. Nationwide, according to the report, factors including the lack of a nationwide database tracking misconduct, smaller forces knowingly hiring officers who have been fired for previous misconduct, and the ability to successfully appeal a firing decision makes it relatively easy for violent police to either retain their current jobs or move to new ones.

Hollins also has her eye on her area’s housing situation. The lack of affordable housing is one of the driving forces behind the glaring racial disparities in income and employment. The median rent in St. Paul is $1,001 and the median home costs just more than $240,000. At the same time, the median Black family income in Minneapolis-St. Paul is $38,178—less than half the median white family income of more than $84,000. In the district Hollins is running to serve, more than 40 percent of district residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, according to the Census Bureau

In addition to strategies including accountability for “predators in the housing market” and statewide investments in mixed-income, multi-family housing, Hollins said more attention should be paid to the effect of public transit on housing.

“We’re kind of in this dead zone for buses,” Hollins said of the lower-income, diverse neighborhood in which she lives. “If I want to catch the bus in either direction, I’m having to walk a mile.”

Even the availability of some kinds of mass transit can have a negative effect on a community. As the result of light rail being constructed in St. Paul’s Rondo community, Hollins said, “a number of families that live there can no longer afford to live” in the traditionally African American community, either because of rising home prices or because of rental properties being sold because light rail has made the neighborhood more desirable.

One assumption that Hollins doesn’t accept is that she and Minnesota’s other progressive legislative newcomers are riding the wave of a demographic shift toward “young progressives who are fly-by-night candidates.”

“What happened in Minnesota was not a demographic shift,” said Hollins, who defeated Lesch in the primary by more than 20 percent. “It’s not that we have more people of color, or more young people who are voting. … We’re looking at [voters] who are really tired of the status quo and tired of the current political system as it stands.”

“I think what we’re really seeing is a shift of folks who want to be excited, and they want to be engaged, and they want to be organized, because if the current federal government and the Trump administration has shown us anything it’s that we’d need to be organized, engaged, and present,” she added.

Reformer Ed Gonzalez Wins Second Term As Harris County Sheriff

Houston area voters re-elected Gonzalez after he supported bail reform, cleaned up the county jail, and provided aid to incarcerated people living with opioid use disorder.

(Photo via Ed Gonzalez's campaign)

Reformer Ed Gonzalez Wins Second Term As Harris County Sheriff

Houston area voters re-elected Gonzalez after he supported bail reform, cleaned up the county jail, and provided aid to incarcerated people living with opioid use disorder.

Although Texas may be slowly becoming a purple state,  its criminal legal system is still dominated by hard-right sheriffs and prosecutors who want to expand their office’s footprint

Voters  in Harris County (Houston) supported change on Tuesday by re-electing Ed Gonzalez, one of the most reform-minded sheriffs in America. 

Thanks in part to constant lobbying from local advocates, Gonzalez spent his first term cleaning up the county’s local jail, supporting bail reform efforts, and decreasing the number of misdemeanor charges that could lead to arrest. He also withdrew from the county’s 287(g) collaboration program with ICE —and even distributed a drug to incarcerated people with opioid use disorder that lessens their cravings for heroin.

“Thank you to those who voted for me; and whether you voted for me or not, I will continue working hard to keep you safe,” Gonzalez wrote on Twitter. “The time for campaigning is over. It’s time to unite. We’re all in this together!”

Gonzalez, an 18-year veteran of the Houston Police Department and a former Houston City Council member, was elected sheriff in 2016. He inherited a county jail with poor conditions of confinement and inadequate medical treatment that resulted in at least 20 preventable deaths, according to a 2009 Department of Justice investigation. Suicides occurred at a high rate. The county also charged incarcerated people exorbitant rates for everyday items— including $10 for access to nail clippers—a practice Gonzalez ended this year.

Although Gonzalez has not solved all of the department’s issues, he made substantive efforts to right many of the wrongs committed by his predecessors. In 2017, Black Lives Matter Houston organizers criticized Gonzalez after Vincent Young died by suicide in the Harris County Jail while experiencing untreated drug withdrawal. (Young’s family later sued the county in federal court.) But Gonzalez improved the jail’s conditions after Young’s death. Last year, no one died by suicide in the jail.

Elsewhere, Gonzalez supported reform efforts rejected by other sheriffs around the country. In 2017, Gonzalez terminated the county’s 287(g) agreement with ICE, which allowed local cops to enforce immigration law on ICE’s behalf. (Although the Houston Press later reported that Gonzalez continued to honor ICE detainer requests by holding people inside the county jail so ICE could pick them up.) That same year, Gonzalez began offering people leaving the jail shots of Vivitrol—a drug that curbs opioid cravings and helps wean people off of opioid dependence. 

Perhaps most important, Gonzalez pushed his department to arrest fewer people and to hold people in jail for shorter periods of time. In 2017, advocates sued Harris County—and Gonzalez—over the county’s misdemeanor bail practices. But in March of that year, Gonzalez testified against the county and in favor of reforming local cash bail rules. (A lawsuit over the county’s felony bail procedures is pending.) This year, Gonzalez’s office launched a pilot “cite and release” program that lets officers issue tickets for offenses including graffiti, driving without a license, and petit theft. In March, as COVID-19 began its spread across the country, Gonzalez offered prescient warnings of the danger posed by the virus to incarcerated people. “I’m trying to do my part to serve our broader community and healthcare workers by not adding more potential ICU patients from my jail,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve tried to be proactive, I’ve tried to educate others about the seriousness of the issue.”

And while Gonzalez has not stood with calls from local activists to defund the police, he has expressed a willingness to use fewer armed officers for low-level emergency calls. In 2017, his office started an iPad-based telepsychiatry program where deputies responded remotely to mental health crises. The program is now permanent, and Gonzalez has said that he is looking into whether unarmed healthcare providers could respond to even more emergencies.

California Voters Reject Regressive Measure That Would Have Rolled Back Years Of Successful Criminal Justice Reforms

The ballot initiative would have bloated prisons and jails in the state and undone important criminal legal reforms, advocates say.

A voter wears an 'I Voted' badge after casting their ballot in a mail-in ballot drop box outside of a library ahead of Election Day on Oct. 5 in Los Angeles, California.
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

California Voters Reject Regressive Measure That Would Have Rolled Back Years Of Successful Criminal Justice Reforms

The ballot initiative would have bloated prisons and jails in the state and undone important criminal legal reforms, advocates say.

Voters in California have rejected a ballot proposition that would have rolled back years of criminal justice reforms. 

Advocates say Proposition 20, which would have reclassified certain misdemeanors as felonies, would have resulted in the incarceration of as many as 10,000 more people in the state’s prisons and jails.

The vote against Proposition 20 keeps on the books Propositions 47 and 57, both of which voters approved in the last decade to address the legacy of so-called tough-on-crime laws that led to the creation of the state’s overcrowded and costly prisons. 

Proposition 20 amassed support from police, corporations, and other businesses, including large grocery chains like Ralphs and Safeway. They argued that the ballot measure would prevent “organized retail crime,” an industry term to describe coordinated theft, and that it would keep communities safe by increasing penalties for those convicted under the revised legislation.  

Sophora Acheson, executive director of Ruby’s Place, a nonprofit focused on victims’ services, opposed Proposition 20 because it would have diverted taxpayer dollars back into carceral systems instead of supportive services. 

“They are literally trading victim services for more incarceration,” Acheson told The Appeal of the ballot measure’s supporters.

By rejecting Proposition 20, California voters “put to rest both in California and nationally the failed and misguided criminal justice policies of the past,” said Dan Seeman, a former deputy cabinet secretary to Governor Gavin Newsom who worked with the No On 20 campaign. 

He said that the last three decades of California’s pro-incarceration policies, like its three strikes law, has led to similar legislative efforts in other states, and rejecting Proposition 20 demonstrates that targeted, fact-based approaches to safety work. 

“We’ve been leaders in both retrograde and racist mass incarceration policies and also in fixing those policies,” Seeman said of California.

‘The Squad’ Is Growing—And So Is Its Power

Members of The Squad are already among the Democratic Party’s most influential voices.

Jamaal Bowman
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

‘The Squad’ Is Growing—And So Is Its Power

Members of The Squad are already among the Democratic Party’s most influential voices.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

The Democratic Party is at war with itself. Across the country, and at all levels of government, a vision of the party anchored in the interests of everyday people is challenging the centrist establishment coalition that has long tethered itself to Wall Street and corporate donors instead. Nowhere is this power struggle more visible than in the U.S. House of Representatives, where insurgent Democratic candidates are declaring victory in key races across the country tonight. This marks the second straight election in which voters who demand more responsive representation in Washington have elected new lawmakers who are not shy about promising to deliver it.

This movement burst on the national scene in 2018, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Representative Joe Crowley, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and went on to win the general election in New York’s 14th Congressional District. “I’m not running ‘from the left,’” Ocasio-Cortez said during the primary. “I’m running from the bottom. I’m running in fierce advocacy of working class Americans.” 

Along with Ayanna Pressley, who ousted longtime incumbent Representative Mike Capuano in Massachusetts’s Democratic primary, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both of whom won primaries for seats vacated by Democratic incumbents, the foursome known as “The Squad” have since emerged as prominent voices within Democratic politics, their relatively junior status in the House of Representatives notwithstanding.

