Politics: Police Reform in Congress, Fight for DC Statehood, Climate Summit
Rebecca Ibarra: I'm Rebecca Ibarra, host of WNYC and NPR's Consider This in for Tanzina Vega. This is The Takeaway. This week's conviction of former police officer Derrick Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has reignited calls for sweeping police reform across the US.
Kamala Harris: Today we feel a sigh of relief. Still, it cannot take away the pain. A measure of justice isn't the same as equal justice. This verdict brings us a step closer and the fact is, we still have work to do. We still must reform the system.
Rebecca Ibarra: While many did breathe--
Kamala Harris: : A sigh of relief.
Rebecca Ibarra: Over the past week we've also been reminded of just how rampant police violence against Black people is in the country. 16-year-olds Ma'khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio and Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, North Carolina are among the Black Americans most recently killed by police officers. Here's Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd speaking after the guilty verdict was announced for Derrick Chauvin.
Philonise Floyd: Times, they're getting harder every day. 10 miles away from here Mr. Wright, Daunte Wright, he should still be here. We have to always understand that we have to march. We will have to do this for life.
Rebecca Ibarra: Many lawmakers pledged to dramatically overhaul policing at the federal level in the aftermath of Floyd's murder last May. Yet close to a year later, progress has been slow. Last month, the House passed the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act in a close vote with zero support from Republicans. It heads to the Senate next, and even with Democrats in control it's expected to be an uphill battle.
President Joe Biden: My conversations with the Floyd family, I spoke with them again today. I assure them we're going to continue to fight for the passage of the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act so I can sign that law as quickly as possible.
Rebecca Ibarra: For more on federal police reform legislation in Washington, we're joined now by Representative Barbara Lee of California's 13th District. Congresswoman, great to have you with us.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Nice being with you, Rebecca. Thank you very much.
Rebecca Ibarra: How comprehensive is the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act?
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Thank you. It's very comprehensive. Let me tell you, first of all, the verdict with regard to Mr. Floyd, it's really cracked open the door to accountability. True justice is a world in which this never would have happened to Mr. Floyd or to countless others. The George Floyd Justice and Policing Act is a major step forward. Of course, it does not address all of the structural and systemic issues as it relates to structural racism. I just have to tell you, I believe that if that bill had been made law, had been signed into effect, we would have saved many lives. It's a very sad thought and moments to think that Republicans in the House did not vote for it. Not one.
I have a lot of hope Because I know Congresswoman Karen Bass, she's a good friend, Senator Booker, Senator Scott, and they are working day and night trying to reach some form of bipartisan agreement so that this can move forward and be on the President's desk very soon.
Rebecca Ibarra: Congresswoman, let's break down a few of the things this legislation would do. The bill would ban chokeholds and qualified immunity, which often shields police from some lawsuits. Are these sweeping reforms or more incremental?
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: I think in many ways they are sweeping reforms. Of course, again, as I said, we have a lot of work to do to address the structural and underlying issues. When you look at the fact that if a police officer hurts or kills someone, they should not have immunity from lawsuits. They currently do. That's a sweeping reform, banning the use of chokeholds. Can you imagine anyone, especially Republicans, saying we should allow chokeholds? That's sweeping reform. When you look at the fact that we're asking that we not allow the transfer of weapons of war to police departments, that's a sweeping reform.
Also, it's really important to understand and a lot of people don't even know that we don't have a national database so that the public and police department can really see who these officers are and whether or not they're corrupt, dangerous or abusive. Again, that's a sweeping reform. These sound like measures that should have been in place in law already, but they're not. This is an important bill. It's a bill that we must pass, it's a must-pass bill. I have to just say, I'm very cautiously optimistic that it's going to get done because we have some really strategic, committed individuals who are formed the negotiation team. Right now it's informal, but I believe that these are going to become more formalized as the days go by.
Rebecca Ibarra: You mentioned the database. That's the National Police Misconduct Registry that's being proposed. Can you tell us a little bit more about the aim of that?
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Sure. First of all, we need to be able to know about an officer's history of disciplinary action. That needs to be recorded in an accessible database. That would allow, and we know that some offices move from one department to another, from one city to another, to avoid accountability. It's important to have this database to include the use of force in traffic stops. Again, the database requires collection, analysis, and release of data to track individuals such as this. That's the way to prevent abusive police officers, corrupt and dangerous police officers, from, quite frankly, killing people, especially African Americans.
