The BREATHE Act Is the Modern-Day Civil Rights Legislation We Need


In this op-ed, Patrisse Cullors, artist, activist, political strategist and co-founder & Executive Director of Black Lives Matter, explains why the BREATHE Act is the civil rights legislation we need.

Police terror and mass incarceration do not exist in a vacuum. 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 crises by disproportionately putting Black and Brown people behind bars instead of providing holistic treatment. We see it in inhumane panhandling laws and cash bail that punishes people for being poor. We see it when we suspend Black children from school and give them detention at disproportionate rates. At each step, our government has legitimized punishing Black and Brown people. It is not surprising, then, that the police commit harm and violence against Black and Brown bodies with impunity—and at alarming rates.

We need to radically reimagine our concept of justice and safety. For too long, we have addressed harm with reciprocal harm. Our elected and appointed officials catered to our worst retributive instincts, resulting in mandatory minimums, sentencing enhancements, and over-policing. What did it get us? An unaddressed drug dependency and mental health crisis, jails overflowing with Black and Brown people, and too many lost loved ones to count.

What we need now is a focus on health and healing. While some pundits and naysayers saw calls to defund the police and invest in Black communities as pipe dreams, our movement did what it always does. We listened, we got to work, and we wrote the BREATHE Act. While it has not been introduced into Congress just yet, we do have champions: Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib spoke at the press launch for the bill. We want the next Presidential administration to prioritize the passing of this powerful modern day civil rights legislation. We built the roadmap to take us away from harm and towards health and healing—now, we hope they follow it.

The BREATHE Act is a legislative love letter to Black people. When I read it for the first time, it made me emotional to finally see a law that made me and my community feel seen and our needs addressed. That is what we have been missing for too long. Practically speaking, the BREATHE Act is a landmark civil rights bill. It takes bold, progressive steps to build public safety systems that work for all of us, no matter what community we come from.

When we say we need to rethink harm and punishment, that cannot just be personal reflection. Our policymaking needs to follow suit. That is what BREATHE is.

It starts by divesting federal resources from vehicles of harm and punishment like policing and incarceration. That means slashing enormous police budgets. That means decriminalizing drug use and repealing other federal laws that have for too long been used to disproportionately criminalize Black women, children, and families. BREATHE will put us on the road to police and prison abolition, letting our loved ones out of federal prison and immigration detention facilities and building nurturing reentry systems to welcome them home and put them on the path to success and citizenship.

But that is just the start. It is a healing process. Next, BREATHE takes steps to build healthy and thriving communities. We know that communities know best how to keep themselves safe. That’s why BREATHE will provide organizations rooted in their communities with the funds to create public safety systems uniquely tailored to their community’s needs and incentivize states to decarcerate and defund.



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