“It’s not just about dismantling—we’re also intentional about building and fostering,” Pressley told The Guardian last year. “The reality is anyone who is interested in building a more equitable and just world is a part of The Squad.”

Tonight, The Squad expanded its membership in dramatic fashion. In New York, educator Jamaal Bowman will become the next representative of the state’s 16th Congressional District, four months after beating incumbent Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary. Engel currently leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and has served in Congress for more than three decades.

Bowman’s race is one of many this cycle defined by generational change, elevating new leaders whose experiences and interests more closely resemble those of their constituents than their predecessors who entered politics in a different era. In Missouri, nurse and activist Cori Bush ousted William Lacy Clay in the First Congressional District’s Democratic primary, ending five decades of Clay family dominance. (The younger Clay took over in 2001 for his father, Bill, who spent 32 years in the House.) Bush handily defeated Republican Anthony Rogers in the general election, and will become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.

Joining Bowman in New York’s congressional delegation are Mondaire Jones, elected to represent the 17th District after Representative Nita Lowey announced her retirement last fall, and Ritchie Torres, who replaces the retiring Representative José Serrano in the 15th District. Jones and Torres will share the distinction of being the first openly gay Black members of Congress. Like Bowman, they ran on their support for policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

In Illinois, Medicare for All proponent Marie Newman will replace Dan Lipinski as the representative for the Third District. Like Bush, Newman took down a political dynasty: Lipinski inherited the seat in 2004 from his 11-term representative father, Bill Lipinski, who won that year’s primary and then announced his retirement. And like Bush, Newman’s victory came despite opposition from the party establishment: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had maintained its official support for Lipinski, effectively blacklisting organizations and consultants working with challengers like Newman. 

What these winners have in common are platforms that center the issues that younger voters and working families care most about: healthcare, job creation, economic inequality, and a willingness to treat climate change as an immediate, existential threat to the planet rather than an esoteric subject of political debate. 

With one Congress under its inaugural members’ belt, the next challenge for this rapidly growing Democratic coalition is to translate their electoral successes into substantive legislative accomplishments. Historically, in a heavily hierarchical and seniority-based institution like the House, this has not been a simple task, says Daniel Schlozman, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. “The influence in the broader public sphere is often thought of as a negative quality, because you are not ‘waiting your turn,’ and because members of other districts don’t want to be tarred with a brand that they think is bad in their district,” he said.

Schlozman points to climate, however, as an issue where the House’s progressive wing has an opportunity to assert itself, since the Green New Deal has yet to be distilled to a package of specific proposals for lawmakers to consider and vote on. There is, in other words, not an entrenched consensus Democratic position that Squad members would run up against while making their pitch to voters. “That’s where there’s uncertainty—where there’s the most promise and peril, and the most opportunity for political leadership to frame things in different and creative ways,” Schlozman says.

The expansion of this group beyond its most prominent members could also have significant implications for the future of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has become unwieldy as Democrats seeking to co-opt the “progressive” label have decided to buy it—literally—for a $4,000 annual dues payment. The elections of more prospective members willing to challenge party leadership, however, could make the caucus a more disciplined unit. Ryan Grim reported in The Intercept that a proposed set of reforms for the upcoming Congress could help rid the caucus of, in the words of one member, the “free riding members that claim CPC membership but aren’t actually progressive.” 

Ethan Porter, a political scientist at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, points to Squad members’ prodigious fundraising talents as likely to help them further develop their relationships with colleagues. And their recent signaled willingness to build coalitions with party establishment figures—even those with whom they disagree—is a promising sign for their political futures, he says. 

“If they merely take an oppositional stance, they’re less likely to be influential. I don’t see them doing that.”

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.

Tarra Simmons Becomes First Person Formerly Convicted Of A Felony Elected To Washington State Legislature

Simmons, an attorney, is fighting to give people “a first chance so they won’t need a second chance later on in life.”

Courtesy of the Tarra Simmons

Tarra Simmons Becomes First Person Formerly Convicted Of A Felony Elected To Washington State Legislature

Simmons, an attorney, is fighting to give people “a first chance so they won’t need a second chance later on in life.”

Tarra Simmons, an attorney in Bremerton, Washington, on Tuesday became the first person in the state’s legislature in modern history who was convicted of a felony.

“If we create thriving and healthy communities, where people have their needs met and where if they have an issue they have someone to talk to about it and have support, I think we can really reduce crime and our reliance on prisons,” Simmons told The Appeal in October.

Simmons added that she wants to give people “a first chance so they won’t need a second chance later on in life.” 

“I guess that’s why I’m really running,” she said. 

A former nurse who served 20 months in prison after her drug habit led to her being arrested three times in 2011, Simmons went to law school in August 2014, a little over a year after she was released. Though she graduated with honors in May 2017, she was denied the bar the month before because of her felony convictions, setting up a showdown in the state Supreme Court which resulted in a same-day unanimous decision in her favor. 

Georgetown University law professor Shon Hopwood, himself a person formerly convicted of a felony, helped Simmons fight to get into the Washington state bar despite her felony conviction. Hopwood told The Appeal that Simmons is one of the most inspirational people he has ever met and he was confident she could make a real difference in the state legislature. 

“She understands the issues facing people who don’t have a lot of means in a way that most politicians never will, because she’s lived that life,” Hopwood said. 

Simmons was admitted to the bar in June 2018 and co-founded the Civil Survival Project, which provides counsel and legal services to the formerly incarcerated. Simmons announced in October 2019 that she would run for Washington’s 23rd District’s state house seat. Her race has attracted the support of Representative Pramila Jayapal and Senator Patty Murray, both Washington Democrats, as well as former Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg.  

Simmons told The Appeal that she views her winning platform of major economic, educational, and treatment reform as part of a bigger effort where she can make a real difference in people’s lives. 

“I think the whole mission I have in life is to break down stigmas and barriers,” said Simmons. “So people who have similar life stories and paths have hope and opportunity when they come back from a mistake.”

Because Simmons will be the first formerly incarcerated person in the Washington State Legislature, said Hopwood, her win means a lot to people around the state and around the country. Simmons shows that there’s a true second chance after prison, something that Hopwood described as “almost as important” as her work in the statehouse. 

Hopwood praised the fact that Simmons didn’t try to hide her criminal record but has rather made it the centerpiece of her campaign. That’s important because it opens the door for others in the U.S. prison population of 1.5 million to see that there will be a future when they come home. 

“It’s not people getting out of prison and thinking, I can’t wait to go back to selling drugs,” Hopwood said. “It’s mostly people that get out, can’t find work, can’t find stable housing, realize that they’re locked out of thousands of different professions—professions that have nothing to do with the crimes they committed—and they just give up and go back to what they know.”

“They don’t feel like they’re getting a second chance or a true second opportunity,” Hopwood continued. “It would be hard for anyone on this planet to get out of a prison and be told, you’re going to be forced into a position where you’re going to make $9 an hour and have to work two part time jobs for the rest of your life.”

Kevin Ring, president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), said Simmons represents a much needed corrective in how the American people are represented in federal, state, and local office. Simmons, said Ring, will advocate for changing a system that she’s been through. 

“She’s going to be able to talk about how the state can reform its laws and prison policies based on her personal experience,” Ring said. 

People from all sorts of backgrounds—from teaching to business to the military—are in office around the country, but the formerly incarcerated are woefully underrepresented. To Ring, that shows how much a voice like Simmons’s will mean. Her story is only unique because of the stigma attached to prison, said Simmons, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

“There are so many people who are being pushed out from these barriers,” Simmons said. “And our society is losing out on their gifts.”

Shifting that paradigm would not only make life better for formerly incarcerated people, it would help keep the public safe, Simmons said. Because crime is usually the result of factors outside the control of the criminal—including addiction, untreated trauma and mental health issues, and a system that grabs hold after one bad mistake—addressing its causes is essential to making change, Simmons said. 

“Our society should allow space for that through policy changes,” she said. “Not to just show that, but also to change policies to allow for more people to find success.”

Omar Fateh Wins Chance to Bring ‘People Power’ to Minnesota’s State Senate

Minnesotans, Fateh said, “should be able to access the folks that are representing us and make sure that they’re partnering with the community.”

(Courtesy of the Omar Fateh campaign.)

Omar Fateh Wins Chance to Bring ‘People Power’ to Minnesota’s State Senate

Minnesotans, Fateh said, “should be able to access the folks that are representing us and make sure that they’re partnering with the community.”

Omar Fateh, who received a key endorsement from his state’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party and went on to beat a long time DFL incumbent, has won his bid to join the Minnesota state Senate for the 62nd District. 

Fateh became the presumptive winner after defeating Senator Jeff Hayden in the August primary. As he mounted his campaign, Fateh began strategizing how to become the most effective state Senator possible as a freshman and political newcomer—particularly compared to Hayden, a nine-year incumbent who also served as an assistant minority leader.

During his October interview with The Appeal, Fateh said part of the answer will be to bring “people power” with him to the capitol in the form of community organizations that are advocating for issues including the call to defund the police and the drive to protect renters and build more affordable housing. 

Minnesotans, Fateh said, “should be able to access the folks that are representing us and make sure that they’re partnering with the community.”

Fateh’s district seems in need of as much “people power” as possible. He told The Appeal that housing is an urgent issue in his district, where 31 percent of households are getting by on less than $25,000 a year and nearly 42 percent live on less than $35,000 a year. Forty-one percent of the districts’ renters pay at least 35 percent of their annual income on rent.

