The Congressional Auditorium in the Capitol Visitor Center. Photo courtesy of Matt Laslo
Washington, D.C. – Tensions are still running high in the nation’s capital. The obviously frayed nerves are no longer due to federal officers beating, pepper-spraying and shooting rubber bullets at peaceful BLM protestors camped outside the White House. This week, the drama’s down the street at the U.S. Capitol where lawmakers are at each other’s throats as they debate policing reforms.
Even as bitter accusations – and a few insults – are flying across TV screens and Twitter, a growing number of lawmakers in both parties are coalescing around a new (to the political class, at least) idea: To end the ‘war on drugs’ as a part of combating police forces run amok. The calls remain loudest for cannabis legalization, which many see as necessary if officials truly want to take the target off the backs of African Americans.
While calls for drug reform grew increasingly louder this week, proponents recognize they still have a heavy lift ahead, especially with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the helm of the Senate and Trump in the White House.
In interviews with The News Station, White House officials and Senate Republican leaders were hesitant to even discuss, let alone consider, ending cannabis prohibition when Congress takes up policing reform over the next couple weeks. In spite of those many tone deaf GOP ears, cries continue to grow louder from protesters and pot-proponents to finally end America’s misguided drug war, which continues to give officers an excuse to target, harass and lock up people of color while also helping incubate the systemic racism plaguing every sector of American society.
After weeks of nationwide unrest, President Donald Trump tried to win back his coveted spotlight on cable ‘news’ outlets Tuesday when he signed an executive order on policing. His plan seeks to unify local law enforcement practices across the nation through threatening to withhold federal money for local police forces that refuse to establish higher standards for the use of force. It also bans chokeholds unless an officers’ life is endangered (which many protestors read as no change at all) while setting up a national database of excessive force complaints.
America’s no monarchy. So Trump’s flick of the wrist for the cameras isn’t the real story (even if it’s telling on what he may eventually be willing to sign into law).
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, constitutionally speaking, remain the true power brokers even if hyper-partisanship has now corrupted that natural order. While some bipartisan talks are happening off your screens, things aren’t looking up for proponents of overhauling the system, especially as party leaders continue merely yelling past each other.
But in the past few weeks, the political stage seems to have been reset by the hundreds and hundreds of miles protestors collectively marched – and even the intersections, bridges and public spaces many defiantly sat on as tear gas rained on many.
Leaders of both parties now see tackling policing (or at least pretending they now think it’s a priority) as key to their electoral chances this fall. And that means an intensely emotional, deeply personal – and long overdue – debate about the worth of black lives is going to overtake Washington in the coming weeks.
On Wednesday, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) – flanked by a handful of his white GOP colleagues, including Leader McConnell – unveiled the GOP’s long-awaited policing proposal. It piggybacks on much of the themes in the president’s executive order. But it also would establish a Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys and the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would mandate a top to bottom examination of the nation’s criminal justice system.
Those two commissions have maintained bipartisan support for years, but just because they’re included doesn’t mean GOP leaders are waving olive branches. That’s because the November election is just around the corner, and Republicans are dead set on undercutting former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I don’t want to be lectured to by people who had eight years of doing nothing,” Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) dismissively told The News Station of what he says was the Obama-Biden administration’s failure to pass police reform.
“That’s bullshit,” Graham said, without explaining himself further. “Complete bullshit.”
Misleading and false statements like that have become commonplace for senator’s like Graham who are forced to share the ballot with such an unpopular president of their own party this November.
Still, Graham’s not all politics (well, at least not all the time). He’s promising to use his powerful Judiciary Committee gavel to investigate best practices for law enforcement, including looking into overhauling – and potentially even ending – so-called no-knock drug warrants.
That idea is already included in the policing overhaul House Democrats passed out of committee later on Wednesday. Graham says he wants to hear what officers have to say about them first. But the former JAG prosecutor says he’s not afraid to ruffle some blue feathers.
“There are a lot of cops who are going to get out of their comfort zone if we do it right. They’re not going to be able to do what they used to do,” Graham said.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who was at the Capitol for police reform negotiations, offered support (even if lukewarm) for the GOP proposal.
“It’s got a good foundation,” Meadows told The News Station.
I press Meadows on Trump’s 2016 pledge to support cannabis banking, which embattled Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) vows the president has reaffirmed support for in private conversations. When I asked if there are any plans to push full legalization as a part of police reform, the White House chief of staff laughed and laughed. Then he realized I was serious, so he punted the topic to Congress.
“I’m not aware of anything on the agenda for the Senate or the House that would move a bill in that regard. We – the White House has not weighed in on that,” Meadows said.
While some in this White House still laugh off marijuana, millions of Americans know it’s a deadly serious issue. Not just for chronically ill patients of all stripes; the war on drugs has cost countless black and brown lives, while also leaving entire communities blighted.
That’s why as the House Judiciary Committee debated the Democratic policing reform proposal, many lawmakers argued policing reform must address the ‘war on drugs.’
“Over 650,000 Americans are arrested every year for violating cannabis laws. According to the ACLU, in every single state, black folks are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. In some states, 10 times more likely than others,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) lectured his fellow Judiciary Committee members. “Decriminalizing cannabis will be a major step in the right direction.”
Sadly, proponents don’t have to search far for examples. In March, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was asleep when Louisville, Ky. police officers rammed in her front door before shooting her at least eight times. The slaughter of the African American emergency room technician only fueled protests nationwide, in part because police obtained a no-knock drug warrant to justify their unjustifiable killing of the unarmed young woman. That needless tragedy changed the contours of the debate around policing reform.
Since her killing, Louisville’s city council unanimously banned no-knock warrants. And one of Taylor’s former senators, Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is now calling to ban those secretive, aggressive warrants for federal agents. Democrats want Congress to ban them nationwide, which the House bill does.
“Let’s start looking at treating drug abuse and drug use from a public health perspective. That means instead of putting money into public safety, police units, drug suppression units that wreak havoc in the inner cities of America, terrorizing innocent people like Breonna Taylor,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a House Judiciary Committee member, told The News Station. “Why don’t we start diverting money from that practice into drug treatment and drug education?”
It’s not just Democrats. One of the president’s top, rhetorical bomb-throwing congressional allies is a staunch proponent of overhauling U.S. drug laws.
“I don’t think the war on drugs has helped when it comes to the interactions of police and communities who at times feel marginalized,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) added.
Even with polls showing most GOP voters support legalizing cannabis, Gaetz remains in the minority among elected Republicans on Capitol Hill. Most Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee tried to strip the ban on no-knock warrants from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s policing overhaul.
“We haven’t had any thoughtful debate and discussion and brought in experts to testify on that issue. There’s been no time to do it,” Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) told lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee. “There will be serious ramifications from tossing this baby out with the bathwater.”
Democrats won that round on no-knock warrants, but many in the party are increasingly frustrated by GOP calls for more commissions and studies. Decades of being blocked through an array of Republican stalling tactics on racial and policing issues – even as the incarceration and murder rates of minorities steadily rose – has now morphed into fury for many.
“Until there is that recognition and that action against the corrosive and deadly role that racism plays, change won’t happen,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) told her fellow Judiciary Committee members. “Lip service is meaningless, political games are an insult. Enough time wasting, commissions, task forces and incentives. I support this bill because Black Lives Matter.”