Rebecca Ibarra: Congresswoman, as you may know, many progressive activists actually oppose this bill, because they say anything short of overhauling the entire system isn't enough. I'll use New York as an example, the NYPD banned the use of chokeholds in the 1990s. That didn't stop an officer from killing Eric Garner with a chokehold 20 years later. What's your response to that?
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: My response to that is, it may not go far enough, I voted for it. I'm a progressive and I understand the realities we see right now with this very good bill that establishes the National Standard, mandates data collection, reprograms existing funds for community-based policing, streamlining the federal law to prosecute excessive force. We know that these are good measures and that this would begin to help address the systemic issues. I want to see systemic racism, the structural racism, dismantled within our criminal justice system and every other system in our country.
The political realities are, we've got to get this passed. It may not go far enough. Many agree it doesn't but we have to start somewhere to save lives. This will save Black and Brown lives.
Rebecca Ibarra: People like Gina Clayton Johnson, an attorney and activist, say Black and Brown folks have organized and help elect Democrats to office in the hope that lawmakers will deliver on a commitment to race, justice, and equality. Congresswoman, when Democrats like you are up for reelection will you be able to look voters like Clayton Johnson in the eye and say, "This bill is the best we could do?"
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Absolutely. Let me tell you, first, I just have to say she's right. Black and Brown people elected Democrats to Congress, the House, and the Senate, as well as the White House. There's accountability there that's required. Again, young people, people who are protesting peacefully in the streets in many respects, they are pushing the envelope to make sure that police reform becomes a reality in this country, as well as dismantling systemic racism. When you look at the composition of the Senate, I get very frustrated myself.
Democrats have the House, the Senate, and the White House, but members of the Senate, members of the House come from different districts and the political dynamics around this is such that we have to, again, I have to salute Congresswoman Bass, Senator Booker and Senator Scott because they're trying very hard, but if it's this difficult to bring Republicans around so we can get a bill, imagine what if we didn't have those individuals, especially the margin and the Senate being so fragile but we do have two additional senators.
It's so tight, it's so close until we have to push the envelope as far as we can push it or do nothing. I don't especially like incremental change, because enough is enough, and the time is now. At this point with the political composition of the Senate and in the House, and it was a difficult bill to get through the House also. It's either we act on something or nothing. I have to say, we have to keep our movement going, though, our political movement,, and hold members of Congress accountable at the ballot box. I'm certainly willing, and I come from a very enlightened and progressive district.
I'm willing to stand before my constituents and say I did everything I could do to save Black and brown lives from police murders and police misconduct. I did everything I can do to hold police accountable and to increase transparency. I did everything I could do to make sure that police officers don't consider themselves above the law. I'll tell them I did everything I could do to ban the use of chokeholds, and I will hope that they would vote for me because they know I'm fighting for them, and I'm going to keep fighting until true justice is done.
Again, as a progressive, incremental change for me, and I've been in this battle all my life for justice. I would just say I'm still standing to fight for another day, but I hope and I recognize that I salute our young people especially, who really did help bring us a Democratic majority by their unbelievable voter registration, voter engagement, and get-out-to-vote efforts. That's a fact.
Rebeca Ibarra: We have time for one last question here. There have been recent discussions between Democrats and Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, to see if there's a compromise, if a compromise can be reached on this legislation between the two parties. Are there specific areas that you see room for compromise with the GOP on this then?
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: I would leave that up to our negotiators. They know where they are in the talks, but I have to tell you, this is a very good, moderate first step. I know that whatever agreements are reached, it will be that so that justice is done, and so that we will begin to send a signal and set a new standard for policing and saying that Black lives do matter.
Rebeca Ibarra: Congresswoman Barbara Lee represents California's 13th District. Representative Lee, thank you so much for joining us.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee: My pleasure.
Rebeca Ibarra: We're joined now by a reporter who's been following all this very closely. Nicholas Wu is a congressional reporter for Politico. Nick, great to have you with us.
Nicholas Wu: Thanks so much for having me.
Rebeca Ibarra: We just heard from representative Barbara Lee about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Is there anything she said that stood out to you?