“There’s a development right near my house where a studio [apartment] was going for $1,400 bucks,” Fateh said, “and this is in one of the poorer districts in Minnesota.”

Minnesota renters who fall on hard times don’t have the law on their side. Current state law allows landlords to file an eviction action in district court the first day a tenant’s rent is late. The law also allows landlords to wait until just seven days before an eviction hearing before giving tenants notice of the hearing.

Despite Governor Tim Walz’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium, this past summer Minneapolis saw the creation of the largest known homeless encampment in the city’s history at Powderhorn Park in Fateh’s district. Residents of the encampment were forcibly evicted by the city in August.

Walz extended his state of emergency orders, including the ban on evictions, until Nov. 12. The emergency order doesn’t include rent relief, so landlords will be able to start filing eviction actions immediately after the state of emergency is lifted.

To address these issues, Fateh plans to support bills to ban evictions during the winter, force landlords to provide “adequate notice” before filing eviction notices, and require municipalities to hold an election before enacting rent control.

“What we’re seeing is that, especially in our district, rent has just been skyrocketing while wages have stagnated, and because of that, because they’re priced out, a large part of the homeless population actually do have a job,” Fateh said. “They just can’t make up the gap between staying in the shelter and the most affordable housing unit.”

Making sure people can afford housing “should be the number one priority,” Fateh said, and added that “to me, [it’s] immoral” for people who work a 40-hour week to be unable to afford rent.

Fateh also plans to advocate for reforms including universal, taxpayer-funded childcare; early childhood education; and a $15 statewide minimum wage.

Fateh told The Appeal that his success in his primary election happened because “we have a lot of folks in this state that are actually shifting more to a working-class focus.” Those voters, he said, want to elect representatives at all levels of government who “represent a working-class agenda,” including affordable housing and healthcare, a living wage, and other progressive priorities. 

They also want a state Senator who will be “present, especially in the poorer neighborhoods in the district,”—something Fateh said his predecessor failed to do.  

“What we learned here in Minnesota is that it’s not enough to just elect Democrats,” Fateh, who ran to represent the 62nd District, told The Appeal. “We needed progressive Democrats at the legislature.” 

Fateh, the child of Somali immigrants, also wants to continue to “bridge the gap” between the African immigrant community and the American culture in which he was born and raised. In one of his positions before running for office, Fateh worked for the City of Minneapolis as a community specialist to improve outreach to African immigrants. African immigrants are a sizable community in the state—according to an estimate by the city, there are 50,000 immigrants from East Africa in Minneapolis alone. As part of his work in this area, Fateh cites the struggle to force Amazon to allow time for its workers from East Africa, many of whom are Muslim, to pray.

“What we know is that the large corporations are going to take advantage of folks, especially if they’re not well versed on their rights,” Fateh said.

Teresa Leger Fernandez Wins In New Mexico’s Third Congressional District. She’s Fighting For ‘A Politics Of Opportunity.’

Leger Fernandez wants to pass universal healthcare and improve infrastructure in tribal and rural communities.

(Courtesy of the Teresa Leger Fernandez campaign.)

Teresa Leger Fernandez Wins In New Mexico’s Third Congressional District. She’s Fighting For ‘A Politics Of Opportunity.’

Leger Fernandez wants to pass universal healthcare and improve infrastructure in tribal and rural communities.

Teresa Leger Fernandez, a public interest attorney from New Mexico, has won the race to represent the state’s Third Congressional District. In her campaign, she vowed to use the knowledge she’s acquired working on behalf of Native tribes and rural New Mexicans to Washington, D.C. 

“To represent my district you need to know not only its beauty but also its poverty and its promise,” Leger Fernandez told The Appeal. “I’ve done this work for the last 30 years and know its promise and know that federal policy has a great impact. Everything we love is under attack, and I’m wanting to protect what we love.”

As COVID-19 continues to ravage the U.S., Leger Fernandez is committed to passing legislation that would help communities protect themselves against the disease and eventually rebuild. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Natives: They, along with Alaskan Natives, have been diagnosed with the diseases at 3.5 times the rate of non-Hispanic white people, according to a report released in August. 

Leger Fernandez, whose district includes Navajo Nation and several Pueblo reservations, wants to pass universal healthcare so that people don’t have to have copayments and high deductibles for doctor visits. She also wants to decrease the prices of prescription drugs. 

”The community is suffering because we don’t have an adequate healthcare system,” she said. Improving healthcare is personal to Leger Fernandez—she is a breast cancer survivor and has lost family members to cancer.  “I’m the only one alive right now because I had insurance and had it diagnosed early,” she said. 

Along with healthcare, she wants to improve infrastructure in tribal and rural communities so there’s access to health clinics, broadband internet, and childcare. The dearth of these services has long been a problem and was further highlighted by the pandemic, she said. “We don’t want to build it back to what we were before because that was unequal. We need to imagine where we want to be and start funding towards that.”

After a convincing victory against seven candidates in the primary, Leger Fernandez handedly won the race for Ben Ray Luján’s open seat against Republican Alexis Johnson in the strongly Democratic district. She won endorsements from a long list of politicians and organizations including Joe Biden, the Sierra Club, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which champions her platform for reproductive freedom. 

In Congress, Leger Fernandez said she wants to abolish the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits using federal funds to pay for abortions unless it is to save the life of a woman or the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, and increase funding for reproductive healthcare organizations such as Planned Parenthood. “I want to make sure every woman has access … regardless of how much money you have” she said. Her platform also includes support for a Green New Deal and extending the DREAM Act to immigrants’ families so they can stay together. 

In January, Leger Fernandez will be part of New Mexico’s all-female House of Representatives delegation. She said her experience living and working in the community she hopes to represent will equip her with the tools to be effective in the Capitol. “When you build something you understand where the roadblocks are, where the difficulties are. We want a politics of opportunity, we want to protect what we love, and we want our beloved community to thrive.” 

Marie Newman Wins Illinois House Seat, Pledging To Fight For Working Families And The Middle Class

“This economy doesn’t work for everyone; it works for very, very few people,” Newman said.

(Photo by Marie Newman for Congress.)

Marie Newman Wins Illinois House Seat, Pledging To Fight For Working Families And The Middle Class

“This economy doesn’t work for everyone; it works for very, very few people,” Newman said.

Since 2017, Marie Newman has been vying to disrupt the legacy of centrist representation in Illinois’s Third Congressional District—one that encompasses the southwest side of Chicago and its southwest suburbs. Tonight, she was successful.

Since 1992, the district has been represented by a member of the Lipinski family—first Bill, then his son, Dan. As his father was when he served, Dan Lipinski is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist House Democrats.

In the Democratic primary race in March, Lipinski lost narrowly to Newman in an upset. Newman told The Appeal she was effective in that race because her team was laser-focused on voter outreach and maintaining narrative control.

Newman ran on a platform that included many progressive policies, such as Medicare for All, a $15 federal minimum wage, an “unambiguous” pathway to citizenship for immigrants, and supporting green jobs.

“Working families and the middle class are getting the short straw every time,” she told The Appeal. “This economy doesn’t work for everyone; it works for very, very few people.”

She also supports reforming the criminal legal system, legalizing marijuana, expanding voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, and passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill that endeavors to radically reform policing on the federal level.

Though she won by embracing progressive policies, Newman believes in “rolling up your sleeves” and working across the aisle. “We’re running out of choices,” she said.

Jamaal Bowman Is Headed To Congress, Pledges To Make Democrats ‘The Party Of Dismantling Mass Incarceration’

Bowman has also advocated for an eviction moratorium and for rental payments to be cancelled for the duration of the pandemic.

(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Jamaal Bowman Is Headed To Congress, Pledges To Make Democrats ‘The Party Of Dismantling Mass Incarceration’

Bowman has also advocated for an eviction moratorium and for rental payments to be cancelled for the duration of the pandemic.

Today voters in New York’s 16th district elected Jamaal Bowman to represent them in Congress, after he ran on a platform of criminal justice reform, housing justice, and raising taxes on the wealthy. 

In the heavily Democratic district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, it’s no surprise that Bowman defeated Conservative Party nominee Patrick McManus. The real fight occurred during the June primary, when Bowman challenged and defeated 32-year incumbent U.S. Representative Eliot Engel. 

The primary took place during the summer’s nationwide protests against police brutality and the racism of the criminal legal system. During the campaign, Bowman, who was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, faulted Engel for supporting the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to fueling incarceration. Unlike Engel, he embraced many Black Lives Matter activists’ goal of defunding the police.

Over the summer, Bowman told The Appeal: Political Report that he wants to push the Democratic Party to be “the party of dismantling mass incarceration.” 

“We’ve got to keep protesting, marching, running primary challengers, and ushering in a new generation of leaders in every institution,” he said.

He cast the issue in terms of his own encounters with the police. “I’ve been arrested and accused of stealing my own car, pulled over and handcuffed for not properly signaling, and knocked around by police officers for rough housing with my friends when I was just a kid,” he said. “As a Black man in America, I know what it’s like to feel occupied in my own community.” He added that he supports cutting the New York Police Department’s budget, giving all incarcerated people an opportunity for release after 10 years, abolishing felony disenfranchisement, and decriminalizing sex work, among other proposals that he ran on.

Bowman has also advocated for an eviction moratorium and for rental payments to be cancelled for the duration of the pandemic. He told The Appeal last month that lawmakers must raise taxes on the richest New Yorkers so the state can “provide more support to renters so they can stay in their homes.” 

