By SELENA SEABROOKS
The Dallas Examiner
Last month, the NAACP Houston Branch and the Texas Voters Forward Coalition hosted A Crucial Conversation, a discussion with Black media, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, members of the Black faith community and civic leaders. The purpose of the discussion was to review and analyze the 2021 legislative session and its impact on the Black community. The conversation focused on five specific bills: SB 1831 No Trafficking Zone, HB 88 the George Floyd Bill, HB 1927 permitless carry, HB 3979 critical race theory and the SB 7 voter suppression bill.
“We are in a state of crisis,” Bishop James Dixon opened the discussion. “Anyone who does not understand that we are at war needs to come out from underneath a rock. Things that are going on around our state and our nation today are not unrelated incidents. But they are a part of the larger, well thought out plan and it’s necessary for us to take it very seriously. We must organize and mobilize an informed army of diverse constituents who will stand together to oppose everything that threatens our democracy and everything that stands to be a slap in the face, an insult to our ancestors who bleed, suffered, and died for us to have a right to vote, a right to access everything this land has to offer.”
Rep. Ron Reynolds said the session was the worst that he had experienced during his six terms in the Texas House.
“It is so critical that we continue to speak through the power. It’s so crucial that we stick together because there are so many people that want to divide us,” Reynolds stated.
The leaders took some time to address each bill.
The first bill discussed was SB 1831, which addressed the punishment of sex trafficking, online solicitation of minors and prostitution. The bill would increase criminal punishment for trafficking-related offenses near schools, by increasing human trafficking offenses from a second-degree felony to a first-degree felony. Rep. Senfronia Thompson stated that Black and Brown children are recruited and trafficked from public schools the most of any other race.
“There is not a Black mother who has children or a Brown mother who has children who don’t worry about their children getting home safely no matter what age they are because we recognize the system that we live under,” Thompson said.
HB 88 was related to the interactions between law enforcement and individuals detained or arrested on suspicion of committing a criminal offense and witnesses to a criminal offense. The bill would remove qualified immunity, ban chokeholds and require deadly force to end the moment the imminent threat of death is eliminated. It would also require officers to intervene if their partner is using excessive force.
“We want to ban chokeholds,” Thompson explained. “We want to make sure there’s a disciplinary matrix and what that means is that if the police officer did something wrong, it goes on their record and it stays on there. People ought to know the kind of person that they are hiring.”
Sen. Royce West stated that the George Floyd Bill did not pass this session.
“No bill passed legislation with George Floyd’s name on it,” West stated.
Still, he said he would continue to fight until the bill is passed.
Rep. Carl Sherman followed as he discussed HB 929, also known as the Botham Jean Act, a criminal justice bill that did pass in the House and the Senate. The bill is intended to create systemic accountability in policing by making it illegal for police officers to disarm body cameras during the course of an investigation in which they are involved.
Rep. Jasmine Crockett spoke about Breonna Taylor and HB 1272, which also addresses police reform by addressing the use of no-knock warrants. The bill would require law enforcement officers to identify themselves, wear their uniforms and ensure that body cameras are activated. The bill would also limit the hours a no-knock warrant could be executed.
“We weren’t disallowing law enforcement from going in, but we do feel there should be a higher standard when you’re going into someone’s home because the Constitution requires it,” Crockett stated.
The conversation moved to HB 1927 which also passed this session. Authored by Rep. Matt Schaefer, it allows for the permitless carrying of handguns in Texas and eliminates the requirement for residents to obtain a license to carry if they are not barred from possessing a gun by the state or federal law.
“It’s a dumb bill. It’s a dangerous bill. It’s a bill that police departments don’t even care about or want Johnson stated,” Rep. Jarvis Johnson said. “In the state of Texas, there were 16 alleged counts of voter fraud and we passed the most oppressive voting bill this country has ever seen. There were 3600 deaths, in Texas alone last year, by the death of guns. Thirty-six hundred people in the state of Texas died by a gun last year and we opened the door for any and everyone to now carry a gun.”