Nicholas Wu: What really stood out to me was quite how much Democrats are still pushing for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, even though, as she noted, the political reality of Congress and the 50/50 split in the Senate is going to make it really hard to get that piece of legislation through since there are provisions in there like the end of qualified immunity that Republicans just don't really seem like they want to vote for.
Rebeca Ibarra: Nick, do we have a sense of how significant this legislation would be for addressing police violence, especially since the federal government really has very little control over state and local law enforcement?
Nicholas Wu: Now, Congresswoman Lee had said that it might save lives. That's certainly something that many proponents of this bill believe but the devil really is in the details here, since a lot of the way this bill works is by basically conditioning federal funds on certain policy provisions, so nudging local police departments to adopt certain policies. They would be very hard to do so, especially given that we don't have the same national police force in the United States that other countries have.
Rebeca Ibarra: It's interesting that you say this is going to be really hard to pass, and one of the sticking points you mentioned is qualified immunity. Can you tell us why this is such a sticking point, qualified immunity?
Nicholas Wu: Well, for Democrats, they see it as something that basically allows cops to act with impunity because they think that with the sorts of legal protections in place for police that make it very hard to bring civil suits against them, cops can act like they won't face any repercussions for their actions. Congresswoman Karen Bass basically made that point to me a couple of days ago. For Republicans, this is something that would lead to all sorts of unnecessary lawsuits against police and would get in the way of allowing police to actually do their police work because they'd be fighting lawsuits all the time.
Rebeca Ibarra: Republican Senator Tim Scott has proposed an alternative police reform proposal, which some Democrats have said is too narrow in scope. Could there be any room for compromise there?
Nicholas Wu: There might be. Senator Scott is talking with Congresswoman Bass, who's the lead sponsor of the George Floyd bill. There aren't any formal negotiations yet, and they're still waiting for any signs of movement among leadership in both the House and Senate. At the very least, they have this line of conversation going, and if there is going to be any movement, it's going to be among these people who have been hashing out the details on this legislation all along.
Rebeca Ibarra: Nick, some activists, including those from the Movement for Black Lives, oppose the legislation as it currently is. Where is their opposition coming from?
Nicholas Wu: As some people from the Movement for Black Lives have put it, they want a bill that would actually redirect funding for police, defunding the police, so to speak. This is where legislation like the so-called BREATHE Act, which I believe Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, as a sponsor, comes in, which in addition to some of these policy provisions, would work towards redistributing funds away from law enforcement. Now, this is something that Republicans very strongly oppose, and now faces resistance from within the Democratic Party, as well, especially after many Democrats see their losses in the House last year, as in part due to this whole controversy over defunding the police.
Rebeca Ibarra: I want to talk about the Derek Chauvin trial for a second. Was this trial itself pretty divisive in Washington? What did you hear from different lawmakers about the process or the verdict?
Nicholas Wu: A lot of lawmakers withheld a lot of comment until the verdict came down. They were trying not to influence the jurors. When the verdict finally did come down, it was interesting. I was on the Hill that day, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus had all gathered in one room outside the house floor to watch the verdict read out on a single laptop screen. Once that finally came out, you've heard all these sighs of relief, and then people walked outside hand-in-hand to talk about it. As Congresswoman Bass put it, this brought her and other members back almost 30 years to the Rodney King verdict, which had gone a much different way.
I think for a lot of these members, they were just happy to see some element of justice done. Unlike many other issues in Washington, this was something that very much aroused a certain degree of bipartisan consensus that something had happened here. Now what they do to fix this long-standing issue of police misconduct is something else altogether.
Rebeca Ibarra: If the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act isn't passed at the federal level, could we see cities and states taking up similar laws, or is that happening at all already?
Nicholas Wu: They certainly could. Of course, cities and states will have control over their own local law enforcement. If they decided to pass legislation along some of the lines of this, that could be something that they do. Whether or not there's movement on that, again, it goes back to how there are splits of even among progressives on how exactly to reform the police. We'll have to wait and see there.
Rebeca Ibarra: Then how important is it that Vice President Kamala Harris helped draft the bill and that it has President Biden's support?