“While people are dying, we’re seeing millionaires and billionaires grow their wealth,” he said. “So all we’re asking the government to do is to tax the wealthy—ensure that they pay their fair share to keep our society and democracy going.”

Daniel Nichanian contributed reporting.

Cori Bush Wins, Heads To Congress Committed To ‘Fighting For The Regular Person’

Bush’s victory in Missouri’s First Congressional District makes her the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri in Congress.

(Credit: Courtesy of Craig Phelps)

Cori Bush Wins, Heads To Congress Committed To ‘Fighting For The Regular Person’

Bush’s victory in Missouri’s First Congressional District makes her the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri in Congress.

Cori Bush has won the race for Missouri’s First Congressional District, becoming the first Black woman elected to represent the state in Congress. Bush, who leapt into politics after leading protests in the wake of a white police officer killing Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, ran on a platform that aims to stop police brutality, reform the criminal legal system, and improve education.

In 2016, Bush launched an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S.Senate and two years later lost a bid to unseat Representative William Lacy Clay in the U.S. House of Representatives. For more than a half-century, the House seat for Missouri’s First Congressional District, which encompasses Ferguson and St. Louis, had been filled by either Clay or his father. But in August, Bush built on the momentum from her 2018 campaign and defeated Clay in the Democratic primary, effectively ensuring she would be elected to serve the heavily Democratic district. 

In Washington, D.C., one of Bush’s priorities will be stopping police brutality. “We have to deal with the system on every side,” she said. “It’s not just the officers. The officers continue to do what they do because our system allows them to.” Along with working to abolish police unions that she says protect officers, she supports the introduction of a national police misconduct registry that would be available to the public. “As a nurse, if something happens that’s misconduct or medical negligence…That becomes public information,” she said. “I believe the same thing should happen for officers.” 

Bush also has a plan to reform the country’s prisons and jails, where roughly 2.2 million people are incarcerated. She wants to end cash bail, reform parole policies to reduce the prison population (there is currently no federal parole), and make it easier for prisoners to re-enter society after serving their sentences. Bush told The Appeal that she wants to crack down on corporations making money off incarcerated people by charging them exorbitant rates for essential items from the commissary and phone calls. “I just feel like it’s a very unfair system,” she said. Prisoners use their often meager work wages to pay for those items. Bush said she hopes to one day introduce legislation that would require prisons to pay workers the prevailing minimum wage in their state. 

Education is a key part of Bush’s platform and she shared with The Appeal her robust plan to make it better for all children. Among her priorities are modernizing infrastructure in crumbling facilities, increasing funding for student lunches, and installing community gardens at every school. “We have to make sure that no child is hungry,” she said. 

When speaking to students, Bush said she frequently hears that they do not want to attend school because they don’t have clean clothes and want to avoid being teased. In an effort to combat this, Bush wants every school to put in washing machines and dryers accessible to students. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced children to learn at home, she believes it’s necessary for the government to implement a national broadband network and more funding for tutors. 

Bush’s commitment to criminal justice reform and education merge in her fight for therapists and social workers to replace school resource officers. 

Once she’s in Washington, Bush said she would continue to be motivated to serve the same people who she protests alongside. “My role is to be what I’ve always wanted to see, that’s somebody actually fighting for the regular person,” she said. “I feel like that role starts with fighting for the person who has the least in this district and looking at everything else I do from that lens.”  

A Clash of Housing Philosophies Is At The Heart of a High-Profile California State Senate Race

First-time state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder’s housing plans are geared toward government investment, while incumbent Scott Wiener’s plans have relied on the construction of market rate housing with some affordable units.

California state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder, left, and incumbent Scott Wiener, right.
(Photos via Jackie Fielder and Scott Wiener's campaign websites)

A Clash of Housing Philosophies Is At The Heart of a High-Profile California State Senate Race

First-time state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder’s housing plans are geared toward government investment, while incumbent Scott Wiener’s plans have relied on the construction of market rate housing with some affordable units.

More than 8,000 people are unhoused in San Francisco, which has the third-largest population of billionaires of any city in the world. 

“The money is there,” California state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder told The Appeal. “It’s just the structures are not there to make sure that they pay their fair share.”

First-time candidate Fielder, who has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America-San Francisco, is running to unseat incumbent Scott Wiener to represent District 11, which includes San Francisco. Both Fielder and Wiener are running as Democrats

To solve the state’s housing crisis, she and Wiener have presented voters with two different paths: Wiener’s favors reliance on the market, and Fielder’s leans on government investment. 

As a state senator, Wiener has pushed for changing zoning restrictions so more housing that is both market rate and affordable can be built. His bill, SB 35, which was signed into law in 2017, created a streamlined process for the construction of affordable housing. He’s also introduced legislation to increase the construction of shelters and to permit houses of worship and non-profits to build affordable housing on their property, even if it’s not zoned for residential housing. 

“His record on housing and homelessness is one of the strongest in the state, and he is a consistent champion of affordable housing and renter protections,” Wiener’s campaign manager Jack Parsons said in a statement to The Appeal. 

His proposed bill, SB 50, would have made it easier for multi-family homes and apartment complexes to be built near transit hubs in areas zoned for single-family homes. He introduced it three times, most recently in January, but it hasn’t passed the legislature. It faced opposition both from NIMBY groups and housing rights activists, who feared SB 50 would lead to the creation of more market rate and luxury housing, causing greater gentrification and displacement. 

Rather than relying on the free market, Fielder says the government must intervene and build more public housing for low- and no-income community members. Fielder has repeatedly criticized Wiener for taking contributions from the real estate lobby.

“Triaging homelessness through shelters … alone will not get to the root of the problem,” she told the Appeal, “yet that is all that the status quo has to offer. We need massive infrastructure to actually bring people services and permanent housing, and also single-payer healthcare has to be a part of that too.”

The Senate Filibuster Is Hollowing Out American Democracy

If Democrats win control of the Senate, allowing this archaic tradition to survive will make everything of significance the party hopes to accomplish virtually impossible.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

The Senate Filibuster Is Hollowing Out American Democracy

If Democrats win control of the Senate, allowing this archaic tradition to survive will make everything of significance the party hopes to accomplish virtually impossible.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Less than four years after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 heralded, as a beaming Paul Ryan put it, the “dawn of a new unified Republican government,” America’s political landscape is nearly unrecognizable. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leads Trump by nearly double digits in national polling, and his party is a virtual lock to maintain a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. 

The Senate is a different story. The prognosticators at FiveThirtyEight give Democrats a roughly three in four chance to wrest control of it from Republicans, but even if they succeed, they’ll probably do so only by a seat or two. In an era defined by a deeply unpopular president whose utter disinterest in governing has led to the deaths of more than 225,000 Americans, the best outcome for which Democrats can hope is, more or less, a tie. 

Such a narrow majority would be of little use to a party eager to begin the tasks of democracy-preserving and planet-saving. This is because of the filibuster, a procedure that empowers senators to prevent most bills from going forward without the assent of three-fifths of the chamber—60 senators, not 50 or 51. This obstacle looms in the way of everything of significance on a potential Democratic majority’s agenda: expanding the Supreme Court, protecting voting rights, (someday) passing Medicare for All and climate change legislation, and so on. If Democrats indeed win, unless they make abolishing the filibuster their first order of business in January, whatever victories they celebrate in November will be fleeting at best.

The Democratic Party’s uphill battle is largely an accident of Senate history: Its two-votes-per-state structure was the product of an 18th-century compromise intended to persuade smaller states, dismayed by the prospect of larger states drowning them out in a legislature apportioned based on population, to ratify the Constitution nonetheless. 

Some 230 years later—when half of this country’s 330 million residents live in just 143 of its more than 3,000 counties—the interests of less populous states are wildly overrepresented on Capitol Hill. A resident of Wyoming, with a population of less than 600,000, enjoys as much power in the Senate as a resident of California, with a population of more than 39 million. And because these rural states skew white and Republican, the party enjoys a semi-permanent structural advantage in the upper chamber, where the median state is about 6.6 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole. The current Senate Democratic minority actually represents a majority of Americans. In 2018, the GOP picked up two seats even though their candidates earned less than 40 percent of the national vote. 

Conservatives often argue that government is not necessarily supposed to be representative; America is a republic, a common refrain goes, not a democracy. As a descriptive matter, this slogan is flatly wrong. And it is essentially an assertion that the structure of this country’s government is fair and just because this country’s government has always been structured this way— as The New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie calls it, an attempt to “claim and co-opt the founding for right-wing politics,” and “naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things.” It is impossible to defend the modern Senate without also defending the proposition that some people should matter more than others. 

The disproportionate influence that Republicans wield in the Senate is exacerbated by the power of the filibuster. In theory, the threat of a filibuster is supposed to foster compromise between otherwise reluctant factions. In practice, this procedural quirk enables a committed minority of lawmakers to veto anything they don’t like. (An ambitious cap-and-trade proposal, the DREAM Act, and a public health insurance option are all among its more recent victims.) 

Together, the combination of filibuster-induced inertia and the GOP’s built-in head start make it far more difficult for Democrats to cobble together Senate majorities. When they do, the margin is very unlikely to be wide enough to overcome knee-jerk Republican intransigence.

