The BREATHE Act could be this century's Civil Rights Act. Here's what you should know

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On May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him. Floyd's death, as well as the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, sparked a national wave of protests and fueled pushes to end qualified immunity, pass an anti-lynching bill, and outlaw the use of no-knock warrants. But movement organizers and grassroots activists believe that these proposals address just part of what needs changing, and argue that the entire criminal-legal system is need of an overhaul. That's why the Electoral Justice Project, a project of the Movement for Black Lives, has drafted the BREATHE Act, in reference to the pleas of Black men like Floyd, Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, and Elijah McClain, who told officers they couldn't breathe right before police killed them. The legislation aims to codify that which is not yet ingrained in American culture: respect and dignity for Black people.

The BREATHE Act is separated into four parts that outline specific ways return resources and funds to communities while reducing the harms brought on by the country's racist criminal-legal, economic, and political systems. The law demands the dissolution of all incarceration, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers to private and public jails and prisons. It would also create non-punitive and non-carceral community-based restorative programs, including access to high quality education and health care. The proposal further demands "equity-focused policy changes" that prioritize access to clean water, building renewable energy sources, and funding solutions to climate change-fueled disasters like hurricanes and wildfires.

The BREATHE Act aims to remove from use virtually every tactic of control that has harmed Black and brown people and communities, from underinvestment to environmental racism. The U.S. can't undo its history of slavery, convict-leasing, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, and mass incarceration, but the BREATHE Act demands that Congress at least work now to mitigate if not outright reverse the harms those policies have done.

"If you have rebellions in every state in the country and then what you come out with are reforms that were for the '90s or the early 2000s, you fell short."

"BREATHE is a manifestation of what the cry is in the streets," says Monifa Bandele, senior vice president of MomsRising, an organization that advocates for Black mothers and families. She explains that current proposals in Congress merely take a piecemeal approach to what Black organizers, activists, and community leaders are calling for, which is substantive change on the systemic level. "If you have rebellions in every state in the country and then what you come out with are reforms that were for the '90s or the early 2000s, you fell short," Bandele tells Mic.

These outdated reforms she's referring to include the devastating and ineffectual "three strikes law," which when it passed in 1994 was seen as a rule that would deter repeat criminal activity, and the modern Taser, which was developed in the '90s by a private company and subsequently marketed as a way to prevent police killings as an alternative to firearms. (The Taser has since been revealed as its own tool of violence and death.) In these instances, reforms didn't halt violence; they simply changed the nature of it.

The BREATHE Act's most notable diversion from past reform efforts is its explicit demand that Congress repeal the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, colloquially known as the "crime bill." Until the BREATHE Act, Bandele says, no other proposal had attempted such a bold action.

Bandele calls the BREATHE Act the Civil Rights Act of 2020, a title afforded to the proposal not just because of its reach but because of its genesis. In the early 1960s, Black- and student-led protests changed the country culturally, socially, and politically. Jim Crow laws continued systems of white supremacy and racial hierarchy in the form of codes that tolerated segregating of public utilities, like water fountains, and relegating Black passengers to the backs of buses. In response, students led protests pushing for changes within the national political parties and registered thousands of Black folks to vote, recognizing the need for electoral involvement and power.

Some 100 civil rights demonstrators kept an all-night vigil before the Democratic Convention Hall in 1964 in an attempt to seat members of the Freedom Democratic Party. [Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images]

Eventually, propelled by the famous Freedom Summer of 1964 and the country’s outrage over the brutal killings of three activists that June, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. "From the labor rights movement to the civil rights movement," Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tells Mic, "that all came from the streets. Not because somebody introduced something in Congress. It was because people in the community said, 'This is what you need to be working on.'"

Writers of the BREATHE Act are hoping that the protests this summer will have the same impact as those leading up to the Freedom Summer nearly 60 years ago. In the mid-'60s, Black leaders and Black student activists worked against the dominant political discourse that said sweeping legislative change just wasn’t possible. But after Congress finally passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the numbers proved that communities indeed wanted change: Black voter registration in the South increased by as much as 73% in the decade following the law's passage. Black voters in turn began to see themselves reflected in politics, as more than 10,000 new Black officials were elected to office in the decades after the Voting Rights Act became law, The New York Times reported in a book review.

Tlaib tells Mic that the value of a more representative legislative body is not just about diversifying the pool of decision-makers, but also about adding a lived understanding of the harms of past federal policies into the halls of power. "So much of what we bring here is not just being the first elected, you know, 'certain people with labels' — we actually bring with us these painful experiences, these lived experiences of oppression. We also speak differently and we feel differently and we're connected to the pain on the ground."

Those lived experiences are what drives the BREATHE Act's policy demands, including everything from park redevelopment to accessible housing. Due to their grassroots efforts to elect people who look like them and come from their communities, members of the Movement for Black Lives are able to engage representatives like Tlaib on Capitol Hill — a place that would have traditionally ignored their voices.