Nicholas Wu: It certainly helps give the White House's imprint on this bill. Vice President Harris is, of course, the very first Black vice president, but as we've seen with other issues in Congress, even the support of The White House isn't always enough to shepherd legislation over the finish line.
Rebeca Ibarra: Nicholas Wu is a congressional reporter for Politico. Nicholas, thank you so much for joining us.
Nicholas Wu: Thank you.
Rebeca Ibarra: This week, President Joe Biden hosted a virtual summit to address climate change on a global level. Leaders from 40 different countries were in attendance and several promise to cut down greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years, including President Biden.
President Biden: By maintaining those investments and putting these people to work, the United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half, and half by the end of this decade.
Rebeca Ibarra: Organizing the summit is an attempt by Biden to reposition the US as a world leader in the fight against climate change. Under former President Donald Trump, much of that work was halted after his administration chose to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. Back in March, Biden also announced the creation of an environmental justice advisory council as part of one of his executive orders to address climate change. With us to help break this all down is Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, former senior advisor for environmental justice and community revitalization at the EPA. Dr. Ali, great to have you with us.
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali: Thank you so much for having me.
Rebeca Ibarra: We're also joined by Maria Lopez-Nunez with the Ironbound Community Corporation. She's also a member of the White House's environmental justice advisory council. Maria, great to have you here.
Maria Lopez-Nunez: Thank you for having us.
Interviewer: Mustafa, you quit the EPA just months into the Trump administration. What has been going through your mind with the climate change summit this week?
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali: It is an amazing set of opportunities if it's done right, and the accountability is built in, and that we center frontline communities and our most vulnerable countries across the planet because our people are the ones that get hit first and worst. Seeing some of these commitments is a move in the right direction. We would like to see an even stronger set of numbers to make sure that many of the impacts that are happening inside of Black and brown and indigenous communities are lessened and then hopefully eliminated one day. It's a step in the right direction and we are optimistic that folks will continue to strengthen the various commitments that they've made.
Rebeca Ibarra: Maria, you're a member of the White House Environmental Justice Council. What exactly is the council working on?
Maria Lopez-Nunez: We're working on the initiative called Justice40 and Justice40 is supposed to be a 40% carve out of the investment. We're talking about the climate-related investments, making sure that they go to frontline communities. I hope that everyone understands that 40 should be considered the floor and not the ceiling. It's the starting point to a guarantee that investments are directed to those who have been most directly impacted.
Interviewer: Then Mustafa back to you, what are your thoughts on the Biden administration's actions on climate change to date, specifically when it comes to environmental justice?
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali: It's great to have an administration that actually centers both science, climate and environmental justice. I think that many of us have been doing this work for a long time are pleased that that's happening. We want to make sure that folks also understand that you can't win on climate change if you don't win on environmental justice. Maria had just shared about the 40%. That's a step in the right direction, but we got to make sure that those are real because it's labeled as benefits. What our community needs is dollars also. We want to make sure that folks are actually receiving the benefits and the dollars that are necessary for them to continue to frame out the direction that they want to go in.
Also seeing that he has begun to place inside of some of the federal agencies folks who have either come from sets of environmental justice work or competencies in that space is also a step in the right direction, but that needs to continue to grow because there are over 17 federal agencies and departments that have a distinct responsibility for environmental justice. Of course, under the Biden administration, he has said that it is an all of government approach. That means that each one of those agencies and departments should be laser-focused on the dynamics that are going on inside of our community.
Those dynamics, those impacts that are happening in Black and brown and indigenous communities and Asian and Pacific Islander, and sometimes lower-wealth white communities that are actually making our lives shorter and making us sick are also the drivers and warming up our oceans and our planet. I'm pleased that they're moving in the right direction, but we know that if we don't stay continually holding people accountable, then sometimes folks will slip.
Rebeca Ibarra: Mustafa, I want to talk a bit about this week's climate summit. Did any specific announcements from the Biden administration stand out to you?
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali: I think they were all significant because we got a chance to see where some of the 40 members from 40 different countries actually sat in relationship to their commitments. Many of us had hoped that at least 50% number would come out from the Biden administration or from the United States and it's 50 to 52%. Some would like to see that number higher because we understand the climate crisis that we find. I was pleased to a degree to hear that Japan was giving somewhat successful and significant numbers. What I mean by that is that anybody below 50% is falling short. Japan came in at about 46% by 2030.