Fortunately, this problem has a relatively uncomplicated fix. To defeat a filibuster, 60 senators must vote to invoke cloture, a procedure created at the behest of a frustrated President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. (After a particularly unproductive lawmaking session, he fumed that the Senate was “the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action,” rendering “the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”) Both the filibuster and cloture are Senate rules that appear nowhere in the Constitution. Through a series of procedural maneuvers known as the “nuclear option,” a simple majority of senators could lower the cloture threshold, effectively ridding themselves of the filibuster altogether.

Previous Senate majorities have already done so when they found it convenient: In 2013, with Republicans waging a scorched-earth campaign of advice-and-consent obstructionism against President Barack Obama, a Democratic Senate majority did away with the filibuster for non-Supreme Court judicial nominees and executive branch appointments. In 2017, Republicans abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, too, eventually enabling them to confirm three life-tenured justices who received a total of four Democratic votes.

Even before these more recent skirmishes, the filibuster’s parameters—much like, say, the Supreme Court’s size—were subject to strategic manipulations. Wilson’s cloture rule required the support of two-thirds of senators present and voting, but in 1975, a 62-senator Democratic caucus oversaw a successful effort to lower the threshold for most matters to (surprise!) three-fifths of the entire chamber. The filibuster for legislation is the last remaining theater of filibuster brinkmanship, but abolishing it would not be unprecedented or radical in any meaningful sense—it would be a continuation down a path that both parties began walking long ago.

Filibuster enthusiasts typically contend that its disappearance would plunge the chamber into unsavory, bare-knuckled partisan brawling. The Constitution’s framers wanted the Senate to be the thinking man’s legislative chamber—as Virginia delegate Edmund Randolph reportedly put it, to “restrain, if possible, the fury of democracy.” Senators were originally selected by state legislators, not voters, to insulate them from the whims of the unwashed continental masses. Getting rid of the filibuster-as-failsafe, the argument goes, would empower bare majorities to run roughshod over their opponents without consequence.

As incredible as it may seem, some people still cling to the fantasy that the Senate is defined by genteel debate and legislative comity. During President Trump’s impeachment trial, a huffy Chief Justice John Roberts scolded the parties for purported breaches of decorum before “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” In a Washington Post opinion essay in September, former Michigan senator Carl Levin and Brown University political science professor Richard A. Arenberg warned that filibuster abolition would “strip the Congress of the only procedural path to forcing negotiation and compromise,” and “exacerbate polarization by embracing one-party rule.” 

All this assumes that negotiation or deliberation play any significant role in the modern lawmaking process. They do not. Rather than use the Senate’s de facto veto power to search out bipartisan consensus, the Republican Party has mastered the art of exploiting it to prevent Democrats from governing at all. Over the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House, more than 400 bills passed the House and died in the Senate without even going up for debate, much less receiving a vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who famously referred to making Obama a one-term president as his “single most important” goal, also used the filibuster to run a relentless blockade of nominees to the federal bench, eventually delivering to Trump a bumper crop of judicial vacancies to fill with conservative ideologues instead.

Democrats who pretend otherwise are fooling only themselves. There will be no “negotiations” around expanding the Supreme Court or protecting voting rights, because Republicans depend on voter suppression for their electoral relevance and on the conservative Court’s willingness to bless this effort at every turn. There will be no “compromise” on improving access to healthcare, because Republicans have spent the better part of a decade working diligently to tear this country’s already meager system apart. There will be no “deliberation” when it comes to passing a Green New Deal, because Republican politicians either do not believe climate change poses an existential threat to the planet, or they do, but they’re too craven to say it. 

The filibuster’s obsolescence is a product of the obsolescence of the Senate itself. As I’ve written previously, the original rationales for the Senate’s structure are largely irrelevant in 2020, when voters elect senators directly and exit from the union is no longer a viable option. Its continued existence is a glaring exception to the supposedly sacrosanct principle of “one person, one vote,” and it functions as a system of legacy admissions preferences for the Republican Party. For all the attention paid to the dangers of gerrymandering legislative districts, thanks to the Senate, state borders now fulfill largely the same purpose.

Perhaps, once upon a time, the filibuster helped broker across-the-aisle cooperation. (Perhaps, once upon a time, across-the-aisle cooperation was a viable position within the Republican Party.) That era is plainly over. A countermajoritarian legislative chamber might be useful if its members were distributed evenly along an ideological spectrum, but not when one party has transformed itself into a cult of super-reactionary zealots for whom compromise is tantamount to cowardice. Any Senate nominally controlled by Democrats but hamstrung by Republicans will simply hold the government hostage for as long as Democrats allow it.

Democratic opponents of abolition worry that it will guarantee retribution when the tables inevitably turn. “Progressives … must ask themselves whether they would support doing so if Trump were reelected and Republicans kept control of the Senate,” Levin and Arenberg write. “We believe the question answers itself.” 

Like most doomsday predictions, this one requires context. The legislative filibuster’s presence or absence matters most when the same party controls the presidency, House, and Senate. These partisan trifectas do not occur all that often—the 115th Congress, which coincided with Trump’s election, was only the third full unified Republican government since the end of the Eisenhower administration. (There have been eight unified Democratic governments.) When it comes to what matters here—actually enacting bills into law—Levin and Arenberg’s argument sort of treats the House, which is currently controlled by Democrats, as if it did not exist. 

Pre-emptive mourning for the filibuster’s death also overstates its practical importance. Savvy senators, vexed by the fruitless search for 60 votes, have expertly learned to embed their top priorities within budget reconciliation bills instead. (Not all legislation is eligible for this treatment, but because budget reconciliation requires only a simple majority vote, it is an appealing vehicle for legislation that is.) Both the Republicans’ tax reform bill and their Affordable Care Act repeal attempts, for example, were creatures of budget reconciliation. It is hard to cast the filibuster as a vital bulwark against the menace of majority rule when both parties have happily blazed a trail around it. 

The results of recent budget reconciliation fights indicate that a filibuster-free Senate would not necessarily be the tyranny-of-the-majority rubber stamp that majorities hope for and minorities fear. The Republican bid to repeal Obamacare did not fail because of a Senate filibuster; it failed because not even a majority of Senate Republicans were willing to take away health insurance from millions of people. In a hypothetical Democratic majority, the presence within the caucus of potential centrist defectors like Joe Manchin—a vocal filibuster supporter—is likely to make more fragile coalitions disintegrate in a hurry.

The prizes to be won by taking action could mitigate the potential danger in the future. As scary as the prospect of an unified Republican government hell-bent on revenge and unencumbered by a filibuster sounds, for example, it’s not clear how realistic running the table and enshrining a dystopian far-right agenda into law would be if a theoretical Democratic majority were able to pass laws to end partisan gerrymandering, protect voting rights, and expand a Supreme Court that has proven so hostile to them. Such an outcome might at last force this GOP to become something other than a refuge for bigotry and grievance politics; in the meantime, its leaders would be unable to abuse the filibuster to indefinitely sabotage Democratic efforts to govern.

The most compelling argument for abolishing the filibuster is a simple, practical one: If Republicans were to win the House, retain control of the Senate, and secure another term for Donald Trump in 2020, they would absolutely get rid of the filibuster when the moment became important enough. If the parties’ situations were reversed right now, McConnell would have the votes lined up before the new Congress was gaveled in. The filibuster is already hanging by a thread; the only remaining question is which party will cut it.

A rebalanced Supreme Court, a hypothetical John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act of 2021, single-payer healthcare (or even a public option), comprehensive climate change legislation, a federal jobs guarantee, meaningful criminal legal system reform, a humane immigration system motivated by something other than rank xenophobia—all of these things are of course dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate. But they are also dead on arrival in any Democratic-controlled Senate in which extremist Republicans can rely on the filibuster as their personal handbrake on the policymaking process.

If Biden and the Democrats win this fall, they can either do away with this archaic tradition and accomplish what voters elected them to do, or pre-emptively surrender to Republicans, allowing a future GOP Senate majority to reap the spoils of war instead. As long as they allow the filibuster to survive, a progressive agenda is not a plan, but a wish list. 

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.

Lorenzo Sanchez Wants to Provide Healthcare to Uninsured Texans

Sanchez is running for one of the state House seats that Democrats are hoping to flip.

Texas House candidate Lorenzo Sanchez.
(Photo via Lorenzo Sanchez's campaign)

Lorenzo Sanchez Wants to Provide Healthcare to Uninsured Texans

Sanchez is running for one of the state House seats that Democrats are hoping to flip.

Lorenzo Sanchez thinks his district isn’t getting the representation it deserves. He hopes that he can win the race for the state House of Representatives seat in District 67 on Tuesday—and help turn the Texas House blue in doing it. 

District 67, which includes parts of Plano, Allen, Richardson, and Dallas, is one of 22 Republican-controlled seats Democrats are targeting. Like most of the other districts that Democrats have their eyes on, the last state House race there was decided by a single-digit margin. And the district voted for former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke in 2018, when he narrowly lost his U.S. Senate battle against the incumbent Ted Cruz. Sanchez’s top priorities are expanding Medicaid, increasing funding for public education, and reforming the criminal justice system.

Sanchez is a first-generation Mexican American who was raised in the district by his mother, whom he credits with teaching him the value of hard work and sacrifice. After graduating from business school in Chicago in 2010, Sanchez returned to Plano to be with his family. He owns a small realty business and is involved in his community, having volunteered to support Democratic candidates and to help children with disabilities. “If elected, Lorenzo will be the only openly LGBTQ+ man in the Texas Legislature and the first Latino from Collin County ever elected to the state legislature,” his campaign website says.