Johnson called out Texas Republicans for passing the bill that appealed to their base and not all Texans. He stated that, despite police saying they did not want the bill to pass, Republicans did not listen to the police and passed the bill anyway.
“Laws are made for everyone, but they are only appliable to certain people. We know, as a Black man, if I walk around with a gun, I walk into any building in this state, you already know, that’s not a healthy recipe. That’s a recipe for disaster,” Johnson said.
Rep. Alma Allen spoke on SB 1365, which would give discretion to the Texas Education Agency to take over any school district board cited for poor performance, taking away local control. Allen fought against this bill and it was not passed. According to Allen, if passed, the bill would have given the TEA the ability to take over 464 school districts, which would have adversely affected low-income areas.
Representatives then spoke on HB 3979 dealing with critical race theory, which passed this session. Specifically, the bill would restrict the teaching of critical race theory in schools by limiting what public school students can be taught about racism.
“Why do you always want to whitewash history and tell me this is history? It’s not history,” Johnson stated. “History is what’s written and what we know to be the truth. But they are more than willing to whitewash everything. And I’ve said this, and I’ve spoken against this bill, this is what I call tyranny. The same body that talks about freedom and liberty have taken away teachers’ ability to walk into a classroom and simply teach our children.”
West added that the battle for critical race theory is not over.
The conversation moved to Rep. Rhetta Bowers who discussed HB 392, also known as the Crown Act. The bill would have banned discrimination on the basis of hair texture or style; however, the anti-hair discrimination bill was not passed. she stated that despite the bill not passing this session, she will continue to work to get it passed next session.
The conversation ended with a discussion on SB 7, the voter suppression bill. SB 7 would make mail-in voting more difficult and prohibit after-hours and drive-thru options that helped Black voters cast their ballots in the 2020 election. The bill would also limit early voting hours, including limiting early voting on Sunday, which would create additional hurdles for those who wish to vote after church.
“These bills were strategically and wickedly designed to ensure we would perpetually be a minority status and not share power in this state,” Texas NAACP president Gary Bledsoe said.
Toward the end of the discussion, an audience member asked, “How are we going to hold Biden and the Biden administration accountable?”
“I think everyone has to be held accountable,” Reynolds answered. “None of us are immune. We’re public servants. We serve the public. We have to be accountable for our votes and for our actions. I believe that President Biden, just like President Obama and Trump, everyone has to be accountable for what they do. President Biden has made a commitment to supporting the George Floyd Policing Act at a federal level. In fact, the Congressional Black Caucus, they did pass it in the House of Representatives, and he was right to call out the Senate and named the two specific Senators who he said voted with the Republicans.
“I’m not giving President Biden a pass, but I can tell you, when it comes to the George Floyd Act and the John Lewis Act, he has been on the right side of the issue. But his history will judge him by what he does, but I do believe that by him appointing Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee the Voter Rights Act, as well as make sure the George Floyd Act pass[es]. It’s the Senate. It’s the United States Senate that is sitting and not allowing the filibuster to be broken … We need to make sure we continue to hold the U.S. Senate accountable. The president can only do so much.”
Dixon closed the conversation by thanking attendees.
“We do know that the Black Press does not receive its fair share of advertising dollars. And that is why we have to fight,” Dixon stated. “We also understand that all of these various bills, they’re all related. They’re part of a movement. I really want us to leave here with an understanding that there is a movement – a well-organized movement. There is a movement designed to make sure we don’t have the power that we desire to have in this state and in this nation.
“There was a time when that power could be determined by who’s the majority, but now it is shifting. That standard is no longer the standard, so now they have to refigure what democracy is. So rather than adjusting their policies to appeal to all of our people, they are moving the goal line. We’ve got to fight for those that fight for us…we fight to win.”
Additional sources: reports.texasaction.com; openstates.org.