Drawing on Decades of Activism, Karen Bass Leads Democrats’ Policing Overhaul

For Karen Bass, the riots that erupted in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of four white police officers caught on tape beating an unarmed black man, Rodney King, felt like a personal defeat. Having spent most of her life as an activist against police brutality and fighting violence in her community, seeing her neighborhood flare in fiery unrest made her wonder what years of work had accomplished.

“I just drove around feeling that all of the years of my involvement and all of the things I had tried to do had been a failure,” she recalled in 2011. “I failed the young people because they felt no outlet other than to destroy.”

Three decades later, with the nation once again convulsing over the brutal victimization, captured on video, of a black man by white police officers, Ms. Bass is witnessing an eerily familiar moment of national reckoning as she emerges as one of the most influential voices in a rapidly shifting debate over the future of policing in America. She is determined to ensure that this time the outrage is channeled into lasting change.

Ms. Bass, now a fifth-term congresswoman representing part of Los Angeles and the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has taken the lead role in crafting the most thorough overhaul of American policing in recent memory — legislation that Democrats plan to move through the House by the end of June — aimed at preventing excessive use of force and addressing systemic racism. It would make it easier to track, prosecute and punish police misconduct, promote new officer anti-bias training and mandate that lethal force can be used only as a last resort. It would also ban the use of chokeholds and other neck-pressure tactics like the one used on George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who died after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“It’s almost like the Scripture says: She’s come for such a time as this,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, who met Ms. Bass in the 1980s when they were working on the same issues. “This is a moment that the country needs her leadership, and she certainly has stepped up.”

Ms. Bass, 66, has been many things in her life: a middle school activist, an emergency room physician assistant and a brown belt in taekwondo — not to mention the first black female speaker of any state legislature in the country, in California.

Unlike the other lead authors of the bill — Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, who both sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee chairman — she does not have much of a national profile.

But when the news of Mr. Floyd’s death prompted protests across the country and trained the nation’s focus on policing, there was no question that Ms. Bass would lead the way for Democrats. Not only was she the chairwoman of the 50-plus-member Black Caucus and the House’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism, but she was also one of the few lawmakers in Congress with the background and the authority to hold together a fragile coalition of elected Democrats, civil rights groups and protesters on the streets demanding change.

“She comes through it all with the greatest gentility and strength,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Californian, said in an interview

Still, it has been a tricky endeavor.

Ms. Bass had to pull along moderate white colleagues, for whom support of the police has been a political imperative, holding conference calls with the centrist Blue Dogs to ensure they understood the measure and could embrace it. She also toiled to persuade prominent civil rights groups, who wanted a bill that would be tough on the police, to accept the package.

A letter with some 400 signatures from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights laid out eight demands — all of them measures to hold officers accountable or ban certain uses of force. Later, they insisted that no new funds be sent to departments, according to senior aides who helped draft the bill, a condition that Democrats embraced. Even so, they held off on offering public support for the bill. Ms. Bass worked the phones until they agreed to do so at the 11th hour.

All the while, Ms. Bass was keenly aware that the legislation could collapse if Democrats allowed it to be lumped with growing calls to defund and dismantle police departments, as President Trump and leading Republicans repeatedly try to falsely paint all Democrats as espousing that approach. She insisted that the bill also include programs and proposals to incentivize departments to get better.

“‘Defund the police’ became a slogan in the last few days,” she said in an interview. “Nobody was even thinking about that when we were putting the bill together.”

There have been missteps along the way. It was Ms. Bass who hatched the idea for Democratic leaders, including several who are white, to don colorful African kente-cloth stoles on Monday at a news conference to unveil the bill, a spectacle that was roundly mocked and derided as an example of cultural appropriation.

Ms. Bass had thought the gesture would show solidarity and inclusion, summoning the 400-year history of mistreatment of black people by white Americans, aides said. But instead, the episode briefly overshadowed the measure itself. Democratic officials despaired privately, but Ms. Bass urged them to just move on, they said privately, arguing that the work ahead was more important.

For Ms. Bass, who as a younger woman was repeatedly harassed by the police herself for speaking out, the memory of 1992 serves as a reminder not only of how long black Americans have been fighting against state-sanctioned violence by the police, but also of the power of tragedy to galvanize change in America.

“The best change takes place with outside pressure on the kind of issues I work on,” Ms. Bass said. “It’s not like the issues I work on have 10 legal firms and lobbyists and all that. If you don’t have wealth, you have people. The thousands of people out protesting are moving Congress to act.”

Ms. Bass has been an activist since long before she was even able to vote.

She grew up in Los Angeles during the civil rights movement, the daughter of a letter carrier. When she was in middle school, she committed her mother to be a precinct captain for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in California, and then did all the work herself. In high school, when her own teachers were on strike, she rode her bicycle to U.C.L.A. to sit in on classes with Angela Davis, the philosopher and activist who became a symbol of the Black Power movement.

At a hearing on the bill on Wednesday, she noted that she had begun protesting police violence the same year that Mr. Floyd was born, in 1973. She also recalled Daryl Gates, the onetime chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, calling a news conference to claim that the reason so many black people were dying of chokeholds in police custody was “because our neck veins were different.”

Ms. Bass worked as an emergency room physician assistant during the early years of the AIDS crisis — a time she remembers as eerily similar to the coronavirus pandemic — and as the crack cocaine epidemic was ravaging Los Angeles and other black communities across the country. Moved by the decimation, she helped found Community Coalition, a nonprofit based in South Los Angeles that canvassed the neighborhood in search of solutions to the drug epidemic and the violence it caused.

In 2004, she left the group and made her first foray into elected politics, winning a seat in the California Assembly. She was elected speaker in the spring of 2008. But an agenda that included strengthening welfare programs for children quickly gave way to the most pressing financial crisis in California’s modern history. As the economy rapidly contracted and the state faced mounting losses, Ms. Bass worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the Republican governor, to close a yawning deficit with unpopular spending cuts to Democratic priorities and new taxes that Republicans had vowed never to support.

She was elected to Congress in 2010.

The push to draft the policing legislation, the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, was a frantic two-week sprint. Ms. Bass oversaw it, communicating sometimes late into the night across a three-hour time difference from her home in Los Angeles to staff members back in Washington.

It helped that the Black Caucus had become over the years a sort of brain trust for policing proposals meant to begin unwinding the long-term effects of systemic racism. As lawmakers pieced together the measure, they were pulling DNA from bills going back decades, some written by pioneering black lawmakers, now dead, who never could have contemplated the House actually taking them up.

With the presidential election looming, Ms. Bass had intended to use 2020 to demand a fair census and voting rights, declaring it a year of “existential threats to the black community.” Then came Covid-19, which Ms. Bass has spent months pointing out has disproportionately killed people of color. But it was the death of Mr. Floyd on Memorial Day — captured in a video that quickly went viral and inspired widespread outrage — that has fueled her current assignment.

“That was a slow, torturous murder, and the whole world saw it,” Ms. Bass said. “I think it was just one murder too many.”

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