Rep. Peter Welch was joined by racial equity advocates in Montpelier this week to talk about a police reform bill he hopes is passed by Congress.
The congressman held a news conference in front of the State House Thursday to talk about the Justice in Policing Act.
The event was held next to State Street, which has since been painted with “Black Lives Matter” in big yellow letters in response to the treatment of black people by police and systemic racism across the country.
The bill follows weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd, as well as other Black people recently killed by the hands of those who are white. Floyd was killed after a white police officer last month in Minneapolis kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
The bill would ban chokeholds and so-called “no knock raids” in drug cases. It would eliminate qualified immunity for officers which supporters said would allow officers to be held accountable for their actions in civil court.
It would require body cameras and dashboard cameras for federal law enforcement and it would also require local law enforcement to use federal funds to ensure the use of those cameras. The bill would look to end the militarization of police by limiting the transfer of military-grade equipment state and local police agencies.
The bill, if passed into law, would create a national police misconduct registry to prevent problematic officers who are fired or leave an agency from moving to another jurisdiction, which supporters said increases accountability.
The bill was passed by the House Thursday night; it is not expected to pass the Senate.
Welch said the bill is named after Floyd at the request of Floyd’s brother. He said the video of Floyd’s death showed a man who was not a threat to anyone being murdered by police. He said Floyd was saying he couldn’t breathe and was calling for his dead mother. Welch said what shocked him about the video is how casual the officer was while kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
“It tells us that this officer thought he was doing nothing wrong. So sure, he’s a bad officer, but that’s a reflection of a bad culture,” Welch said.
Xusana Davis, the state’s director of racial equality, said this bill puts forward long-overdue changes.
“But make no mistake, this really is a beginning step. What we’re doing is putting a cast on a very bad break. But in doing so, we’re not yet healing the wound. That’s going to take more time and a lot more consistent effort. … Let’s remember that today’s the day we’re planting a seed, but it’s not the day that we eat the fruit,” Davis said.
While change will be painful and it will continue to be a struggle, she promised it was worth it.
She said some people are wondering why all this is happening now. She said they want to know where this is coming from.
“I think folks who aren’t aware of where it’s coming from — and I say this with all the love in my heart — probably haven’t been paying close attention for the last 400 or so years,” she said, bringing up when Africans were brought to this land as slaves.
Davis said her family has a saying in Spanish that translates to “when the river roars, it’s because it’s bringing water.”
She said what that means is if someone is hearing rumblings or rumors about something, then there is probably some truth behind it. Otherwise, she said, people wouldn’t be hearing about those things.
Skyler Nash, of the Vermont Racial Equity Alliance, said policing is a piece, but isn’t the whole puzzle. Nash said this moment didn’t start with Floyd’s death, those in the Black community have been living with this their whole lives.
“This can’t end with police reform. Bad policing is a symptom of a disease called systemic racism,” he said.
Systemic racism is an issue in Vermont, as much as some don’t want to believe it, he said, adding that until those in the state admit it, Vermont won’t be able to achieve the “aspirational version of ourselves that I know that we have the potential to get to.”
He said other issues caused by systemic racism in education, housing and poverty also need to be addressed.
Christel Tonoki, who recently graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School, said it shouldn’t have taken these recent deaths to get the public to understand the severity of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Understand that racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed,” she said. “The lives of Black people are on the line. But I guess it’s the word Black that makes people turn a blind eye.
“We have been crying for justice and equality for too long. This isn’t a moment, it’s a movement. I don’t want empty words passed on as legislation. I don’t want your pity or your guilt. I want your action. Your efforts are crucial. It’s not black against white, it’s us against racism.”
She said she wanted residents ready to fight with her and to know this is just the beginning.
Kyle Dodson, president of the Greater Burlington YMCA, said this country has had multiple opportunities to deal with racism and grow and transform, but it has squandered that opportunity at every turn. Dodson didn’t want that to happen again.
He talked about the criminal justice system and how it disproportionately impacts Black people when compared to white people. He said this leads to lack of opportunity and wealth for those in the Black community because of all the consequences that come with a criminal record.