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Organized labor must confront police unions’ opposition to meaningful accountability, says Delegate Gabriel Acevero.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Speaker 1: As we speak the names of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Rekia Boyd and Eric Garner and so many other names that we know, and we do not know. We must also recognize the people in our state, in our backyards who are victims and have been victims of police violence.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. Black Lives Matter, the movement, demanding police stop killing black people in the United States break with its racist origins could be the biggest social movement in the nation’s 244-year history. That’s according to the New York Times, these historic protests have highlighted deeply rooted institutional racism in all forms, including in organized labor. Some unions have come out to support black lives matter, putting them at odds with those that have police in their ranks, which have stymied efforts to hold police accountable for decades. Well, a state legislator says he was fired from his job at a union local for being an outspoken advocate of reform in a state where police have long evaded, meaningful accountability. We’re joined by Gabriel Acevero who represents Maryland 39th district and Montgomery County. In 2018 Acevero became the first openly gay man of Afro Latino descent elected to the Maryland state house. He is the second vice chair of the legislative black caucus and the lead sponsor of Anton’s law, a police transparency and accountability legislation named for Anton Black. Thank you so much for joining us.

Gabriel Acevero: Thanks for having me.

Jaisal Noor: So the times reported Gino Renee president of local, 1994 of the United food and commercial workers. He said he fired you because of your antagonistic attitude at a meeting to discuss the issue of police reform. And he said, your stand complicated the union’s obligations to represent its members and some of those members are law enforcement. So this is all unfolding amid this historic national protest, and a big push in Maryland to pass police reform. We had an uprising in 2015 in police killing of Freddie Gray and reforms before that, even before that happened, often fell short in the legislature. And even after that, critics like yourself have said, not enough has changed. There’s hasn’t been any meaningful reform of police in this state. Talk about what happened and why you feel like you were fired unjustly.

Gabriel Acevero: So to be clear, this association that I was terminated because I was antagonistic during that meeting is simply false. There is no basis for that claim. What this was, was a meeting that was set up by UFCW Local 1994, and the fraternal order of police lodge 35 here in Montgomery County. And the purpose of that meeting, which took place on work time and in no way was a discussion about work performance was a meeting strictly on legislation and it was in particular centered around my comments that I made in July, 2019 at a Montgomery County council hearing on a bill that would in essence create a police advisory commission. And what I said at that hearing was that while we should certainly applaud these efforts at the local level, that action needs to be taken at the state level in order for these actions at the local level to be meaningful.

And so not only did I call for the dismantling or repealing of the law enforcement officer’s Bill of Rights, but I also highlighted legislation that I introduced since my first term in the Maryland general assembly and that is Anton’s law, which in essence is a police transparency and accountability legislation named for Anton Black, a 19 year old college athlete that was killed in police custody on the Eastern shore. And the person responsible for his death not only had a terrible service record in Delaware, but also had multiple use of force reports that were hidden from his application by the chief that hired him, Michael Peyto, who is no longer the chief of police of Greensboro, because he was indicted on misconduct in office charges by the Maryland state prosecutor’s office for his attempts to cover up this information about Webster.

I think it’s important to also point out that this was a meeting where in essence, the FOP, the president of the FOP, Tori Cook and the president of UFCW local 1994, I tried on many occasions to coerce and to strong army an elected official into letting go of legislation, particularly Anton’s law, and to stop publicly calling for the repeal of the law enforcement officer’s bill of rights. I was in no way antagonistic in this meeting, but I was very firm in my stance that I will continue to work on Anton’s law because I’m not just committed to this issue, but I’m committed to the family and the community that helped raise Anton.

They deserve justice, they deserve answers and accountability, and they have not gotten that until this day. And so it is incumbent upon all of us as elected officials to not only ensure that we’re dismantling the policies that de-humanize black and brown folks. We must dismantle the systems that support our brutalization. Maryland was the first state to pass the LEOBR in the early 1970s and other States followed suit. And this law in essence, impedes any kind of a transparency, any kind of an information, any kind of an oversight and accountability. And if we’re saying that black lives matter, and if we’re saying that we want to build trust between law enforcement and the broader communities that they serve, then we must dismantle the policies and the systems that would allow for that.

