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Screenshot of a Facebook live conversation with Shannon Watts and Representative Karen Bass
Shannon Watts

Community Organizers Change The World and Justice Is A Relay Race: Six Things I Learned From Rep. Karen Bass

As millions of Americans continue to protest against white supremacy, systemic racism and police violence, one message in the sea of posters has particularly stood out to me. It reads: “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his momma.” It resonates with me not only because of its powerful simplicity, but because of its deep truth. Protecting our children is written into mothers’ DNA, and there’s nothing we won’t do in our fight to make the world a better place for our kids. We know this life-saving work starts at the grassroots level, and that getting it done requires an army of advocates who are willing to do the unglamorous, heavy lifting it takes to change our country—one community and one law at a time.

Rep. Karen Bass has been doing that work for decades. Rep. Bass joined the fight for police accountability in the 1970s as a community activist in South Los Angeles, and in 1990, she founded Community Coalition, an organization with a mission to help transform the social and economic conditions in South LA that foster addiction, crime, violence and poverty by building a community institution that involves thousands in creating, influencing and changing public policy. Now, four decades later, Rep. Bass is leading a similar fight in Congress as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She helped draft and pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in the House, which Moms Demand Action, Students Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety have thrown our support behind.

You can watch my full Demanding Women conversation with Rep. Karen Bass here:

Below are just six of the many lessons that came out of my Demanding Women conversation with Rep. Bass.

Examine the structural roots of violence. 

Before being elected to the California Assembly, Rep. Bass worked in Los Angeles County’s trauma center, one of the largest in the country. “I saw gun violence every single day,” Rep. Bass said. But while she found working in the emergency room rewarding, she wanted to address the causes of violence in addition to treating the trauma.

“I was often frustrated because I really wanted to address the reasons why people were in the emergency room to begin with, which leads you to policy,” Rep. Bass explained. “Why do we have more guns in this country than any place in the world?”

Rep. Bass spoke about the need for both strong gun laws, as well as laws that address the root causes of gun violence. “I believe we know how to solve the problem,” she said. “The problem in our country is that we just never make a sustained commitment to address these problems. A crisis happens, we throw a few dollars at a situation. If things get better, we say things got better, you no longer need the money, which is the exact opposite. I think that we just really need the strong commitment, number one, to get guns off the street, and then number two, to deal with some of the underlying social and economic drivers of gun violence.”

That means looking at the systemic racism and inequalities that have led to disparities across the board, from housing to healthcare to education. “You can pretty much look at just about any institution in society and see structural, administrative discrimination that is built into some of these systems. Some of the built-in discrimination is from years ago and has never really been addressed,” Rep. Bass explained. As a member of Congress, she’s taken that intersectional approach to the critically important issues she works on, including gun violence and police violence.

It’s past time to address police violence. 

Police violence is gun violence, and this perspective must be part of the gun violence prevention movement’s life-saving agenda. Rep. Bass spoke about how the killing of George Floyd brought this issue to the forefront of America’s collective consciousness. “I think this moment has been so tragic for not just our country—with protests in every state—but even people around the world who witnessed such an egregious act,” Rep. Bass said. “And although [George Floyd’s death] wasn’t by gun, typically, when there has been excessive force by police, it has been at the hand of a gun.”

Rep. Bass was crucial in writing and passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill, which was passed with support from every House Democrat and three House Republicans, would take several necessary steps to address police violence, racial profiling, and other fundamental problems in our law enforcement system by improving use of force standards, limiting transfers of military-style equipment to local law enforcement, banning chokeholds, making it easier to prosecute and sue abusive officers, and more.

“It’s important to look at policing in our country from a historical perspective, and I’m sad to say that from an African American perspective, this has been an issue for hundreds of years,” Rep. Bass said during our conversation. “But I will tell you that it’s not just Black people that have suffered under this, it is also Latinos, it is Asians, it is Native Americans.” Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color should be able to trust that law enforcement officers are dedicated to keeping them safe, regardless of their skin color.

We need accountability and accreditation. 

Rep. Bass said a key part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is making sure police officers who do commit acts of violence or misconduct can be held accountable through our criminal justice system. When you saw that officer murder George Floyd, if you remember, he was looking at the camera, his hand was in his pocket, he was acting with complete impunity, he didn’t even mind he was being filmed,” Rep. Bass said during our conversation. “So that’s one thing: holding police accountable and ending the impunity, which is essentially that you can’t really sue an officer, prosecute an officer or fire an officer. It makes it extremely difficult, and that’s why incident after incident, you very rarely see an arrest. But even when there’s been an arrest, almost never is there a conviction.”

