As huge protests over the killing of George Floyd continue to rock California and the nation, Gov. Gavin Newsom called today for a stronger commitment to eradicate institutional racism against the black community.
“You’ve lost patience, so have I,” he said, directing himself to the protesters. “You are right to feel wronged. You are right to feel the way you are feeling.”
Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin sparked the demonstrations last week when he killed Floyd, a black man. As a crowd watched, Chauvin pressed his knee down on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, despite Floyd’s pleas that he could not breathe. After extensive protests, Chauvin has since been arrested and charged with third degree murder.
Newsom’s remarks contrasted starkly with President Donald Trump’s exhortation, in a call with governors hours earlier, that police should crack down harder on protesters.
The president then went further tonight in an address from the White House Rose Garden, threatening to send in military troops if state governors — whom he has derided as “weak” — failed to call up their state’s National Guard “in full” to quell violent disturbances. If Trump were to do so, he would be making unprecedented use of the Insurrection Act of 1807.
Earlier in the day, Newsom had refused to directly criticize or respond to Trump, instead focusing at his noon press conference on the need for leaders to combat what he called “a double pandemic” — the coronavirus and racism.
Thousands rallied in cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles, shutting down highways and bridges with marches and rallies and car caravans that stretch for miles.
While most protesters have been peaceful, cities across the state have reported people smashing store windows and taking armloads of clothes, electronics and other goods.
Curfews imposed across state
San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Oakland and all of Los Angeles County are among the jurisdictions that have imposed curfews. Over the weekend, Newsom declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and authorized the use of the National Guard to patrol the streets. Many organizers, mayors, and Newsom himself have expressed frustration with those activities.
More jurisdictions declared curfews Monday night after Trump’s remarks about using military force. The Insurrection Act, which Congress expanded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to include domestic terrorism, allows the president to deploy the military “to suppress, in any State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.”
“If a city or state refuses to take the action necessary to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents,” Trump said, “then I will deploy the U.S. military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law and an expert on constitutional law, said governors would not have much recourse should Trump choose to do so.
“I don’t think they would have an option,” Chemerinsky said. “President Eisenhower used troops to desegregate the Little Rock public schools over the objection of the governor of Arkansas. There is an argument of state sovereignty, but that is unlikely to succeed.”
California National Guard troops deployed Monday to Sacramento and Long Beach. Newsom stressed that he would dispatch them only when local officials request them.
The nation’s governors began their day on a group call with Trump, who told them: “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.”
Asked what he made of that advice, Newsom later said in a “society that’s about dominance and aggression — this is what you get. Not because of the protesters, but the conditions that led to this moment where protest was inevitable.”
Racism and the coronavirus
While protesters are expressing outrage at Floyd’s death, they are also focused on a longstanding pattern of police brutality against black people, and the entrenched systemic racism that exists in so many other realms of American life.
Painfully emblematic of that: COVID-19 has killed a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans, while the accompanying economic downturn is exacerbating a vast wealth gap.
Earlier that morning, Newsom had met with faith leaders, in a meeting he called “humbling.”
“The voices of consternation, concern, anxiety are real. They’re raw,” Newsom said during a press conference at the Genesis Missionary Baptist Church in Sacramento.
Jamilia Land, a friend of the family of Sacramento police shooting victim Stephon Clark, commended Newsom for “displaying authentic leadership” and said she did not believe he was “offering just lip service, as we have seen so many times before.”
“We are seeing something that has been bubbling, and not even under the surface, it’s been bubbling on top of the surface for a very long time,” she said. “Every time we see one of these killings it reinjures our psyche and reinforces that we have no value.”
Cephus “Uncle Bobby” X Johnson’s nephew, Oscar Grant, was killed by BART police in Oakland in 2009. Johnson said he had been pleased that Newsom had signed into law last summer AB 392, which created tougher standards for when police officers are allowed to use lethal force. Now Johnson wants to see police agencies forced to comply with that law.
‘Police need to be held accountable’
“We’ve still got some work to do, if we really want to stop the hemorrhaging of the United States,” he said. “Laws have to be abided by, and police need to be held accountable.”
Newsom has been treading carefully for months, balancing calls to reopen the economy with an effort to impede the spread of the coronavirus, which has so far claimed more than 4,000 lives in California. The protests are further complicating his role – not only because of competing opinions about the best response, but because some experts worry that the protests could lead to a spike in new infections.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond also made emotional remarks about racism Monday, during a virtual livestream, saying he will lead a new statewide effort to improve implicit bias education.
“We have to be courageous and honest about the racism that lives in this country,” he said.
Thurmond said he will bring together school superintendents, parents and students to discuss how to improve implicit bias teachings and training. The state Department of Education is soliciting ideas from the public at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The state superintendent said he struggled to describe the impact of Floyd’s killing.
“I think about trauma every time I think about what happened to George Floyd,” Thurmond said. “I am haunted by the sounds of his voice, begging to breathe, begging for life. And we must address that trauma head on, and we must have hard conversations.”
* CalMatters education reporter Ricardo Cano contributed to this report.
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