“It’s going to come down to hundreds of votes for us,” Sanchez said. “We deserve better leadership than we’ve been getting. … We have a legislature focused on bathroom bills, these bills are just to divide people. It doesn’t match up for the care that people have for their neighbors here.”

Democrats could flip the Texas House for the first time in almost two decades this week. About 30 of Texas’s 150 House seats are seen as competitive, including the seat that Sanchez is vying for. To take the state House, Democrats need to pick up nine seats and keep the ones they have, including the 12 they picked up in 2018. 

If Democrats win the House, the GOP stronghold on the Texas state government would end. Their win would put a dramatic stop to conservatives’ ability to push their preferred policies on prominent matters like abortion rights, energy policy, and Medicaid expansion, and it would give Democrats a seat at the redistricting table. Texas has the second-largest congressional delegation in the country, and next year, the state’s U.S. House seats—and the Texas Senate and Texas House of Representatives—will all be redistricted. If the Republican Party can keep control of the state House, it will be able to draw districts that improve chances of keeping control of the state legislature and increase the likelihood of retaking control of the U.S. House.  

A break in Texas’s Republican trifecta would mean that if Sanchez wins, there’s a better chance he could pass legislation on some of his key issues: Medicaid expansion, public education funding, and criminal justice reform.

Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the United States. Most low-income Texans support expanding Medicaid, and a September policy brief from Texas A&M University found that expanding Medicaid in the state could bring $5.4 billion in federal funding and would provide an estimated nearly one million low-income Texans with health insurance. Yet the Republican-controlled legislature has refused to expand Medicaid.

“Healthcare is a huge issue, even before the pandemic,” Sanchez said. “People are looking for solutions, and I think regardless of these political races, we need legislators up there who are going to provide something of substance to people. It’s just awful the way Texas is right now with the lack of healthcare in our state.”

Sanchez says that if he is elected, he will advocate for a range of healthcare reforms, including expanding Medicaid, reducing out-of-pocket costs, ensuring rural communities and military families are covered, lowering prescription drug costs, ending price gouging, and working with local communities to establish more mental health facilities. A long-term goal, according to his website, is to “fight to provide healthcare security to all Texans through a single-payer system.

Ensuring that Texas’s public education system won’t face cuts this upcoming legislative session—especially given the budget shortfalls expected as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—is another priority for Sanchez. Texas ranks 42nd in the nation when it comes to public school education, according to Education Week’s 2020 Quality Counts report card. Sanchez says he wants to raise teacher pay, reduce class sizes, and make sure students have access to mental healthcare.

“We know there’s going to be shortfalls this year, so I’ve been talking about tapping into our rainy day fund to make sure we can shore up education right now,” Sanchez said. “We have big tax cutouts for the wealthy and corporations, and they don’t need it. We need to restore public education funding to pre-recession levels.”

Sanchez has promised to enact change when it comes to criminal justice reform. “The criminal justice system is broken,” Sanchez said on his website. “We need a more humane system that helps victims and reforms offenders rather than one that’s financially irresponsible and overly punitive.”

Sanchez says he wants to require a special prosecutor to review all police misconduct cases, and to abolish private prisons, cash bail, mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, and the death penalty. He would also call for the legalization of marijuana and expungement of criminal records for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

While Sanchez’s opponent, Jeff Leach, has tried to paint him as an “anti-police zealot,” Sanchez contests that claim and said he does not support defunding police or disarming them. On his website, Sanchez elaborates on his stances when it comes to police reform, stating that he supports banning police chokeholds, ending qualified immunity, suspending officers who engage in racial profiling, and requiring officers to complete regular psychological exams and trauma-informed training.

Sanchez noted that a Democrat hasn’t won the county in a presidential race since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. “We’re trying to make history,” he said. 

“I promise to be the person to try to provide solutions to move us to a better place. I love my community, I want to make sure they’re not getting taken advantage of.”

Texas House Candidate Celina Montoya Is Running To Expand Medicaid and Fund Public Education

She is running for a historically Republican-controlled seat, and if she wins, it could help turn the state House blue.

Texas state House candidate Celina Montoya.
(Photo via Celina Montoya's campaign)

Texas House Candidate Celina Montoya Is Running To Expand Medicaid and Fund Public Education

She is running for a historically Republican-controlled seat, and if she wins, it could help turn the state House blue.

By the time Celina Montoya decided to run for Texas House District 121 in 2018, it had been nearly two decades since a Democrat had even run in that district. She didn’t win, but she came within about 8.5 percentage points of her opponent, Republican Steve Allison, with a little less than $200,000 in funding. Now, Montoya’s running again—this time, with the endorsement of former President Barack Obama and over $600,000 in campaign contributions.

District 121, which includes parts of San Antonio, is one of the Republican-controlled seats Democrats are hoping to flip next week. Like most of the other districts Democrats have their eyes on, the last state House of Representatives race there was decided by a single-digit margin. And the district voted for former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke in 2018, when he narrowly lost his U.S. Senate battle against the incumbent Ted Cruz. Montoya’s top priorities are expanding Medicaid and fully funding public education.

Montoya grew up in the district. She and her six brothers and sisters were raised by their mother, whom Montoya credits with teaching her hard work and sacrifice. She studied journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois and worked for The Medill Innocence Project, an organization that helped exonerate wrongfully convicted people, while she was there. She  returned to her home state to work for Texas Public Radio. 

“As a reporter,” Montoya said, “I got to see my community in a way I didn’t get to growing up. I could see why it was so important for us to provide public education, because that wasn’t a guarantee.”

She later left public radio to help start Literacy San Antonio,  a nonprofit that works to increase childhood literacy. Now, Montoya is the vice president of community and government relations for Alamo Fireworks, a family-owned company founded by her husband’s great-grandparents. She says her varied life experience has improved her understanding of the issues faced by people in her district.

I sort of came to this world of politicking kind of in a way that a lot of unsuspecting folks do,” Montoya told The Appeal. “I admired people in this community, supported them through my own volunteer work, and I think, like a lot of people, 2016 was a real turning point.”

Montoya said she was dismayed by the results of the presidential election and wanted to do more. So she began working with more local groups, trying to influence policymakers and decision makers in her community.

“But when my own state representative decided he wasn’t going to run again, there was an open seat in my district, and it seemed like a good opportunity to make a difference,” Montoya said. 

Democrats could flip the Texas House of Representatives for the first time in almost two decades next week. About 30 of the chamber’s 150 seats are seen as competitive, including the one Montoya is vying for. To take the state House, Democrats need to pick up nine seats and retain the ones they have, including the 12 they gained in 2018.

If Democrats win the House, the GOP stronghold on the Texas government would end. Their win would put a dramatic stop to conservatives’ ability to push their preferred policies on prominent matters like abortion rights, energy policy, and Medicaid expansion, and it would give Democrats a seat at the redistricting table. Texas has the second-largest congressional delegation in the country, and next year, the state’s U.S. House seats—and the Texas Senate and Texas House—will all be redistricted. If the Republican Party can keep control of the state House, it will be able to draw districts that improve its chances of keeping control of the state legislature and increase the likelihood of retaking control of the U.S. House. 

The upcoming redistricting process is a big concern for Montoya. Texas could add two or three House seats to its already large congressional delegation next year, and the state has a reputation for partisan gerrymandering.

“This is an issue,” Montoya said. “We’re seeing voters who don’t see their leadership reflecting their ideals and backgrounds. It is diluting the voices of voters, and sometimes even packing them in to singular districts to limit their influence.”

Besides giving Democrats a say in the redistricting process, a break in Texas’s Republican trifecta would mean that if Montoya wins, she’d have a better shot at passing legislation to support Medicaid expansion and public education funding.

Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the United States. Most Texans support expanding Medicaid, and a recent policy brief from Texas A&M University found that expanding Medicaid in the state could bring $5.4 billion in federal funding and could provide nearly one million low-income Texans with health insurance. Yet the Republican-controlled legislature has refused to expand Medicaid.

“One of the most important things we need to get done is expanding Medicaid in Texas,” Montoya said. “We’re seeing some really dire effects [of the lack of healthcare access in the state], particularly as a result of this pandemic … about 30,000 Texans lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic, and when that happened, they also lost their healthcare. And these individuals would be eligible for Medicaid if it was expanded.”

Montoya says she wants to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, make sure insurance companies don’t deny people coverage for pre-existing conditions, and protect access to reproductive healthcare and abortion services.

Investing in the state’s public education system is another top priority for Montoya. Texas ranks 42nd in the nation when it comes to public school education, according to Education Week’s 2020 Quality Counts report card. Montoya says she wants to fully fund schools, increase teacher and support personnel pay, and oppose any further cuts to education funding.

“Education is also something near and dear to my heart,” Montoya said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the teachers I had growing up. … [Teachers] don’t receive the support they need, whether that’s in funding or flexibility to protect against comorbidities they’re risking in this pandemic.”

Allison, Montoya’s opponent, took office in 2018 after the former District 121 representative (and former House Speaker) Joe Straus retired. Like his predecessor, Allison has portrayed himself as a moderate, though he did vote to increase penalties for protesting against pipelines in 2019. He is pro-life and is supported by the National Rifle Association. According to his campaign website, some of Allison’s top priorities are providing property tax relief, supporting public education, and incentivizing job creation.