For the listeners, what that means is they are going to make sure that they're cutting emissions by that number, and then being net zero by 2050, which is the baseline for folks now across the planet. Canada fell a little bit short,, to be quite honest with you, even though some would say of course the United States and China are the two major contributors. Everybody is contributing to some degree to what's going on, or at least the major countries, if you want to label them that way. Canada came in somewhere between 40 to 45% by 2030. China was a little interesting and I'll just close out with China.
China said that their peak emissions before 2030 that they'll do some work in that space. They didn't give a hard number, but said that they would be carbon neutral by 2060, which is outside of that norm number of 2050 right now.
Rebeca Ibarra: Maria, I want to go back to what you said before, which is the Biden administration has pledged that 40% of the benefits of all its climate policies will be directed towards disadvantaged communities. Can you break that down for us, because what exactly do we mean by benefits and then what does this mean on a practical level?
Maria Lopez-Nunez: Yes. As Mustafa was saying, we need 40% of investments, not just benefits because benefits could be anything, it could be the bike lane. It could be if there's a park that I got to plant that over there, maybe it has an effect on our communities. Right now, the council is working on the definition for the 40% of what is the benefit, but I think we need to go still much, many more steps further, right? Because I think right now at the summit, the United States is talking to other governments. The United States government really should be talking to environmental justice communities and centering this conversation about what we're going to do about climate change with our own people.
We can't just have state-to-state relationships. We need to reconnect and we rebuild the relationship that's been broken between the federal government and the communities who are directly impacted.
Rebeca Ibarra: Maria, how much can the White House actually do on environmental justice without legislative action?
Maria Lopez-Nunez: There's always plenty we could do. For instance, I'm not too happy about the net-zero. I would like to see us talk about the cutting emissions at source because right now our communities are being assaulted by carbon sequestration plans, technical fixes, geo engineering. There are things that we need at the community level and I think that we could start the conversation because that would force legislative action. If there was a big take the show on the road, talk to all the different communities across the country, environmental justice, community, indigenous communities, then I think that that would go really far in building the political will to get something done.
Of course, things could be done by executive action. We need executive orders right now. Trump wasn't shy to use them and I would love to see more on forcefulness on behalf of justice for our communities.
Rebeca Ibarra: Mustafa, what were some of the biggest bureaucratic holdups that you witnessed inside of the EPA on environmental justice?
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali: If we're going to have an honest conversation, something, I always call real talk. You've got biases, discrimination and systemic racism, that has been built into our policies for decades, that make it more difficult for communities of color to actually get justice. The unpacking and dismantling of that is critically important.
Then even if you saw strong work being done or attempted on the federal level, we still have to realize that those dollars and those actions leave the feds and go down to the states and the counties and local governments. As it's making that journey, you have the assumption that folks are going to do the right things on those levels.
It's sometimes yes and sometimes no, so you have to make sure that, one, you're building stronger accountability into the process and, two, that those folks have the resources and tools that they need. Then the other part, which was outside of the government but is definitely connected to the government, is making sure that frontline organizations have the resources that they need to build the capacity, to be able to navigate all the challenges that exist in dealing with bureaucracies and trying to make real change happen. This administration has the exact same set of challenges, and then also the overlay of the climate crisis that we're fighting.
We've got a lot of work to do to make sure that folks have those competencies so that there's accountability and that both folks on the local level in government and in frontline organizations have the resources they need to be able to make a change happen.
Rebeca Ibarra: Maria, your organization is based in Newark, New Jersey. What impact does environmental racism have on residents of Newark specifically?
Maria Lopez-Nunez: When we look at the skyline, we see the state's largest garbage incinerator, which 50% of the trash, it's coming from New York City. It's not trash that's being generated even within our own state. Then we have two power plants in our neighborhood. We're right next to the port of Newark in Elizabeth. We have fat rendering plants, plastic plants. We're also bordered by the longest Superfund site in the country. That's the Passaic River where we made Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The poison that was left behind that, it's all over our neighborhood, and so much of it has never been cleaned up. We have over 100 brownfield sites.
