Maxine Waters Will Not Be Rolling Over On Qualified Immunity, Please And Thank You
Back in March, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 — a very good bill meant to make killing people, unarmed Black people in particular, a smidge more difficult. Among other reforms, the bill bans chokeholds; bars religious and racial profiling; bans certain no-knock warrants like the one that led to Breonna Taylor's death; redirects funding to community-based policing programs; and, rather importantly, reforms "qualified immunity," the thing that protects police officers from being held civilly liable for killing people or otherwise violating their civil rights.
Now the bill is in the Senate. If passed, it would go back to the House and then get signed by Joe Biden. Alas, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has announced to all who will hear it that he would be totally willing to pass the bill without getting rid of qualified immunity.
"I will never sacrifice good on the altar of perfect. I just won't do that," Clyburn told Jake Tapper on CNN's State of the Union earlier this month. "I know what the perfect bill will be. We have proposed that. I want to see good legislation. And I know that, sometimes, you have to compromise. […] If we don't get qualified immunity now, then we will come back and try to get it later. But I don't want to see us throw out a good bill because we can't get a perfect bill."
I admit it. I do not get this. I do not understand why anyone would get up and say, "Here's what we're willing to back down on, in case any of the people we are negotiating with were wondering." This is not a tactic with which I am familiar. I would totally chalk it up to the fact that I am not a politician, figuring that perhaps showing your cards like that is a very effective thing to do in government, as opposed to literally every other situation on earth — except Maxine Waters, who is in fact a politician, agrees with me here. And Maxine Waters is not about to just let qualified immunity fly out the window.
In an appearance on MSNBC's "The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart,": Rep. Waters explained that not only did she feel pretty damned strongly about keeping the part about qualified immunity in the bill, she also didn't understand why anyone was out there telegraphing the play.
Speaking to a statement from Keith Ellison, who said he would be willing to chill on qualified immunity if it meant passing the rest of the bill, Rep. Waters said:
WATERS: He's right about it being tough and our negotiators are fighting as hard as they can and should continue to fight, but I'm not giving up on qualified immunity. I do not want to send any message to anybody that I'm willing to support legislation that does not have it in it. I think we've got to be tough, we've got to be consistent, and understand that we've got to hold police officers accountable.
Waters continued on, explaining why getting rid of qualified immunity is so important.
WATERS: Even since the death of George Floyd, we continued to have killings of black unarmed men, in particular. And so, these police officers know that they have the support of the police unions, they have the support of city council members who are intimidated by the police unions. Police chiefs who have inferred that if they don't go along, they can't be chief. And even some mayors. I'm so proud of those mayors that have been willing to stand up and fight. And for the police chiefs that are willing to stand up and fight. But history tells us that they have been intimidated too long, given in too much, and the police don't believe that they're going to be held accountable. That's why even after George Floyd, they continue to kill and so I want qualified immunity out.
The only thing that changes anything is having money on the line. These police officers, they're not scared of going to prison for using an illegal chokehold, because they don't really believe, in their hearts, that they will be convicted for it. It's often a relatively safe bet that they won't be! But civil suits? That seems a little more real, a little more tangible. It also, frankly, gives victims a lot more recourse for justice.
"Qualified immunity," by the way, first became a thing to protect police officers in Jackson, Mississippi, who arrested a bunch of priests from the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity who were there for the Mississippi Freedom Rides, because three of them were Black and they decided to stop and get some coffee. It quite literally started as a way to protect racist cops from facing consequences for violating people's civil rights.
There would be no "qualified immunity" were that not the case. If the primary victims of police brutality were suburban white kids, you'd likely not find one damn Republican opposed to letting people sue the police. Suburban white people love threatening lawsuits.
That being said, everyone understands that not everything makes it into every bill and negotiations are a part of things. You win some, you lose some, you do your best. But when you come right out and say "Well, we know Republicans will really hate this part so we're willing to dump it if it means passing this bill," it kind of undermines a great piece of legislation that everyone should get behind and takes focus off the fact that ending qualified immunity is important and necessary.
Perfect isn't the enemy of good, and good isn't a reason to never even try for perfect or to pretend that perfect isn't the ideal.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse