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Julian Castro demands police accountability for first time in a presidential debate while candidates attack each other over their mass incarceration policies. With Kimberly Moffitt, Jacqueline Luqman, and Marc Steiner as host

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MARC STEINER: Welcome back to our continuing coverage here of last night’s Democratic Debate, Democratic Debate number two. And as I said in the opening, this was the first debate I ever remember, a presidential debate, where I have seen people discussing, arguing, and questioning criminal justice to that extent, and police reform, which I have never heard anywhere. So that’s an important piece for us to discuss, and what that means for this election, and what that means for America.

We are joined in this segment by Jacqueline Luqman, who is Editor-in-Chief of Luqman Nation, and a correspondent and producer here at The Real News. Good to have you with us. And remaining with is Dr. Kimberly Moffitt, professor and Chair of Language, Literacy and Culture at UMBC. And good to have you here with us, as always.



MARC STEINER: So let’s jump to our first segment here, our first piece. To look at this clip of this debate around this issue, and then we can wrestle with it.

JULIAN CASTRO: I’m proud that I’m the only candidate that has put forward a police reform plan. We need to ensure we have a national use of force standard, and that we end qualified immunity for police officers, so that we can hold them accountable for using excessive force.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Thank you, Secretary Castro.

JULIAN CASTRO: What we see, and this was a good example the other day, of the Department of Justice not going after Officer Pantaleo. That Officer Pantaleo used a choke-hold that was prohibited by NYPD, he did that for seven seconds. 11 different times Eric Garner said that he couldn’t breathe.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Mayor de Blasio, why is that police officer still on the force, the one that killed Eric Garner?

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: There’s finally going to be justice, I have confidence in that in the next 30 days, in New York. You know why? Because for the first time we are not waiting on the Federal Justice Department. There will never be another Eric Garner because we’re changing fundamentally how we police.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: But there’s one last point I have to say about the Justice Department. The Vice President for two-and-a-half of those years, Mr. Vice President, tell us what did you do to try and spur on the Justice Department to act in the Garner Case?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Thank you, Mayor. Thank you, Mayor de Blasio. Vice President Biden, you can respond to that.

JOE BIDEN: We did a lot. Number one, we made sure we reduced the federal prison population by 38,000 people. I find it fascinating, everybody’s talking about how terrible I am on these issues. Barack Obama knew exactly who I was, he had 10 lawyers do a background check on everything about me, and civil rights, and civil liberties. And he chose me, and he said it was the best decision he made.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Thank you Mr. Vice President.

JOE BIDEN: I’ll take his judgment.

MARC STEINER: So there we have it. And there’s a lot of dancing going on. Nobody wants to answer the question directly, but a lot of dancing going on.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT: And not good dancing.

MARC STEINER: Not good dancing.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Really bad, shuffling and stiff tap dancing around.

MARC STEINER: One thing I’ll say here before we talk about Julián Castro, and what he raised, which is the first time I’ve ever seen this raised in a national level like this. One thing de Blasio said, and I think he was a little caught off guard as well on this, is that he didn’t tell the complete truth that he still could have prosecuted Pantaleo. The Justice Department didn’t tell him he couldn’t, they asked him not to.


MARC STEINER: But he could have if he wanted to take that step and go, “We’re going after you,” and didn’t do it. That never really was pushed. But in the fact-checking, I mean that came out very clearly.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT: But he’s struggling with the police in New York, and is trying to walk a fine line of how do I balance this police force with many of the other issues that I have going on in the city. And that by no means is to justify his decision, but I understood it very clearly as a political move on his part of trying to toe the line in terms of what he’s having to contend with the police.

MARC STEINER: That’s the case of the police force right here in Baltimore, it’s the same, where we’re broadcasting from, it’s the same issue with a very conservative right-wing FOP challenging the police commissioner because he wants to reform the department.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So this is the problem we have with the way we look at policing in the United States. The issue is certainly, part of the issue is certainly the individual police officers, and the incidences of violations of rights, or people’s bodies, of property, and actually taking people’s lives. And those police officer’s – individual people not being held accountable. But the part of this issue that we don’t pay attention to is the power of the police union. And the police unions have so much political power, it’s not just an issue of individual bad cops, and so many of them in these police departments. That is true, and all of the other cops who may have never done anything wrong, but who cover for them, or who stay silent. But we also have police unions that are extremely powerful.

