Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou on Protests and Police Accountability Reforms

I am the only Asian American woman in the New York State Legislature. I stand in solidarity with my Black and Brown family and friends. My community also feels this incredible aching pain.

We feel the justified rage throughout our country at the racist violence that has taken the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and so many others; the horror at an ongoing pandemic where more than 24,000 New Yorkers have lost their lives and millions have filed for unemployment; the frustration from the fact that a disproportionate number of these deaths and job losses are in our communities of color; the anger at a President stoking the fires of division and a top to bottom failure by government executives; and the anxiety about our city with so many local businesses gone, so many jobs lost, and so many families struggling.

The anxiety, the anger, the hurt, the sadness, is justified. New Yorkers have lost so much, and when we see a man literally have the life choked out of him, saying “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”, it breaks your heart in so many ways, and it feels almost too easy to give into despair.

We ask all the time now, how will we survive, and how will we rebuild, and how do we know and guarantee we will come out of this better and stronger. None of us here have all or any of the perfect answers but we know we have to do it together. Now is the moment for solidarity and for action. We have had protests before, we have spoken and discussed and debated these issues before, but we know that ultimately, it will require action by the government, to make New York a state where we are not only created equal — but we are treated equally.

I believe that we are long overdue for police reform in this country, and that New York State should take the lead. Incident after incident of police brutality, murder, and institutional racism has eroded the trust between law enforcement and communities of color. Nothing short of systemic reform can begin rebuilding that trust. We don’t have a broken system. Our system is working exactly how it was designed. The system is designed this way. Hurting certain communities while allowing other communities to gain from our hurt. Only by reforming all of our systems can we have real change. My caucus, the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus, has called for the legislature to reconvene and pass a package of police reforms bills that I have co-sponsored and plan on voting for.

These bills include:

1. Full Repeal of 50-a | A.2513/S.3695 (O’Donnell/Bailey)

2. False 9-1-1 Complaints | A.3566 (Ortiz/Benjamin)

3. Office of the Special Prosecutor | A.1601a/S.2574a (Perry/Bailey)

4. Police STAT Act | A.5472/S.1830b (Lentol/Hoylman)

5. Right to Monitor Act | A.1360a/S.3253 (Perry/Parker)

6. Local Independent Oversight of Police | S.7527 (Richardson/Myrie)

7. Medical Attention for Persons Under Arrest | A.8226/S.6601 (Fernandez/Bailey)

8. Establishes the Crime of Strangulation | A.6144/S.6670a (Mosley/Benjamin)

9. Failure to Obtain Medical Care | A.3056b/S.4076 (Fernandez/Biaggi)

10. Bans Racial/Ethnic Profiling by Police | A.4615/S.1137A (Bichotte/Benjamin)

11. Reducing Arrests for Non-Criminal Offenses | A.4053/S.2571 (Aubry/Bailey)

12. Expanded Use of Law Enforcement Body Cameras

a. Body Cameras for NYS Police | A.8674/S.6686 (Walker/Parker)

b. Body Cameras for MTA Police | A.8943a/S.06793a (Reyes/Ramos) 13.

Contrary to the harmful rhetoric of some leaders of police unions, these reforms are good for our police, good for all of the officers trying to do right and keep our city safe. The problems in our criminal justice system go far beyond “a few bad apples” and demand these types of fundamental changes in how police operate in our communities, and we will never create those changes until we create a culture of accountability and fairness within law enforcement.

I want to also address the widespread peaceful protesting in our community. People are speaking out for change, marching in the streets, demanding action from those of us in government, and that’s a good thing. As an elected official, I have marched with our peaceful protestors and provided masks to help ensure their safety. I have urged others to remain safe and to be socially distant while in the middle of a pandemic. Protesters, our communities, are seeking legitimate, non-violent ways of taking action in the pursuit of justice. I want to also be clear: there is no place for violence in this movement. This is a movement of love...this is a movement asking for the right to live.

There is no place for looting or destroying property or burning churches, burning down bus stops or libraries, or destroying local businesses. So many of these businesses are built by people of color who are for the first time building a life for their families. So many of these public resources are vital to their communities and hold irreplaceable value. There are outside agitators that are trying to co-opt our messaging to silence it and pit communities against one another. The City and State have a responsibility to separate and address the protection of peaceful, legitimate protesting and end the opportunistic violence and destruction meant to provoke violence and silence this movement.

Addressing this, what we see from the NYPD now is not the protection of our community, our local businesses, or peaceful protestors. We see the police escalating tensions or resorting to violence and brutality. We see videos of NYPD cars driving into crowds of people, officers pulling down the masks of peaceful protestors and pepper spraying them directly in the eyes, and law enforcement agents shoving peaceful protestors onto concrete and sending them to hospitals with concussions. On June 2nd, I was at the Manhattan Bridge where the NYPD essentially trapped peaceful protestors on the bridge for hours without any information. Instead of defending the use of force, tear gas, and rubber bullets to suppress this movement, our government executives should be directing and planning with our law enforcement agencies and leaders of peaceful protests to protect our community from looting and further destruction. For some local businesses, it took over three days to have officers come to take statements for the damage done to their property. Without these statements, the stores cannot even file insurance claims. No officers were even present when looters and vandals came. 911 calls were left unanswered when fires broke out in our community. Our government executives have failed in protecting us and we must do better by opening up a real dialogue to advance this movement peacefully.

Like every New Yorker, as I watch the scenes unfolding in our great city right in front of my eyes, I have to ask: Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be? Is this the future we want for the generations to come? Because if not, we all have to do the essential work to dismantle a deeply rooted system of institutional racism that deprives people of color of our rights. Black Americans have fought for all of us. Black Americans have given a voice to all of us. Following the American Civil War, Black abolitionists did vital work to make sure the Fourteenth Amendment unlinked the concept of full citizenship from race. In the Civil Rights movement, led by Black activists, the Hart-Cellar Act formed the basis of claims to citizenship which opened up the path for other immigrants to attain full citizenship. Black history is intertwined with many of the rights that people of color, and in fact all Americans, have today. Our rights, our liberation, our freedom, is tied together. The fight against institutional violence and economic oppression is fundamentally tied to the fight against racism, because racism underpins so much of the discrimination in this country that it is inseparable from most other forms of bigotry.

Our history is defined by our ability to rise from adversity. And this is our moment to rise beyond our nation’s legacy of inequality and racism, and to know that we can define our future differently than our past. Every day I stand on the floor of the legislature and we say the pledge of allegiance like all of the school kids in America. We end it by saying “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.” We need actual Justice for All.

It is time for our legislative stand up for and in front of Black and Brown bodies.