Opinion: In Reaching for Deals, Will Parties Overlook Certain American Voices?

Lawmakers shouldn’t ignore divisive or unpleasant issues of justice and race

Protesters and police officers clashed in St. Louis on Sept. 17. In their recent dealings with President Donald Trump, Democratic lawmakers have shied away from social justice and race issues, Curtis writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Protesters and police officers clashed in St. Louis on Sept. 17. In their recent dealings with President Donald Trump, Democratic lawmakers have shied away from social justice and race issues, Curtis writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Posted September 21, 2017 at 5:01am

“He likes us,” Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer said of his fellow New Yorker Donald Trump last week. This was after “Chuck” joined “Nancy” — House Democratic leader Pelosi from California — in a White House gathering that resulted in a deal on DACA reform, unless it didn’t.

Whatever the interpretation of what happened during that chummy get-together, and there was a different one for every person who attended or heard about it first, second or thirdhand, the president reportedly reveled in the relief of positive headlines that followed.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, was supposedly the guy in the doghouse. That member of Trump’s Cabinet was the one Trump railed against, according to reports, the one the president blamed for the dogged investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, appointed after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation.

At a contentious time, everyone loves a love story, a distraction or a momentary beam of light, so it’s no wonder the Trump-Schumer “bromance” fascinated so many, including, apparently, Schumer himself, with more swooning than grumbling over the shaky and brief bipartisan detente.

No change?

Those expecting brand-new consistency from Trump, however, are bound to be disappointed. When it comes to immigration, Trump may express a bit of empathy, but he invariably returns to Sessions’ immigration hard line. That was evident when the president defended his travel ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries with tweets about a London bombing before the facts were in — and was chastised by British leaders for doing so.

But while this storyline was fading and another developing, with the president calling the North Korean leader “Rocket Man” on the floor of the United Nations, peace at home was looking more elusive. As protests after a St. Louis police shooting and acquittal simmered with occasional bursts into rage “on both sides,” as the president is fond of saying, there was not a peep from the country’s leader. Considering his priorities, that was not really surprising.

But should politicians — of both parties — who advocate police reform be standing up, as events on the ground would seem to demand? Is pulling back from progress seen as a way to avoid talking about issues of justice and race deemed divisive or unpleasant?

At election time, the Democratic Party certainly depends on its most loyal base — black, brown and poor communities affected most through history by unequal treatment in the streets and the courts. Since the civil rights movement, they have been faithful voters for the party that professes to care about their well-being.

Yet in 2016, voters of color were alternately blamed for not voting in high enough numbers or for emphasizing “identity politics” by their very existence — while the white voters who, across economic lines, voted in the majority for Trump, were excused from having an identity at all.

And Republicans, who make noises about concern for all, often retreat to a “law and order” mantra that trumps nuanced policy on policing and justice.

In a bipartisan gesture, Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act to “accelerate progress and encourage states to replace their bail systems,” which disadvantage those who don’t pose a risk but can’t afford bail, as Harris wrote in The Root.

A harder line

But top-down moments of cooperation on justice issues are rare.

Trump can count on his Sessions-led Justice Department to be a true partner in sharing a tough view that would seem to exacerbate events in St. Louis.

During the last week, the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, ended an Obama-era effort that investigated problems in local police departments, publicized them and worked with them to develop solutions before more formal interventions such as a court order were initiated.

The Justice Department will continue to investigate individual cases, though not in St. Louis. (Remember that after protests in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, the Obama administration’s Justice Department decided after investigation not to bring charges against the officer involved in a shooting but uncovered an unjust and widespread system that financed city government with debts and fines.)

This “course correction,” as Sessions characterized it, along with Trump’s recent decision to resume transferring military surplus equipment to state and local police departments, is a reversal of Obama administration efforts to improve relationships between law enforcement and the minority communities they serve and make interactions more transparent.

Is this the right direction when those relationships are more fraught than ever?

In St. Louis, a black police officer broke through the “blue line” to stand against her white former police colleague in the shooting of a fleeing black suspect, and got vilified in the process, showing more bravery than politicians avoiding voices demanding to be heard.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the protests that followed about economic mobility, opportunity and other issues also at the heart of similar incidents and protests across the country.

If ever there were a chance to leverage a hint of bipartisanship to improve on criminal justice reform and the relationship between urban communities and the police who protect and serve them, now would be the logical moment to take it.

But with health care, disaster relief and foreign hot spots on the table, will politicians expend political capital on such tough conversations that, if entered into in good faith, could lead to compromise and solutions?

When it comes to politicians with an eye on how everything will play at the ballot box and who likes whom, the answer is, not until the voices clamoring for resolution and reform can no longer be ignored.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.