Training and accreditation for police officers are also crucial. There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, but how each agency trains its officers varies widely. That leads to a reality where “the person who does your hair has to be an accredited beautician or barber, and yet a police officer doesn’t,” Rep. Bass explained. “In some cities, a chokehold is illegal and in other cities, it isn’t. And so having national standards, having national accreditation, is another part of the bill.”

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act requires that deadly force be used only as a last resort and that police utilize de-escalation tactics first. But a 2015 survey of 280 law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum found that a median of just eight hours was spent on training recruits in de-escalation techniques. Additionally, just 65% of those agencies reported requiring de-escalation training for all officers, and spent just 5% of their training time on it.

Police reform is also about re-envisioning what public safety looks like, and we need community participation to make that happen, Rep. Bass said. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act also includes public safety innovation grants for community organizations. “Now there’s a big cry—that I absolutely agree with—that police should not have to be social workers. Police should not have to deal with drug addiction, they should not have to deal with homelessness,” Rep. Bass explained. “But what has happened over the years is we have cut back so many resources. So we’re calling for a refund—refunding communities—and having these grants be a first step.”

Community organizers can and do change the world. 

Rep. Bass started as a community organizer, and during our conversation, she and I were joined by Marco Vargas, a member of the Students Demand Action Advisory Board from South Central Los Angeles, who created a summer leadership program for Students Demand Action volunteers in his community. He asked Rep. Bass about the skills she honed in her community organizing career, and what she brought with her to Washington. Rep. Bass spoke about her work with Community Coalition, explaining that “those coalition-building skills are exactly what you need in a legislative body, because no individual passes legislation. To pass legislation in Congress, I need, at a minimum, 218 votes. And so my time doing community organizing, I apply those skills every day in Congress,” Rep. Bass said.

She also praised the grassroots activism of Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action volunteers in raising awareness for and supporting key legislation, as well as holding lawmakers accountable when they fail to represent the interests of their constituents.

“I couldn’t do the work in Congress without the work you do outside to keep us accountable,” Rep. Bass said. “Moms organized—you can’t think of a more powerful group than that. And that is the message that needs to go to the Senate.”

It’s time to flip the Senate. 

During our conversation, Rep. Bass and I spoke about the more than 400 bills that are sitting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, including life-saving background check legislation and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. So far, Sen. McConnell has refused to bring either up for a vote. “I’m frustrated with the fact that Mitch McConnell is ignoring over 400 bills,” Rep. Bass said, adding that “over 200 of those 400 are bipartisan bills.” But, she said, “away from the TV cameras, there are discussions that are going on — I would not call them negotiations but I would call them discussions — with a lot of my Republican colleagues, so I have not given up hope.”

Rep. Bass said the Republican party “has been taken over by an extremist element, and unfortunately, I don’t believe they’re ever really going to pass the legislation. And until their party is returned back to the majority of Republicans, we really have to make sure we take the Senate back. There’s just no alternative. We’ve already passed the legislation out of the House, but as long as the Senate is under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, that legislation will never go anywhere.”

We know that life-saving, bipartisan gun safety legislation continues to be held hostage by Sen. McConnell even as more than 100 Americans on average die each day from gun violence and hundreds more are wounded, which is why it’s key that we flip the Senate this November. “Please, Moms Demand Action, the role that you can play in terms of pressuring the Senate is just invaluable. We can’t get this work done without your involvement,” Rep. Bass said.

“Focus on those vulnerable senators. We have to make sure they get new jobs next January, until they decide that they are going to represent the majority of their people and not the NRA, which really just represents the gun industry,” she added. “Nobody knows better than Moms and Students Demand Action that even the majority of NRA members believe in background checks, but the industry does not.” Moms Demand Action, Students Demand Action and Everytown are committed to combining our grassroots power with considerable financial investment to help elect gun-sense champions in key Senate races this fall.

The fight for justice is a relay race. 

Rep. Bass made history by becoming the first Black woman to be elected to the California Assembly, and then made history again when she was elected as its speaker. She was the first Black woman to lead a state legislative body in U.S. history, and she’s focused on how she can help get more women in those roles.

“I have devoted my entire life to fighting for justice, and as a woman, I have the double honor and responsibility to be a role model for those women and girls who are coming behind me,” Rep. Bass reflected. “And that’s one of the tasks that I feel the most rewarded by, to make sure that I am there for the next generation, and to make sure that I can pass the baton on to the next crew.” We’re proud to be part of that crew, too, and will do everything we can to help elect champions like Rep. Bass who are willing to do what it takes to keep our families safe.

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