Cries for Police Budget Reform Ring Loud in Fourth Week of DC Protests

Protesters gathered on Monday to commemorate two weeks since D.C. police and federal law enforcement officers pushed a peaceful demonstration off the streets surrounding the White House. (Courthouse News photo/Megan Mineiro)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Two weeks since law enforcement officers dispersed peaceful them with flash-bang grenades and chemical irritants, protesters marched from the White House to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial calling for police reform. 

Civil rights groups have denounced the use of force, like what was used against protesters on June 1 outside the White House to clear the way for President Donald Trump to pose outside St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo while holding a Bible. Cities across the country have seen weeks of protests following the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis.

Kyla Booker, a Washington resident and student at Marymount University, said the use of force by police against peaceful protestors gave her flashbacks to the 1960s. 

“We need to be looking at how we can enact policy change,” Booker said, standing in the historic Lafayette Square on Monday evening, where protesters fled from officers in riot gear two weeks ago.

The fallout to Attorney General William Barr ordering law enforcement to disperse the protest followed almost immediately. Black Lives Matter and the ACLU have sued Trump and Barr in federal court, and America’s top military official publicly apologized for taking part in the photo-op.

Crowds increased outside St. John’s in the days following the violent clash between law enforcement and protesters, with demonstrations continuing in the street now blocked off and adorned with street performers and ice cream vendors.

“The crowds only got larger and larger as the days went by,” said Sean Blackmon, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, while marching.

Monday marked the fourth week of protests in the nation’s capital, expected to catalyze Friday with various demonstrations planned for June 19, or Juneteenth, which marks the Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S.

Members from Freedom Fighters D.C. — a predominantly black-led group of activists focused on police reform — gathered Monday morning in Freedom Plaza to begin a 36-hour sit-in near Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office to demand cuts to the Metropolitan Police Department.

The D.C. Council met virtually on Monday to discuss its proposed police budget. For 2021, Bowser has recommended a 3.3% increase in funding to the department, a total of $578 million. 

More than 500 people signed up to give testimony before the council on Monday. 

Blackmon, who marched outside the White House hours later, spoke remotely to the council members, calling for them to defund police and reinvest in housing, health care and other critical services for the district’s black residents.

“We have to keep this pressure up on the D.C. Council, and on Muriel Bowser, we have to keep our foot on the gas,” he said. “And we also gotta stay in the streets, what we’re doing right now.”

Last week, the council voted to ban the police department from using tear gas against demonstrators along with a litany of other policing reforms, including a ban on the use of chokeholds and other neck restraints.

The council is set to vote on the final budget on June 25.

“We are here to demand that that money be reallocated towards mental health services, education, food, and housing and securities, those types of services in order to help the public instead of just policing us,” said Jacqueline LaBayne, one of seven Freedom Fighters D.C. founders, in an interview Monday.

Protesters gathered in the shadow of the Office of the Mayor of Washington, D.C., building Monday, preparing for a 36-hour sit-in demonstration, to advocate for funding reforms. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

Freedom Fighters D.C. has a list of budget demands for how the council should reallocate funding, including a provision to send $4.6 million to “community-centered, public health approaches to violence interruption.” Another item asks that the council members “never again vote to increase police funding or to increase the police department’s budget.” 

Protesters like Arianna Evans say the militarized policing of demonstrators in Washington was unnecessary.

“Overpolicing does not make you safer,” Evans said. “We need to defund the police and re-fund the community. We need to re-fund black health care, we need to re-fund black education, and we need to focus more on community reform then policing the people that are in the community.”

With national police budgets totaling more than $100 billion in 2017, according to an Urban Institute study, LaBayne says reallocating these funds would be more than enough to invest in large-scale programs to benefit communities. She also noted that $100 billion could pay the college tuition of every American. 

“People get defunding and completely abolished confused,” she said. “Defunding is just the redistribution of funds. We’re not just going to wake up one day, and the police are going to be gone, and chaos is going to erupt; that’s not going to happen at all. It’s a very slow-moving process of redistributing these funds to these services.”

Cries for racial justice and police reform are no longer isolated outside the White House and are now making their way up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill with debate expected later this week on the Democrat-proposed bill for sweeping police reform.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from George Floyd’s brother last week and is expected to debate the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 on Wednesday in a markup hearing. 

The legislation answers the call for a nationwide ban on chokeholds and an end to racial profiling by law enforcement. Democrats argue the legislation moves toward more equitable policing by instilling new accountability, liability, and transparency standards.

The bill outlines plans to mandate racial bias training for local and state police departments, and mandatory body cameras on federal police officers and vehicles. It also tackles an integral demand from protesters by doing away with qualified immunity for law enforcement and opening the door for individuals to recover damages in civil lawsuits when officers violate their constitutional rights. 

Republican Senators Tim Scott and James Lankford stated over the weekend that GOP lawmakers are in favor of some portions of legislation targeting excessive force by police. 

But Scott said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that provisions targeting qualified immunity would be a poison pill for Republicans — echoing the president reportedly telling senators that the issue was “off the table.” GOP legislation is expected to focus on recruiting more black law enforcement officers and on addressing the mental health toll related to policing. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said from the Senate floor Monday that a GOP-led police reform bill will safeguard protection for police officers. 

“Under the leadership of Senator Tim Scott, our conference is developing a serious proposal to reform law enforcement in smart ways without lashing out needlessly and counterproductively at the first responders who are a credit to their communities,” McConnell said.

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