While tens of thousands of people flooded downtown streets from New York City to Los Angeles on Sunday in a fifth day of protests against Republican President-elect Donald Trump, members of modern grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter are trying to figure out what will happen when Trump takes the Oath of Office in January.
Sparked in 2014 by fatal shootings of black men by police and supported through social media, Black Lives Matter and its allies benefited from support from the Obama administration: The White House and Justice Department organized summits, formed a task force that included police and reformers, and brought to bear the power of the federal government to force reform in troubled cities and police departments.
With the election of Trump, however, civil rights and law enforcement groups may be at an impasse. The incoming president during the campaign often said minorities are "living in hell," repeatedly made the false claim that "crime is out control," promised the return of stop-and-frisk-style policing that analyses found was not effective at finding guns or stopping violent crime and which a federal judge declared unconstitutional, declared Latino immigrants "criminals" and "rapists," and called for a ban on Muslims. He dubbed himself the "law and order" candidate, and police unions coast to coast endorsed Trump for president.
"The idea of coming together and dialogue is incredibly tough when you have policing entities that have endorsed someone who has said such horrible things about people that at times you've said you want to have dialogue with," says Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest law enforcement union, which endorsed Trump in September as "a proven leader" who had "made a real commitment to law enforcement," rejects that view.
"It's extremely difficult to work with people who make generalized judgments about police officers without talking to them," FOP executive director Jim Pasco says. "Our messaging and willingness to talk with groups is every bit as strong today as it's ever been. We all need to work together to solve the problems."
It's hard to know, however, what working together might look like. It wasn't collaboration between civil rights groups and police departments, but federal consent decrees – which were created in a 1994 bill and allow federal courts to monitor and mandate reforms – revealed that law enforcement in Ferguson – the Missouri city where Michael Brown was fatally shot by an officer in 2014 – was motivated by the city's need for revenue rather than public safety. Federal consent decrees also uncovered the systemic targeting of black residents by police in Baltimore and how "constitutional violations span the operation of the entire Department" in New Orleans.
The Justice Department opened 23 investigations into law enforcement agencies and entered 11 consent decrees under Obama, compared to 20 investigations and three consent decrees under former President George W. Bush, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet, which cited figures from the Justice Department and the Fordham Law Review.
Trump and his rumored front-runners for attorney general – including former New York City mayor and stop-and-frisk evangelist Rudy Giuliani, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi – have indicated a reluctance to allow federal intervention into state and local issues, which may lead to less active federal oversight of police departments.
"They would probably send the Department of Justice out to investigate fewer claims of police departments engaging in unconstitutional patterns and practice," says Jody Amour, law professor at the University of Southern California.
Congress and the courts may also provide little recourse. Civil rights advocates fear that with Republican lawmakers in control of both chambers of Congress, money will be redirected from community policing initiatives and drug treatment. And at the judicial level, Trump has an immediate opportunity to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court and the possibility of two or more seats in the next few years, as well as the power to appoint ideological allies to federal benches across the nation, things that some civil rights groups worry could make lawsuits claiming systemic prejudice far harder to prove.
"Changing the Supreme Court, changing the law, increasing funding to policing – all of these things just add up to having our communities, black and Latino communities, look like police states," says Judith Brown Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project. "Three branches of government controlled by one party that has not valued black lives, being in control of our trajectory in this country, that is scary for a lot of communities."
There are groups and lawmakers on the right – including Trump insiders – who support reforms similar to those promoted by groups like the Advancement Project, Color of Change and the ACLU. Trump ally and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who advocated for building more prisons and getting tough on crime while he was in Congress in 1992, called for addressing the "astronomical growth in the prison population" in an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2011. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, drafted a bill that would reduce mandatory minimums and which won support from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. Even billionaire industrialists and conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch have partnered with groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums and even the left-leaning Center for American Progress to pursue reforms. (Some argue that reducing mass incarceration aligns with the Kochs' deregulatory agenda – as The Atlantic points out, CEO Charles Koch acknowledged becoming interested in the issue only after one of the company's refineries was indicted by a grand jury in 1995.)
Just as former President Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and Ronald Reagan supported longer waiting period for buying firearms – two positions ostensibly associated with liberals – Trump and his administration could have the clout to institute meaningful reforms that Democrats either would lack, or would avoid entirely for fear of being branded "soft on crime"
"This could be a way for the Right to woo the African-American community, to woo the Latino community to the extent that members of the Latino community are concerned about over-criminalization of members of that community," Amour says.
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