What I want folks to understand is, when I'm talking about my neighborhood, I'm talking about four square miles, so I'm talking about a concentration of pollution, legacy pollution that has not been cleaned up for many administrations. I'm thankful for the movement that's been holding our federal government steadily accountable, and for us to be at this moment, but I want to see real change, not just words. I want us to slingshot into the just transition and make sure that we don't leave behind communities like ours.
Rebeca Ibarra: Mustafa, how does what Maria is describing in Newark, compare to the effects of environmental racism on communities of color nationwide?
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali: Let me just call out that Maria, and the folks at iron-bound have been doing amazing work for decades, and often with not having the right amount of resources that they needed. The dynamics that we have going on across our country that ground truth and anchor us to why this work both on the environmental justice side, and the climate side is so important. We have 100,000 people who die prematurely from air pollution every year in our country. That's more folks that are dying from air pollution than are dying from gun violence.
More people are dying from air pollution than are dying from car crashes, and all those things are important. We have to give our attention to make change happen in that space. In our country, we got over 60 million people who have dealt with unsafe drinking water over the last decade. We know in both those situations that I mentioned, it is primarily Black and brown and indigenous communities that are dealing with it. No community should have to deal with that, or in Port Arthur, Texas, where Hilton Kelley is a Goldman Prize winner. A once-thriving African American community, they're surrounded by petrochemical facilities, and they have high rates of cancer and liver and kidney disease and a number of other things.
When our communities are impacted, our health is impacted, and then our wealth is impacted because our homes lose value when we're next to these types of things. Historically, we have placed our housing in flood plains, next to toxic facilities. You see it across our country, whether we're talking about on reservations, or if we're talking about in Appalachia with lower wealth white communities, or of course, Black and brown communities all across our country. When you look at what's going on in Alaska, where brothers and sisters, that literally their homes are sliding into the ocean, because of the changes that are happening from climate change and from the exposures that they've had to deal with from toxic pollution.
We seen what happened with brothers and sisters, and my family is from Puerto Rico, the impacts that happen from Hurricane Maria. It was happening even before hurricane Maria got there, that folks were dealing with Superfund sites and brownfield sites, and the military doing testing and leaving it behind in places like Vieghas and others. We have a lot of work to do as we're having this conversation about climate. We've got to be very aware that we have to rebuild the infrastructure inside of our communities if we're going to be able to fully be able to participate in this new clean economy that the President and others talk about and the end as needed, but we've got to make sure that we're not placing veneers over the challenges that still exist inside of our communities.
Rebeca Ibarra: Maria, do you have any advice for local organizers trying to push back against environmental racism and organize?
Maria Lopez-Nunez: [chuckles] I laughed just because the challenge is so hard. For organizers on the ground, they're not just dealing with climate change. They're dealing with racism, with police brutality, with immigration raids, gentrification. It is a hard time to be an organizer in community. One thing that Nancy Zak, whose been working with us for 47 years, she always says, "We can't give up at the same time." Make sure that you have a strong team with you and you take turns because this work does wear us down, but we have to keep going. Because of decades of organizing, we've reached a moment where I today with environmental justice finally being centered, and I'm hopeful that we keep pushing, we're actually going to get somewhere this time.
Rebeca Ibarra: Maria Lopez-Nunez works with the Ironbound Community Corporation and is a member of the White House's Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali is a former Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization at the APA. Thank you both for joining us.
Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali: Thank you.
Maria Lopez-Nunez: Thank you.
Rebeca Ibarra: This week the House voted along party lines to pass legislation that would make the District of Columbia a state. This is the second time The House has voted to grant statehood to DC, the legislation also known as H.R.51 now heads to the Senate. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the legislation would establish Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as the 51st state. Yes, the state would be renamed for abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass. DC residents would gain two senators and a voting Congressperson.
Advocates for statehood have tied the battle for DC statehood to the fight for equal voting rights and racial equality, as Black residents represent the largest racial demographic group of the district's more than 700,000 citizens. The nationwide reckoning over systemic racism and the groundswell of support for voting rights has elevated the fight for statehood. Now, as the DC statehood bill heads the Senate, it faces a number of hurdles, including the filibuster. Joining us now to discuss what statehood would mean for her constituents is representative Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, DC. Welcome to The Takeaway, Representative Norton.
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton: Glad to be with you.