“I’m a mom, I’m a business owner, I’m someone who grew up in a place that I thought was the same kinda place I want my kids to grow up in,” Montoya said. “But too many of us today don’t feel like our kids have the same opportunities [we did].”

Democratic Candidate Brandy Chambers Wants to Help Turn the Texas House Blue

If Chambers can unseat the Republican incumbent in her district, she said she’ll prioritize expanding Medicaid, improving public education funding, and lowering property taxes.

Texas state House candidate Brandy Chambers.
(Photo via Brandy Chambers campaign)

Democratic Candidate Brandy Chambers Wants to Help Turn the Texas House Blue

If Chambers can unseat the Republican incumbent in her district, she said she’ll prioritize expanding Medicaid, improving public education funding, and lowering property taxes.

Brandy Chambers is one of the handful of Democratic candidates who could help flip the Texas House of Representatives if they win their highly competitive races next week. To Chambers, a victory next week would mean she could make progress on the issues she believes Texans care about—expanding Medicaid, improving public education funding, and lowering property taxes—rather than the fringe issues she says Republican lawmakers have focused on.

Chambers said she became  disheartened when “the extreme right wing was setting the agenda for Texas.” 

“After Trump won, the Texas legislature followed in his footsteps,” she explained, “prioritizing things like the bathroom bill [a bill prohibiting transgender people from using public restrooms that match their gender identity], the ‘show me your papers’ law, while migrant children are dying in custody, our state’s public education system is failing, and those weren’t priorities for some reason.”

Chambers, an employment attorney, said she was inspired to run for office in her district when she noticed that Democrats often were simply not running candidates in races across Texas. In her district, which includes parts of Dallas County, Richardson, and Garland, the Republican incumbent, Angie Chen Button, was elected in 2008 and ran without a Democrat opposing her in the next three elections. Then, in 2016, a Democrat did run—with very little funding for his campaign—and still got nearly 43 percent of the vote.

“That’s when it clicked to me,” Chambers said. “It’s not necessarily that Texas or my district is so red. It might just be red out of default. And I thought, if a man with no resources could get 43 percent of the vote, I wonder what a candidate with resources, with a message, with qualifications could do.”

So Chambers ran to represent District 112 in 2018. She got 49 percent of the vote and lost to Button by just 1,110 votes. Now Chambers is back—with a lot more money. After she came within such a narrow margin of defeating Button, Republicans and Democrats alike have poured money into the respective campaigns. Both Chambers and her opponent have raised over $1 million each.

Democrats could flip the Texas House of Representatives for the first time in almost two decades next week. About 30 seats are seen as competitive, including the seat Chambers is vying for. To take the state House, Democrats would need to pick up nine seats and defend all of their own, including the 12 they picked up in 2018.

If Democrats win the House, the GOP stronghold on the Texas state government would end. Their win would put a dramatic stop to conservatives’ ability to push their preferred policies on prominent matters like abortion rights and energy policy, and it would give Democrats a seat at the redistricting table. Texas has the second-largest congressional delegation in the country, and next year, the state’s U.S. House seats—and the Texas Senate and Texas House of Representatives—will all be redistricted. If the Republican Party can keep control of the state House, it will be able to draw districts that improve chances of keeping control of the state legislature and increase the likelihood of retaking control of the U.S. House. 

If Chambers wins next week, her top priorities for the upcoming session are expanding Medicaid, fully funding public education, and lowering property taxes. 

“We are the highest uninsured state in the nation, and that was pre-COVID,” Chambers said. “If we expand Medicaid, we can provide healthcare coverage to over one million Texans.” The Houston Chronicle recently reported that a study from Texas A&M found that expanding Medicaid in Texas could “bring as much as $5.4 billion federal dollars into the state and enroll nearly 1 million more people in the federal safety-net insurance program.” 

The average person in her district, Chambers said, doesn’t have access to affordable healthcare. Her opponent, Button, has voted against Medicaid expansion in the past, but has changed her position during this race. Button did not respond to a request for comment.

To Chambers, fully funding Texas’s public education system means restructuring the way it is funded to make it more efficient.

“We have a system called recapture—the ‘Robin Hood’ program,” Chambers said. “It requires that a property-rich district gives its excess back to the state, then distributes it to the property-poor districts.” Chambers called recapture “a great concept,” but said it has enabled the state to spend less dollars on education by increasing taxpayer burden.

Chambers sees charter schools as another problem with school funding in Texas. While charter schools are almost 100 percent funded by state revenue, public schools receive just one-third of their funding from the state. “So essentially, we’ve created private schools and fully funded them by the state, while still having other schools basically drowning.”

To address those two issues, Chambers wants to require recapture money to go back into the public education budget and not be spent on charter schools. She also said she wants to have a taxing authority on charter schools. “The bottom line is Texas cannot afford two different school systems.”

For a Glimpse of the Racial Justice Protests’ Staying Power, Look To Detroit

Under the banner of Detroit Will Breathe, the city’s Black Lives Matter activists have formed a cohesive and lasting local political force.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

For a Glimpse of the Racial Justice Protests’ Staying Power, Look To Detroit

Under the banner of Detroit Will Breathe, the city’s Black Lives Matter activists have formed a cohesive and lasting local political force.

As perhaps the highest-stakes election in a generation approaches, the widespread protests against racism and policing that defined much of the news cycle this summer have largely faded from national headlines. But the movement has not dissipated.

In Detroit, activists have created one of the most cohesive local movements in the country. Their work shows how the ongoing mobilization can change the landscape of local political organizing, particularly when it comes to the issue of policing.

Since late May, under the banner of Detroit Will Breathe, activists have been identifying pressing local racial, economic, and social justice issues, and mobilizing a diverse array of educational, direct action, and advocacy campaigns. They’ve canvassed for police reforms, organized campaigns to pressure the city council on policy, mobilized in support of neighbors who have experienced racism and police violence, and even sued the Detroit Police Department.

Detroit Will Breathe has taken advantage of the current momentum to rally against what its members see as an abusive police force and a malevolent political establishment, and placed itself at the center of local civic life.

“We’ve already created so much change,” said Sammie Lewis, a Detroit Will Breathe organizer. “We’ve protected each other more than the police could ever protect us. And we know that, because of that, we need to keep up this fight.”

As in most other American cities, protests erupted in Detroit after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. Thousands took to the streets in anger and mourning, fueled by an extensive history of violent and abusive policing in the nation’s largest majority-Black city, which is also one of its poorest.

As the movement in Detroit commenced with daily marches in the days after Floyd’s killing, demonstrators self-organized. They began to hold open mic assemblies before each action, where members of preexisting advocacy groups as well as unaffiliated residents could speak about the issues they thought protests should address and the tactics they should use to address them.

These meetings were often tedious, and sometimes contentious, but they were needed—and fruitful—activists say. “They allowed us to have political debates between different approaches,” said Tristan Taylor, one of the lead organizers. “And that really helped consolidate the movement, which allowed it to continue on a daily basis but in a dynamic way.”

From these conversations, the Detroit protesters came up with a list of 24 demands for the city—11 of which they labeled “priorities”—spanning a variety of issues. Many of the demands relate to police reform, including the central call of the post-George Floyd moment: to “defund” the police. But other demands focus on housing, criminal justice, poverty, water rights, immigration, and other issues, reflecting a recognition among the movement that police brutality is only the most front-facing injustice residents endure.

During the early weeks, demonstrators also decided to unite more officially, so they created Detroit Will Breathe, which became the main umbrella group for the Black Lives Matter mobilization in the metro area. Though movement decisions were still mostly made during the open assemblies—now held weekly rather than daily—the centralized nature of a named group lent it a new air of legitimacy. Detroit Will Breathe organizers won an audience of city officials to relay protesters’ thoughts and demands. The new organization also made it easier for demonstrators, as the summer wore on, to steer the movement’s actions toward where they were needed most.

“If we needed to go to the suburbs to support someone who was killed by the police in the suburbs, we could do that,” said Taylor. “And when the police would attack us … we could respond in kind, making sure that we’re going to the precinct where the cops came out of.”

Activists affiliated with Detroit Will Breathe have repeatedly faced violence at the hands of police. When demonstrators marched in defiance of the city’s 8 p.m. curfew in the early days of the protest movement, for instance, officers responded with tear gas, pepper spray, arrests, and beatings. At a demonstration in August, which organizers described as non-confrontational, even festive, police with riot shields showed up to deploy tear gas, tackle protesters, and beat them with batons. The Detroit Police Department made 42 arrests that night.

And over the weekend, at a protest march in Shelby Township, a Detroit suburb, local police showed up with riot shields, broke up the crowd, and arrested several protesters, including Taylor, shortly after the demonstration began—for refusing to march on the sidewalk rather than in the street. Shelby Township police later arrested more demonstrators who showed up at the police station to support the arrestees. Some of the protesters were charged with felonies.

As part of its organizing against police brutality, Detroit Will Breathe sued the DPD in federal court at the end of August over its abusive tactics. The group alleged that “peaceful protesters” were “tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten and otherwise subjected to unconstitutional excessive force, shot with rubber bullets, blasted with deafening and disorienting sound cannons and flash grenades, put in chokeholds, cordoned off in small groups (‘kettled’), and arrested en masse without probable cause” by Detroit cops. As a result, protesters suffered serious injuries, including broken bones, a collapsed lung, punctured skin from rubber bullets, and menstrual irregularities from tear gas exposure, according to the suit.