In that way, what was true in 1965 is again true now: Black leadership, protests, and activism have changed the political conditions of what activists and legislators believe to be possible. It's into this new, ambitious, supercharged moment that the BREATHE Act has been introduced.

"We don't need to ask for what we think is politically feasible. We need to, in this moment, ask for what's just."

"Just recently I read the original transcript of the speech John Lewis was supposed to say at the 1963 March on Washington," Kayla Reed, co-founder and executive director of Action St. Louis, tells Mic. "He talked about police brutality then," Reed says, noting that moving resources back to communities isn't a new ask, but rather a continuation of previous efforts. We need to "make sure that people have the housing and health care and social systems that they need to thrive," Reed says. "That's the thesis of the BREATHE Act, and that is what I'm most excited about."

While the political context may have shifted in the last half century, the means to creating change is the same. "We don't need to ask for what we think is politically feasible. We need to, in this moment, ask for what's just," Bandele says. On the ground, Black organizers have been working at the local and state levels to demonstrate to federal legislators that there's a demand for real and sweeping change. And the BREATHE Act's scope is sweeping, amplifying the demands from the streets to defund police while pushing further in other areas, like decolonizing school curriculums and establishing financial seed funds so that those who were previously incarcerated can start businesses of their own.

Relatedly, the BREATHE Act calls for a "time-bound" plan to close all youth detention facilities and to remove police and other tools of surveillance, like metal detectors, from school grounds. Instead of funding the policing of children, the BREATHE Act wants to see communities fund educational programming and offer free, high-quality health care services, including reproductive care.

In other words, the law is the culmination of a demand for intellectual power as well as economic power. By and large, the last goal of the proposal — self-determination for Black people — is the most difficult policy objective to realize because it can't be enacted through one piece of legislation. Addressing the harms of foundational racist U.S. policies, like slavery, isn't just about providing access to food or education or employment protections, but providing all of those things together. They may seem like separate issues, but they're connected at the root by addressing societal issues that keep Black people and communities of color down.

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The protests for racial justice have illuminated a big part of the reason as to why many public services don't have enough money: police departments. "People are looking at budgets as the value statements that they are," Bandele says, and in major cities, funding for police departments can account for 20-50% of the city's overall budget. The billions of dollars allotted to police forces nationwide dwarfs public investment in education, housing, health care, transportation, and other services, and by Bandele's logic, shows Black communities and other communities of color that society cares more about policing them than treating and caring for them.

As Tlaib says: "Listen to the mothers who lost their children to police brutality." Those women continue to shout out the damning fact that the mere presence of police officers in communities leads to more arrests, which in turn leads to higher rates of interaction with the criminal justice system and incarceration for Black and brown people. There's no correlation between race or ethnicity and crime, yet data shows that Black people are incarcerated by state and federal governments at higher rates than white people. Black communities and Black people are also subjected to higher rates of police surveillance.

Defunding systems that criminalize poverty, Black people, and people of color isn't just a BREATHE Act policy recommendation — it's a real policy accomplishment in St. Louis, Missouri, where grassroots organizations like Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders, and Bail Project St. Louis successfully lobbied to close the city's medium-security jail. Reed says that the facility's multi-million-dollar budget will be diverted to a public safety fund that reimagines what community wellbeing looks like.

Prior to the July 17 decision to close "the Workhouse," as the jail is known, individuals had access to few or no resources to address employment, housing, and food security after being released. Nearly 90% of those detained at the Workhouse are Black men, and 99% of those incarcerated in the city are held in pretrial detention — in other words, incarcerated simply because they couldn't afford bail. It's a system that criminalizes poverty and separates families from their loved ones, and Reed says that until the new restorative programs established by the diverted funds are up and running, there's "nothing accessible to them that actually moves to rehabilitate their lives."

"We have a responsibility as a community not to lock people in cages and let them out to devastation."

The new resident-driven programs to support re-entry are born out of a collective responsibility to care for our fellow humans, Reed says "We have a responsibility as a community not to lock people in cages and let them out to devastation."

The BREATHE Act calls for nationally what Reed and others worked for in St. Louis over the last six years — essentially, to re-evaluate where the money is going. One of these myths supported by outsized police budgets is that policing makes communities safer, but "we know what keeps us safe," Bandele says. "Some of the safest communities in the country have very little policing," she tells Mic. Multiple studies have concluded there isn't a connection between the size of a police department and its ability to address crime, and that growing police budgets are not responsible for the steady drop in crime in recent decades.

For critics who contend that the huge scope of the BREATHE Act is unrealistic, the evidence suggests otherwise. Few could have predicted that when Alicia Garza first used the phrase "black lives matter" in a 2013 Facebook post, it would become the foundation for nationwide protests against police killings of Black people.

"People said it was the worst political messaging they'd ever heard," Bandele says. "And then, here we are."