Jaisal Noor: It’s really fascinating that in this moment, on one hand police argue that it’s a few bad apples, that they’re not all responsible for the actions of a few officers, but at the same time, they don’t want there to be open investigations and transparency into their actions on a collective basis. You talked about Anton’s law, something you introduced, what role did the FOP play in watering that down? And do you think that this year with this historic protest going on across the country and right here in Maryland, do you think that Maryland Democrats, it’s the Democrats that have a super majority in the state, do you think they will back these kinds of meaningful reforms?

Gabriel Acevero: Well, it’s not just the fraternal order of police. While they are one of the opponents to police transparency and accountability, there are also a number of other actors in this space as well, such as the Maryland chiefs of police and Sheriff’s association, such as other labor unions, like AFSME and UFCW and other unions that in essence have law enforcement as a small percentage of their membership as is the case with UFCW local 1994. This union in essence represents workers that are majority people of color. This union represents individuals who are impacted in various ways by police brutality.

And so this is a moment for the labor movement. This is a moment for all labor unions to not only have this discussion internally, but then make the kind of decisions that would show black and brown workers that their lives are valued even when we clock out, right? And that is the whole point of this is that the labor movement has historically fought for economic racial, environmental and gender justice and this has to be true when we talk about police violence. We know that labor has not showed up in the way that it should when it comes to this issue and I don’t want to make a blanket statement because there are certainly labor unions, for instance, Mary Kay Henry who’s the international president of SCIU publicly said that any police union that is against reform should be expelled.

You see FLCIO councils passing resolutions that in essence call for the kind of reforms that the movement for black lives, black lives matter movement, and a number of activists and organizers like myself have been calling for some years now. And that resolution in essence said that if police unions are against these kind of reform and accountability measures, that they should be expelled from the FLCIO and that is the kind of actions that we need to start taking, but it shouldn’t be the only action that we’re taking.

What we need to ensure is that we are changing the laws. We are changing the systems and we’re also advocating alongside impacted communities on the kind of policies that they want. Those closest to the pain are closest to the solution. Black Latin X and indigenous communities have been providing solutions to police violence for decades and it starts with a change in state law. So this is not a new conversation. Police violence is not new to American public discourse. We know what we need to do in this moment because they have been a number of policy papers.

There’ve been a number of recommendations, and there’ve been a number of calls that include defunding the police that activists and organizers have been calling for decades. And so the labor movement needs to reckon with this question, do black workers lives matter beyond the workplace and when we clock out? And if it does, then we will be supporting and we will be championing the legislation such as Anton’s law that will bring about that kind of a transparency and accountability and into and build trust, right? Because people will not trust a system that is not transparent, that is not responsive, that does not provide the kind of an oversight and accountability that communities have been calling for.

Jaisal Noor: I wanted to get your response to a recent piece in the Baltimore Brew, talking about FOP contributions to 14 lawmakers picked by house speaker Jones to improve police accountability in Maryland. They’ve accepted over $20,000 between them from police unions like the FOP. Do you think this is a serious obstacle to reform when you have people that are supposed to be reforming the police getting money from police unions?

Gabriel Acevero: Well, let me just say, I am appreciative of Speaker Adrian Jones for creating this police accountability work group and for pointing me to this work group. And I’m really enthusiastic and we’ve already started our work group meetings, but I’m really enthusiastic about putting together comprehensive legislation that addresses police violence so that we don’t continue to have these conversations and that seems to be the problem. In 2050 I was in the tear gas streets of Baltimore city when the announcement was made that Freddie Gray had died from injuries sustained while in police custody. And we were not only just occupying streets, but we were also in Annapolis pushing for the kind of reforms that our communities have been calling for some time. And what ended up happening was the Maryland general assembly ended up passing really what was and is seen by many in the activist and organizing space as cosmetic legislation.
And so five years later, we are still having this conversation because we did not take the far reaching and comprehensive steps to ensure that we are repealing the law enforcement officer’s Bill of Rights. We’re reforming the Maryland Public Information Act. We’re ensuring that corrupt and racist cops are being de-certified. We’re ensuring that we’re creating a standard, a use of force standard with criminal implications for officers that abuse public trust and use accessible deadly force.