MARC STEINER: Yes, they are.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And that politicians in every state are literally afraid of, to go against. So you have de Blasio’s absolutely running this gauntlet between the people, and the very powerful police unions. So this is why Julián Castro’s proposal is a bellwether moment, I think, in this conversation about policing and criminal justice in this country. Because it doesn’t just focus on holding police officers accountable individually, but I think it also looks at the power of police unions in a way that has never been done before. Well, because it hasn’t been done before.


MARC STEINER: And the idea of calling for a federal standard is an amazing push, and that could be a really interesting part of this campaign and an interesting next four years, should a Democrat win.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT: Right. And I think again, just to tag onto this bellwether moment, I mean we’ve come out of the phase or the age of mass incarceration. Where we thought this is the best way in which to deal with crime head-on. At the same time, we saw the budgets of police forces across the country increasing continuously, even present day we still see them inching up little by little. But if you’ve got candidates who are now trying to push the envelope on dealing with criminal justice, and saying we’ve been doing this wrong. You, of course, are going to have police unions continuing to be at the forefront to say, “No, no, no, we are here for you. We are the good guys, and we need the continued support.” Don’t then come after us and start to widdle away at what—

MARC STEINER: But you won’t be safe.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT: That’s right, that’s right.

MARC STEINER: Let’s go to this other segment here. This is Booker and Biden going at it around the issue you just raised.

JOE BIDEN: And I think we should change the way we look at prisons. Right now we’re in a situation where when someone is convicted of a drug crime, they end up going to jail, and to prison. They should be going to rehabilitation, they shouldn’t be going to prison.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Mr. Vice President has said that since the 1970’s every major crime, well every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it. And sir, those are your words, not mine.

JOE BIDEN: Since 2007, I for example, tried to get the crack-powder cocaine disparity totally eliminated. In 2007, you became Mayor, and you had a police department that was you went out and you hired Rudy Giuliani’s guy. You engaged in stop and frisk, you had 75% of those stops reviewed as illegal. You found yourself in a situation with three times as many African American kids were caught in that chain, and caught up. The Justice Department came after you for saying you were engaging in behavior that was inappropriate. And then in fact, nothing happened the entire time you were mayor.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: If you want to compare records, and frankly I’m shocked that you do, I am happy to do that. Because all of the problems that he is talking about that he created, I actually led the bill that got passed into law that reverses the damage that your bills that you were, frankly to correct you Mr. Vice President, you were bragging calling it the “Biden Crime Bill,” up until 2015.


MARC STEINER: So just to say what I said during the break here, Cory Booker had a good night.


JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah, he did. And I mean that’s saying a lot for Booker. Listen, my husband is from Camden, he’s lived in Newark, ask anybody who lives in Newark and who’s lived under Booker, they’ve got stories to tell that Booker’s never going to admit to on the debate stage. So with this dynamic you had a candidate who is bad on criminal justice in Newark going after a candidate who was bad on criminal justice nationally. I mean it’s a matter of degrees, but it’s the same problem. They pursued the same horrible policies that disproportionately affected black and brown poor people.

I mean it was two bad people, well maybe not bad people, but two people with bad policies fighting over whose policies were worse when honestly Booker was right about Biden’s hand in every criminal justice policy dating back to ’75, probably. But Biden was also right about Booker’s terrible, terrible record in Newark. Do they cancel each other out? I don’t think they do. What they do is raise the discourse about this issue, and expose it. Really I think they drag it into the light so that we all see where they all are on this spectrum of horrible criminal justice policy. And they’re all bad.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT: That’s right, because I mean we haven’t even gotten to the conversation about Harris and some of the points that she raised during this segment. And I think it’s important for us to think about the time in which many of these politicians were serving in particular roles, they were feeding or responding to what constituents seem to be telling them about mass incarceration, and what they wanted to see with criminal justice reform. And so that was the outcome of many of the decisions, what do we know now? It was dead wrong. That it didn’t work. It wasn’t a good policy, and we now need to own up to that, and be able to move forth. Because that could in fact be one of the key points to distinguish the Democrats form a Donald Trump to say, “We’ve learned our lesson, this was not a good move. Now, let’s do something different.”

