Earlier this month, a group of angry but peaceful protesters gathered near Capitol Hill after a Republican-led effort in Congress nullified Washington, D.C.’s criminal code reform bill.
Many of the activists were part of the Hands Off DC coalition of more than 50 organizations that demand autonomy for the district and advocate for a range of other issues, including voting rights and criminal justice reform.
“Congress overturning the bill and Biden allowing that to happen have set a dangerous precedent when it comes to justice and safety in D.C., and specifically, Black self-governance for D.C. And now they're trying to overturn another law, which is a police reform bill,” Makia Green, a co-founder of the social justice group Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, told BET.com.
But what happened in Washington is not unique. A similar political power dynamic, between predominantly White Republican legislative bodies and local governments in heavily-populated Black cities, is playing out across the nation.
Red state legislatures in Missouri, Mississippi and Texas are flexing their muscles and usurping authority over city governments. The Republicans say the moves aim to improve conditions in the cities. But activists argue that a racist and political agenda drives the trend.
Washington, D.C.: Congress cancels criminal code reform
In November, the D.C. Council unanimously passed a sweeping overhaul of its criminal code. The roughly 275-page bill represented a decade-long effort to modernize a criminal code that existed since 1901.
According to The Washington Post, the revised code sought to eliminate almost all mandatory minimum sentences, except for first-degree murder. The new code lowered maximum penalties for most crimes, including robbery, burglary and carjacking, while increasing others. It also replaced the sentencing range with a tiered system that accurately reflected the severity of the offense.
It appeared the district was on a path toward congressional approval, despite the objections of House and Senate Republicans. A few weeks before the March 8 vote, President Joe Biden criticized the GOP for meddling in local affairs, but he later reversed his position.
“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule – but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it,” Biden explained in a tweet.
In a devastating blow to activists, 31 Democrats and two independents joined Republicans in a 81-14 vote to support the GOP-led resolution to disapprove the proposed criminal code change.
The vote marked the first time in more than 30 years that Congress overruled a local D.C. law. But it was not a surprise.
The showdown came against a backdrop of Chicago’s incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot losing her re-election bid amid widespread dissatisfaction over how she handled the city’s crime problem and New York City Mayor Eric Adams calling her loss “a warning sign for the country” about public safety.
“D.C. residents were outraged. We are disappointed. I'm not going to lie. I feel betrayed. We hit the streets in 2020. We put our lives on the line for what we believed to be justice, and freedom and community-led safety,” Green said, adding that “Republican extremists are weaponizing fear [of crime] as an excuse to take away the right to democracy, self-determination and self-governance.”
Green said activists remain undaunted by the challenges ahead as other cities find themselves targeted by the “desperate attempts of white supremacist and right-wing extremists to control our schools, our elections and leadership in order to take local power away from Black cities, from black organizers, Black leaders and Black communities.”
St. Louis: State lawmakers want control of police and prosecutor
Missouri Republicans want more control over criminal prosecutions and law enforcement in St. Louis, claiming that crime has gotten out of control and is spreading to the suburbs.
A bill advanced in the state House March 1 that would give Gov. Mike Parson control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. He would have the authority to appoint St. Louis police board commissioners, reversing the results of a statewide vote in 2012 to return control of the department to local officials.
The state also seeks to appoint a special prosecutor for violent crimes, an attempt to take power away from progressive St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, the first Black woman elected to serve as the city’s top prosecutor.
Gardner spoke with 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker in 2021 about the backlash, including threats of violence, she’s received over her efforts to reform St. Louis’ criminal justice system.
Jackson: Mississippi’s white GOP state lawmakers ‘consumed by racism’
A political showdown is brewing in Mississippi where the Republican-dominated state government is pushing legislation to overhaul the police and court system in Jackson, a predominantly Black city that is also the state’s capital.
Mississippi Today aptly summarized the situation with this headline: ‘Only in Mississippi’: White representatives vote to create white-appointed court system for Blackest city in America.
On March 7, the state Senate passed an amended version of the House’s controversial HB 1020. The Senate version would create five appointed judge positions within the Hinds County court system. It would also expand the jurisdiction of the state-run Capitol Police to include all of Jackson. Republicans say they need to have more control of Jackson’s criminal justice system to stem a wave of violence.
“Once again, Mississippi is at the threshold of repeating its past mistake of being consumed by racism, greed, and the power to suppress the Blacks in the city of Jackson,” the Rev. Robert James, president of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, said at a February rally at the state capitol’s steps.
Houston: Texas takes control of school system
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s education commissioner announced March 15 that the state is taking over the school district in Houston, which has a Black mayor, Sylvester Turner, and a large Black and Hispanic population.
The state plans to replace the district’s superintendent and elected board of trustees. They justified the move, in part, as a remedy for failing schools and an allegedly dysfunctional board.
At a news conference, teachers union and civil liberties leaders called for increased state funding for the under-resourced school district that serves a high percentage of students from low-income families.
Many have argued that state Republicans are not motivated by a sincere desire to improve the schools but are driven by racism and politics, according to US News & World Reports.
Abbott and several other GOP governors, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are exerting authority over public school systems in their state behind the claim of defending parental rights.
Abbott and the other governors have vowed to remove Critical Race Theory from classrooms. CRT is a college-level academic framework to analyze systemic racism that is not taught at elementary or secondary schools. But the term “critical race theory” has been co-opted by conservatives as a catch-all phrase to silence discussion about systemic racism.
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