We are looking at what prosecutorial agency can handle these cases in terms of investigation and bring in charges. We’re also looking at these police settlements that are oftentimes paid out of jurisdictions operating budgets. And so we’re looking at this issue holistically and my hope is that we would put forward the kind of comprehensive legislation that ensures that black, brown and indigenous pain is not the prerequisite for progress anymore. And so when I decided to run in 2018, I refused the fraternal order of police lodge 35 endorsement. And I also refused any contribution from them. And one of the reasons was because my values and this organization obviously does not align. I think the FLP is an anti black organization and they have been opponents to any and all transparency and accountability legislation.

So it was a principle thing for me. I certainly cannot speak for my colleagues, but I do think that people should be reaching out to the elected officials and should be asking them why it is that they are gleefully accepting the endorsement and contributions of an organization that has not only called for the criminalization of black youth, whether it’s in Baltimore city, with the Squeegee boys or fighting any and all efforts to bring about transparency and accountability in this state.

For folks who tuned into our first police accountability work group meeting, you saw that it was very difficult for me to get a straightforward answer from the sheriff of Charles County on whether there is any current law that establishes use of force standards are statewide and the reality of it is there is no law, but the fact that I had to continuously ask and it appeared that he was evading the question speaks to the culture, and it speaks to the disposition when we talk about issues like this. And it is a serious problem, the Maryland police chiefs and Sheriff’s association plays a role in this. Afsney, UFCW as well as other labor unions play a role in this and I’m calling the question to labor.

Jaisal Noor: And I want to ask you, so States around the country are facing huge budget shortfalls because of the coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdowns. One estimate puts that number around the country at more than half a trillion dollars. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts coming to Maryland. Do you see these cuts as a racial justice issue, this austerity connected to the services that are being cut, which are often education and jobs versus what’s not being cut, which we know often is money for law enforcement?

Gabriel Acevero: Yeah. Whenever we have this conversation around our budget and making cuts, it is oftentimes posed as a scarcity of resources argument. Maryland is one of the wealthiest States in the union. And we also have not updated our state’s tax code in decades. We have a very archaic and quite frankly, a racist tax code, that data from the Maryland center on economic policy has shown shifts the burden in terms of taxes and tax payments to working class people more so people of color while those that can and should be paying more are not. And so when we talk about the funds, when we talk about the kind of resources that we need during this time, I would challenge my colleagues and the governor that we look at our state’s tax code and we start looking at the corporations and the individuals who are situated and living in our state who are not paying their fair share in taxes.

We lose hundreds of millions of dollars every single year when corporations and wealthy individuals do not pay their fair share. So I don’t subscribe to the scarcity argument. I don’t subscribe to austerity because I know the money is there. We just cannot find the political will in order to go after the people and the corporations that can and should be paying more. And I also want to point out a couple of things as far as our budgets. When we say defund the police and it’s really important because right now as we’re talking about cuts, the cuts that we’re not seeing in some places here in Maryland at the state level and in other jurisdictions across this country are cuts to law enforcement. And so when we say defund the police, what we are setting up in essence is a budgetary conversation or discussion. And so let’s take a look at budgets and what we spend on law enforcement. The United States, as a country spends around $115 billion annually on law enforcement, more than any other country allocates the military spending save for China.

At the state level, we spend over $2 billion on the Maryland state police and correctional system. And at the local level here in my county, we spend around 300 million and I know you live in Baltimore city, you all spend around half a billion dollars on law enforcement. And what do we have to show for that, right? What has that done in ensuring that our communities are safer black and brown people are not being routinely targeted brutalized and in most instances killed, right?

And so we have to not only shift the narrative and the conversation, but we have to make these budgetary demands that these resources that are being invested in a police and carceral state needs to come back to our communities, need to be invested in the social services and into the programs and initiatives that actually work, and we’ll have a meaningful impact on public safety and we also have to imagine public safety.

Jaisal Noor: We have to hold it there, but thank you so much for joining us and we’ll certainly continue this conversation. Delegate Gabriel Acevero represents Maryland’s 39th district and Montgomery County. Thank you so much for joining us.

Gabriel Acevero: hanks for having me.

Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

Studio: Taylor Hebden
Production: Taylor Hebden

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.