The BREATHE Act “A Love Letter to Black people”

Activists have laid out a road map to build a safer world for Black and POC Americans. The Biden administration has yet to push it, favoring a softer reform package.

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

The Vision for Justice held a summit last month about The BREATHE Act. The culmination of years of activism including the 2014 the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after police killed Michael Brown and the “Freedom Summer 2020” which swept through America after the killing of George Floyd. The Black Lives Matter movement and other Black liberation organizations developed this Federal policy proposal to offer concrete law that could be adopted to answer calls for change and

  • Section 1: Divesting Federal Resources from Incarceration and Policing & Ending
    Criminal-Legal System Harms

  • Section 2: Investing in New Approaches to Community Safety Utilizing Funding

  • Section 3: Allocating New Money to Build Healthy, Sustainable & Equitable
    Communities for All People

  • Section 4: Holding Officials Accountable & Enhancing Self-Determination of Black Communities

Now backed by Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the Breathe Act is seeking traction in the Biden Administration. It’s now being framed as a counter proposal to The Justice in Policing Act which would increase funding for law enforcement not divest from it.

Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, spoke at the introduction of the summit. Here are excerpted remarks.

In our country, harm and punishment have invaded every aspect of society and have done so with surgical racial precision. We see it in the ways we address drug dependency and mental health by disproportionately jailing Black and brown people instead of providing holistic treatment. We see it when we suspend Black kids from school and give them detention at disproportionate rates. at each step, our government has chosen to legitimize punishing Black and brown people. It’s not surprising then that the police commit harm and violence against Black and brown bodies with impunity and at alarming rates. All of us need to radically re-imagine our concept of justice and safety. We need to imagine abolition.

And for far too long, we chose to address harm with more and more harm. Our elected and appointed officials catered to our worst retributive justice instincts, resulting in mandatory minimum sentencing enhancements and over policing. What did it get us? An unaddressed addiction and mental health crisis, jails overflowing with Black and brown people, and too many lost or hurt loved ones to count.

Cullors talks during the summit

When I say we need to rethink harm and punishment, it is more than personal reflection. We’re not going to love away structural racism and compassion only won’t undo, four centuries of state sanctioned violence against Black, Indigenous and POC folks, but every federal bill, city ordinance, or ballot measure I’ve ever read has told me exactly whose lived experience and expertise the writers value, who they think deserves to thrive, and who they think needs to be controlled and punished.

It’s so much deeper than a budgetary issue wrapped in that cry is a demand for culture shift. We were tired of a society where we were expendable, where policing -an institution born to keep us in bondage – was somehow lionized as a beacon of safety. We were tired of inflated carceral budgets becoming business as usual while day after day, we watch schools, our health care and our housing get defunded. Instead of listening to us dependence and the policymakers with power told us our vision was a fantasy and pursued a policy of tinkering at the edges to reform. To us reform [is just] finding new ways to justify killing Black people.

So we got to work on our own. Our movement, listened to the cries in the streets and channeled them into the BREATHE act. We built the road map to take us away from harm and toward health and healing. The BREATHE Act is a legislative love letter to Black people. When I first read it, it made me emotional to finally see a lot that made me and my community feel seen and feel heard. That is what we have been missing a policy for too long.

Read more about the Breathe Act here. Read the full proposal here.


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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.