In September, the court partly granted Detroit Will Breathe’s request for a temporary restraining order, which, for the time being, forbids the DPD from using certain tools of force—including chemical agents, batons, and rubber bullets—against any protester “who does not pose a physical threat to the safety of the public or police,” giving the group one of its first major victories.

Outside of the courts, Detroit Will Breathe has elevated the fight against police brutality by holding public “tribunals,” during which community members tell their own stories about violent and abusive experiences they’ve had with police. The group began soliciting testimony in June and held the first tribunal later that month.

“We had over 20 people give their individual testimony of being assaulted by police. We had over 100 submissions,” said Taylor. “That was a watershed moment—pushing back against police repression.”

“We created space for ourselves to talk to each other, and to get the truth out,” said Nakia Wallace, another Detroit Will Breathe organizer, who faced especially egregious police violence when a cop put her in a chokehold during a July 10 protest against the police killing of a 20-year-old Detroit man.

Actively bringing the community into their work in this way is important to Detroit Will Breathe. In recent weeks, the group has been canvassing door-to-door with petitions and information, including one petition urging the city council to cancel a contract with a company that provides the police department with invasive and notoriously unreliable facial recognition technology. These canvassing efforts have served a dual purpose, according to activists: In addition to getting word out about and garnering support for specific issues, they’ve been a way to introduce Detroit Will Breathe to community members who are most likely affected by the poverty, racism, and police brutality the group is fighting against, but who haven’t participated in any protests themselves.

“Marches are great. And while it’s awesome that people see us going through their neighborhoods, it’s just not the same as having those conversations,” said Lewis, who has organized much of Detroit Will Breathe’s canvassing efforts.

The direct conversations are especially helpful considering that, according to activists, many Detroit residents’ only exposure to Detroit Will Breathe is what they see on the local television news, which is often deferential to anti-protest authority figures, like Detroit’s police chief, James Craig.

“Neighbors are thankful that we’re taking the time,” said Lewis, “actually explaining to them why we stay marching, why we’re knocking on their door, what we think we can actually achieve in this movement.”

If Donald Trump is the unofficial Fox News president, then James Craig is the Fox News police chief. The head of the Detroit Police Department has appeared on the conservative network repeatedly over the past five months, spinning conspiracy theories about protesters across the country, spreading misinformation, and painting them as criminals. Last month, he told Fox and Friends that the nationwide protest movement is “coordinated,” “planned,” and “financed” by “a Marxist ideology” trying to “undermine our government as we know it.” In July, on Tucker Carlson’s show, he called demonstrators “misguided radicals that have tried to incite violence.” To another host, he declared, “I’m not going to allow criminals to … take over our city streets.” His appearances have earned him Trump’s praise, by which he has said he is “humbled.”

Furthermore, Craig—on whom Detroit Will Breathe has called to resign—has tried to create the perception that protesters are an unwelcome presence among Detroit residents, and that most of the city backs him and his department.

“Detroiters stand with [the police],” he told news cameras a day after his officers deployed tear gas on nonviolent demonstrators and arrested 84 people, including a reporter. “They don’t want people coming into our city who are not from here creating chaos and ravaging the city.”

But Detroit Will Breathe activists give little credence to the chief’s rhetoric. “Craig is trying to pretend like we are not Detroiters,” said Wallace, who, like other lead Detroit Will Breathe organizers, was born and raised in the city. “I’m not going to participate in my own erasure.”

Instead, they’re focusing on their community outreach, while pushing to shrink Craig’s department’s presence and divert its funds to community resources. In recent months, much of Detroit Will Breathe’s police defunding advocacy has been focused on facial recognition contracts, but the group is beginning to turn its attention to the 2022 city budget. Last week, activists called into the annual public budget hearing to demand that the city reinvest much of the DPD’s more than $300 million—a quarter of the city’s general fund expenditures—to housing, health care, and education initiatives.

“We don’t need police; we need money, we need resources,” said Lewis. “A lot of racism exists here. There’s been a lot of segregation. There’s been just a lack of resources to the communities, and instead that money is going to a $315 million budget for the police. And that’s money that belongs to the community.”

“That’s why we really believe in fighting with the community. It’s their fight. It’s our fight.”

What Raquel Terán Wants To Accomplish If Democrats Take The Arizona State Legislature

The state representative wants to pass paid family leave, repeal Arizona’s pre-Roe vs. Wade abortion ban, and increase access to the ballot through automatic voter registration and same-day registration.

Arizona State Representative Raquel Terán.
(Photo provided by Terán’s campaign)

What Raquel Terán Wants To Accomplish If Democrats Take The Arizona State Legislature

The state representative wants to pass paid family leave, repeal Arizona’s pre-Roe vs. Wade abortion ban, and increase access to the ballot through automatic voter registration and same-day registration.

As an organizer, Raquel Terán helped build the political power of Latinx Arizonans. That growing power has helped shift the state left and oust some of the chief authors and enforcers of anti-immigrant policies, like former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Now, as a state representative, Terán is still fighting for working families and progressive policies, and she hopes this session—with control of the legislature up for grabs—will mean big gains for Democrats.

Terán’s work as an organizer helped propel her into office in 2018 as one of the two House representatives for District 30. Terán, who announced Saturday that she has tested positive for COVID-19,  is running unopposed for her second term representing the district, which includes central west Phoenix and downtown Glendale.

Terán grew up in southern Arizona, close to the Mexican border. “The separation between both countries was just a fence,” Terán said last week in a phone interview with The Appeal. “It was hard to understand the political implications of it.” Her parents would always say how lucky it was for them to be citizens of the United States, where they could have the opportunities that so many people wanted to cross that fence for.

“But as I saw the anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona, I wondered why it was that people who wanted the American dream were assaulted, either by bad legislation or by the minute men” along the border, Terán said. Like other Latinx activists turned lawmakers in Arizona, that anti-immigrant sentiment motivated her to find ways to stand up for her community and fight the destructive policies and rhetoric that were permeating the state.

So she began looking for ways to get involved. While attending a march in downtown Phoenix in the early 2000s, Terán went to a volunteer table for Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit that works to increase civic engagement in Latinx, immigrant, and allied communities. They gave her voter registration forms, Terán said, and she ended up marching and registering people to vote. 

“The theme of the march was ‘Today we march, tomorrow we vote,'” Terán recalled. “Change in this community has come from building the political power of Latinos. I just got plugged in to the whole progressive movement over the past 15 years. It’s been a lot of knocking on doors and getting people involved.”

In 2012, Terán decided to run for office and ended up losing in the primary by just 113 votes. She kept working as an organizer, fighting for the rights of immigrants, women, and workers. She went on to become the regional director of Mi Familia Vota’s education fund, then decided to run for office again in 2018. This time, she won.

Running for office, Terán said, was “really seen as taking the organizing to the next level. The analogy that I use is, for many of us—for people like me who have been doing the work around issue-driven campaigns, community organizing, and holding elected officials accountable—it’s changing megaphones to microphones.”

The efforts of community organizers like Terán helped to oust the infamous Arpaio, who was found guilty of criminal contempt for flouting a federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinx drivers, and recall former state Senator Russell Pearce, the author of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s “show me your papers” law that allowed police to demand documentation from anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally.

Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county with over half (4.5 million) of Arizona’s 7 million residents, has long been a Republican stronghold. But the county has shifted away from the GOP since Donald Trump’s emergence, and is poised to play an outsize role in deciding the presidential race. Voters there elected Democrats for county recorder and for sheriff in 2016—the first time since 1988 that Democrats won two countywide races—and they helped swing a U.S. Senate seat to Democrats two years later.

The presidential election is drawing national attention to Arizona, where former Vice President Joe Biden holds a steady lead against President Trump despite the state’s history of voting for Republican presidents. But the state’s legislative races are also extremely high stakes: Democrats could flip the state House of Representatives for the first time since 1966 and also have a shot at taking back control of the state Senate for the first time since 1990. 

Though Terán isn’t running in one of the handful of closely watched races across the state, if Democrats do flip one of the chambers next month, Terán and other Democrats will have more power to advance their agenda. Currently, because Republicans hold a majority in both houses, they can kill bills from Democrats without even allowing the bills a hearing.

“I’m very excited about the possibility that we’re gonna come back and be in the majority,” Terán said. “So what that means for Arizona is we will be able to move policies that are in favor of all Arizonans, to fully fund education, to modernize our electoral system—because at the end of the day, if we don’t have a good electoral system, we can’t move these progressive policies we’re talking about.”

This session, Terán said she’ll be prioritizing passing paid family leave, repealing Arizona’s pre-Roe vs. Wade abortion ban, and increasing access to the ballot through automatic voter registration and same-day registration.

The median household income in Terán’s district is about $30,000, and although Arizona has family leave, it’s not paid, so not everyone can afford to take it. “I talked to a teacher last year who said, ‘I’m counting on fall break to have the baby, and then I’ll come back the week after,'” Terán said. “It should be a basic human right to not have to go back to work the week after you give birth.”

Meanwhile, women in Arizona could soon face criminal charges for choosing not to have a child. Under Arizona’s pre-Roe ban, any woman who gets an abortion will be sentenced to at least one year in prison, but could face up to five years as well. That ban could be enforced if Roe vs. Wade gets overturned, an outcome many fear as the Supreme Court lurches to the right, following Amy Coney BarrettR