Washington

A Year After George Floyd Was Killed, the Senate Has a Chance to Make Civil Rights History

I knew from Day One that as a Democrat from Alabama, my U.S. Senate tenure might have a relatively short shelf life. I knew every day I was there was an opportunity to build a bridge, and make that bridge stronger. I knew I represented all of the great people of Alabama, speaking for those who hadn’t really had a voice in the Senate before — but also reaching across the aisle to my Republican colleagues, believing lasting change requires partnerships, even when it’s considered naïve, or worse, impossible.

A year ago today, George Floyd was killed. In the weeks that followed, I was a co-sponsor of the Harris/Booker law enforcement reform bill. But because I wanted to get something done, I was one of only two Democrats to also vote to advance a version sponsored by South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott. Sen. Scott’s bill would have made lynching a federal hate crime, required police departments to collect data on the use of force and withheld federal funding from departments that didn’t ban chokeholds and report no-knock warrants. It didn’t go far enough for many Democrats. But I wanted to see action taken.

And you know what? I was proud to have the support of one of the founders of Black Lives Matter Birmingham for that vote — because meaningful progress could have been made that would save lives. Today, Congress is still struggling to find a compromise.

Bridge building is hard work. And you often don’t get to ride in the victory parade across that bridge, because the building can take years of patience. In my case, I lost my re-election that would have kept me in the fight for constitutional policing.

President Joe Biden nominated a bridge builder to lead enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws – and as the person who leads investigations into police departments with a pattern or practice of systemic bias and misconduct. Kristen Clarke would be the first woman confirmed as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the division’s almost six-decade history. She would therefore also be the first Black woman. My friends and former colleagues in the Senate are getting to know Ms. Clarke. I hope they take time to understand the breadth of her work and the intention with which she has approached thorny issues.

Take policing. While I was pushing for legislative progress, Ms. Clarke was forging a unique relationship between the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the organization she leads, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Together, they developed model policies to combat biased policing and improve response to hate crimes. They launched (often highly emotional) training sessions for police departments across the country to talk with hate-crime victims or their surviving family members. They partnered on community assessments in places where police bias had been alleged. Work like this generated an impressive roster of support for her nomination from a host of law enforcement leaders and organizations, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National Association of Police Organizations, the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

Sadly, in America right now, policing is up there on the cultural divide scale with mask-wearing. Ms. Clarke has already faced an onslaught of right-wing media outrage — par for the course for Democratic nominees to this role — including allegations she wants to “defund the police” and sympathizes with a “cop killer.” I asked her about these claims. On funding, she’s right where I am: Let’s provide police with adequate resources to keep our communities safe and get them out of roles social workers are better trained to do. If she was for “defunding,” I wouldn’t support her. Simple as that.

On the wild charge from a Fox News host of sympathizing with someone who killed a police officer — well, turns out she never worked on that case or one like it. She’s done every kind of civil rights law and served as a federal prosecutor, but never as an appellate defense attorney. I guess fake news does exist.

My friend Joe Biden has put forward the right person for the job of enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws. My friends in the Senate have a rare opportunity to put in place someone who has both benefited from and protected those laws time and again. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been the lone Republican voice so far in support. Ms. Clarke’s nomination is headed to the full Senate, and I believe she deserves a bipartisan vote.

 

Doug Jones is a former United States senator from Alabama.

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