Democracy demands: Make a filibuster exception to stop police violence and voter suppression

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Two Black men killed by police, 80 hot summers apart, symbolize two of the greatest threats to democracy in 2021: racialized violence by police and racialized voter suppression by public officials.

George Floyd, the symbol of America’s racial reckoning, was murdered in 2020 and Elbert Williams, the first martyr of the NAACP, was killed in 1940. The circumstances and causes of their deaths represent threats to democracy today. These threats provide Congress the urgent justification to pass both comprehensive voting rights and transformational police legislation.

Passing this legislation over a filibuster threat would be a “democracy exception” to the usual requirement of 60 votes to move legislation in a nearly evenly divided Senate.

Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., acknowledged last month that bipartisan police reform negotiations were cold and dead. This grim announcement left many Americans, millions of whom participated in the protests surrounding George Floyd's death, wondering, what next?

Voting rights advocates have argued, amid unproven allegations of voter fraud, that Congress must pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act over the threat of a filibuster. The deaths of Floyd and Williams, 80 years before, make clear that voting rights and police brutality are related civil rights threats to our democracy – demanding simultaneous legislation.

The death of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests.
The death of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests.

Williams, a charter member of the Brownsville, Tennessee, branch of NAACP, was kidnapped from his home by the local police – after being warned to leave town because he tried to organize Blacks to vote.

Williams’ body was later found beaten, bruised, bloodied and floating in the Hatchie River – with what appeared to be two bullet holes in his chest. Williams was never under arrest, nor were his murderers arrested nor his body even autopsied. Williams was one among many who were lynched by police – or by those aided and abetted by the police – because of their advocacy for voting rights.

The relationship between police brutality and voter suppression

From Ida B. Wells’ path-breaking study on lynching, the Red Record in 1895, through Bryan Stevenson’s national lynching memorial today in Montgomery, Alabama, advocates and academics have demonstrated the relationship between police violence and efforts to deny the vote. Crushing voting rights with law enforcement-aided lynching was an obvious threat to democracy, but what about police brutality more broadly?

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At the moment of Floyd’s death under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, the following facts were and are tragically true:

►About 1,000 people are killed by police each year in the United States.

Police homicide, like hypertension and heart disease, is a leading cause of death among Black men.

►Black men are about 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police.

►Black boys ages 15 to 19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than their white peers.

According to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, American Indian men are up to 1.7 times more likely to be killed by police compared with white men, and Latino men are up to 1.4 times more likely. Black women are about 1.4 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement, and American Indian women are up to 2.1 times more likely, when compared with white women.

Passing transformative legislation

After Floyd’s murder, as many as 26 million people protested in 550 jurisdictions across the nation in the largest, most geographically widespread, and most diverse demonstrations in American history. A historic number, if not most Americans, considered police brutality as not merely a violent threat to the black and brown “they,” but a larger threat to the democratic values of the multi-racial and multi-ethnic “us.”

While his well-publicized death mobilized millions, regular and routine police violence has the opposite effect. Studies show that though exceptional acts of police violence, like murder, can ignite local activism, the tragically ordinary police violence experienced by Black people causes distrust in democratic institutions and decreases civic engagement.

Police violence not only intimidated Black voters back in the day, it also drives if and how many vote today, posing a threat to our democratic values.

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Both police brutality and voter suppression say to an increasingly diverse citizenry: Some bodies and voters matter less, or not at all. Democracy, by definition, is massively delegitimized by both police brutality and voter suppression. Therefore, we must pass both transformative police legislation, certainly the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and sweeping voting rights legislation over the threat of a GOP filibuster.

This is not merely a civil rights exception, it is a democracy preservation exception – saving the credibility, legitimacy and values of this democracy for the next generation of voters.

President Joe Biden, as a 36-year veteran of the Senate, values the filibuster. In 2021, with hashtagged Black bodies stacking up and voter suppression continuing, democracy is being delegitimized by not only insurrectionists but public officials and the police. The president must make a democracy exception and use every tool to pressure and pass voting rights and policing transformation together – filibuster be damned.

Cornell William Brooks is the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also director of The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the School’s Center for Public Leadership, and Visiting Professor of the Practice of Prophetic Religion and Public Leadership at Harvard Divinity School. Brooks is the former president and CEO of the NAACP, a civil rights attorney and an ordained minister.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pass police reform and expand voting rights with filibuster exception