MARC STEINER: And then speaking of Senator Harris and Gillibrand, let’s take a look at this segment between the two of them.

CONGRESSWOMAN TULSI GABBARD: Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor, and she’ll be a prosecutor present, but I’m deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep cash bail system in place, that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: Thank you, Congresswoman. Senator Harris, your response?

SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS: As the elected Attorney General of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system in a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work.

CONGRESSWOMAN TULSI GABBARD: The bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not.

MARC STEINER: And let me say I misspoke earlier, I said Gillibrand, I meant to say Congresswoman Gabbard, of course, Tulsi Gabbard. But that was an intense exchange.


MARC STEINER: Politically Tulsi Gabbard that was one of her moments in the evening, but more than that, this also goes to the heart of the question of criminal justice, and mass incarceration, and how we deal with people on death row. And what we do with Attorney General’s with a city or state, and appeals around death row and other things. So it really did get to the heart of a discussion America has to have. And some may look at this as a negative argument, Democrats are killing each other by doing this. But no, they’re putting things on the table I think have to be discussed.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN:  Yes, I mean especially if this is supposed to be the party that’s better than the GOP. This is the better choice, then we should examine how they approach doing what they claim is better. You cannot tell me that you are better at criminal justice than Trump, or any Republican, when you have people who are on death row who have been proven to be innocent, and you block their release. There is no legal moral justification for that, but Kamala Harris stood on that stage and said she was proud of it.


JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I mean Tulsi Gabbard, I think she – that was her moment.


JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And it was a great moment for her, and I’m actually glad that she was the one who brought that out with Harris’s record, and not Biden actually.


DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT: There was so many moments where the candidates were pointing fingers and attacking each other on a criminal justice record. And so I found it odd that they seem to stumble when someone then pointed the finger back at them and say, “Well wait a minute, what about you?” And this is one of those moments where Harris seemed to stumble, and she wasn’t quite sure how to come out of it off of the ropes, and ready to address it in a way that showed that she understood the complexity of the role that she was playing as Attorney General, but also what she was now doing as a presidential candidate.

The other piece that I think Gabbard raises for us that’s so key, and she kept referring to it as poor people, but the bigger issue is a conversation about class. Because why is it that we can have conversations about the number of poor people who get incarcerated for marijuana, but Harris is able to, in a very public form, to talk about her experiences of trying marijuana. And we see it as this kind of growing pain, or this moment in which she comes into adulthood to understand who she is as a person. So class becomes key in what we understand about criminal justice, and the fact that we’re not doing it right. Because what we’re doing is continuously criminalizing the poor, instead of dealing with the issues that are leading to why people are making certain actions.

MARC STEINER: I hope this becomes really a big piece of the conversation that gets pushed in this campaign. I would love to see Democrats, one of them come out and go, “We made a mistake.” Mass incarceration, and going after people and locking them up was the tenure of the nation no matter what community you lived in. And they were caught up in their racism, and people’s being fearful of crime. And just like they say they made a mistake going to the Iraq War, they should say, “We made a mistake in doing this, and now let’s do something different.”


MARC STEINER: And so here at Real News, whether it’s Eddie Conway, and his work around Rattling the Bars, the work we do to deal with criminal justice system, we’re going to stay on this one as well. I want to thank both of you for this segment as we look at last night’s debate. And we have more coming up as we’ll be looking at healthcare, foreign affairs, climate change, and foreign policy coming up in our very next segment. So you want to stay for that, or just click, say hi, bye, and go get a cup of coffee and watch the rest. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you both for being here.


MARC STEINER: And we’ll be right back.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.