Rebeca Ibarra: Representative. You've represented Washington DC in Congress for about 30 years and have spent much of that time championing statehood for DC. How does it feel to have legislation for statehood pass the house for the second time?
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton: Well, the reason I haven't been able to get statehood before now is because I've been in the minority for most of my time in the Congress. The moment I got in the majority, I pressed hard for statehood. Now it feels that we are well on our way because more than 54% of the American people, according to a very detailed poll, support statehood. That's the effect of the hearings, of telling Americans what they did not know. Many Americans were confused. They thought we had the same rights that they had. Some believe we shouldn't. Some just didn't know.
The effect of the hearings has been to essentially educate the public. For example, they didn't know that the residents of their nation's capital pay the highest federal taxes per capita, highest in the United States, and yet don't have the same rights as other Americans.
Rebeca Ibarra: How did statehood for DC become a tenant of the Democratic party platform?
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton: Well, it would be in the Democratic party platform because statehood issues have always been divided. Republicans have tended to support statehood when the people involved were Republicans or from Republican states and vice versa.
Rebeca Ibarra: Representative Norton, you were active in the civil rights movement and helped organize the 1963 march on Washington. Today 46% of DC's more than 700,000 residents are Black. Does this fight for statehood feel like a civil rights battle to you at all?
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton: Well, it does feel like a continuation of the battles I fought actually as a student, stood for equality for African Americans. Now, for most of its time as a jurisdiction, the district has been majority white and yet wasn't treated equally. My experience in the civil rights movement and my own linage as a third-generation Washingtonian have all helped just to shape my enthusiasm for statehood. It comes from very different points on the spectrum.
Rebeca Ibarra: Even though this legislation will now advance to the Senate, it faces an uphill battle without Republican support. There's also concern about the legislation lacking full support from Senate Democrats. Is that right?
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton: We do have a few Democrats still to get from more conservative Democratic states but we have more than 90% of the democrats as co sponsors for the bill. Yesterday, we passed this bill in the House of Representatives, giving it a big push in the Senate. We believe that the filibuster is on its last legs. Remember, the Senate has gotten rid of the filibuster for nominations. In fact, they gotten rid of the filibuster for everything except legislation. The Senate held up organizing this year, this session, because of the filibuster. The Senate is determined to get rid of the filibuster, because this majority democratic senate knows that the reason it got the majority is because the republicans who had had control of the Senate had passed nothing.
Legislation from the house went to the Senate to die, and the people gave the Senate to the Democrats. When the filibuster goes for everything else it's going to go for DC statehood, so I'm optimistic about this bill and the Senate as well.
Rebeca Ibarra: Representative, how have republicans you've been talking to in Congress responded to the argument that not allowing DC to become a state effectively disenfranchises its more than 700,000 residents?
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton: The arguments have been essentially partisan, at some them absurd. That we don't have the kinds of stores or industry as states have. Basically, statehood, and that is not only for the District of Columbia but for every state, has simply been a partisan matter.
Rebeca Ibarra: How significant is having support from the White House in the fight for DC statehood for you because this week, President Biden issued a policy statement in which he expressed his support for HR 51 and statehood for DC?
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton: Now, White House support has been truly important. The President's strong statement of support means that we have a pull to get this done, not just a push up from the Congress. It really means a great deal to the progress we're making on statehood that Democrats control the House, the Senate and now the presidency as well. That's why we're making such a big push this session of Congress.
Rebeca Ibarra: Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton is Washington DC's delegate in the House of Representatives. Representative Norton, thank you so much.
Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton: My pleasure.
Rebeca Ibarra: That's all we have for you today. It's always wonderful being here with you folks. If you missed anything or want to listen back, check out our podcast. You can find it wherever you get your pods or head to thetakeaway.org. Also, before we go I want to say a special thank you to the team who works so hard to get this show together day in and day out. Jackie Martin is our line producer, our producers are José Olivares, Ethan Oberman, Meg Dalton, Patricia Jacob, Lydia McMullen-Laird, and our senior producer is Amber Hall. Polly Irungu is our digital editor. Vince Fairchild is our broadcast engineer. Jay Cowit is our director and editor, David Gebel is our executive assistant and Lee Hill is our EP.
Thank you so much for listening. I'm Rebeca Ibarra and for Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway.
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