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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    On Juneteenth, a call for action in the General Assembly

    A Black Lives Matter flag flies over the State Capitol on Friday morning, June 19, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. Friday marks Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure all enslaved people be freed, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant via AP)

    Hartford — State Senate Democrats on Friday unveiled an ambitious, wide-ranging agenda to tackle police and criminal justice reforms as well as racial inequities in health care, housing, education and other areas, deliberately choosing Juneteenth, which commemorates the abolishment of slavery in the U.S., to call for their proposals to be taken up by the General Assembly in a July special session.

    Following mass protests in Connecticut and across the country and world in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black people at the hands of police, Senate Democrats convened a news conference at the Capitol to outline how they want to transform the messages of demonstrators about systemic racism into policy changes.

    “Today the Senate Democrats are saying we’re committed to doing this work in a special session and as we move forward,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven.

    Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, a Democrat from Norwalk, said they want this point in history to be "a movement, not a moment," and said the issues outlined in the agenda warranted urgent consideration by the General Assembly.

    Gov. Ned Lamont, who held a separate conversation on racial equality and social justice with community leaders and state representatives Friday in Bloomfield, announced several hours after the Senate Democrats' news conference that he would call state lawmakers into a special session next month to address police accountability and expanding access to absentee ballots, which Senate Democrats also are calling for in their agenda to give Connecticut residents a safe means of voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

    “There’s still more that we need to do in addition to those issues to address the complex and difficult problems of racial and economic inequality. I look forward to working with legislators and other stakeholders on those issues during the next regular session,” Lamont said.

    While the Senate Democrats’ 14-page agenda includes police reforms such as banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants and appointing an inspector general to investigate police misconduct and use of force, it also seeks to address disparities in housing and education. That includes addressing the impact local zoning laws have on housing discrimination and hiring more minority teachers to work in Connecticut schools.

    Rep. Anthony Nolan, who is also a police officer in New London and was part of the conversation with Lamont in Bloomfield, which included the director of the Center on Immigration and Justice for the Vera Institute of Justice, said his top priority is creating an independent oversight board to investigate police misconduct. He’d like the board to be overseen by an inspector general and to include two bipartisan members of the legislature and two representatives from the executive branch as well as civilians.

    He said he'd also like to see more de-escalation training and police departments should hire mental health and social workers to be on staff.

    “America has moved on and a lot of the police tactics have not,” Nolan said.

    For many years, the General Assembly has passed “feel-good” legislation, said Sen. Douglas McCrory, a Democrat from Hartford.

    Noting the Black Lives Matter flag flying above the Capitol and proposals in Connecticut and elsewhere to make Juneteenth a state holiday, McCrory said, “those things are symbolic.”

    “People are not marching across the state, this country or this world for symbolic purposes. They want structural change,” he said.

    Much of the Senate Democrats' agenda seeks to address health care reform in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted people of color.

    The pandemic “has lifted the veil of racism,” said Sen. Marilyn Moore, a Democrat from Bridgeport.

    Senate Democrats plan to propose legislation to “expand data collection and reporting by race, gender, and other guidelines in order to expose health disparities and better guide health policies” and improve access to health coverage, the agenda says.

    "It is time for the legislature to admit that is has not created a just health care system for all its residents," Moore said.

    Asked what message the legislators had for those protesting in Connecticut, Winfield said activism in the streets is important to remind those in power that there are people who want to see change. He encouraged protesters to speak to their elected officials about policy reforms that they want to see enacted.

    "Your activism is why this conversation is happening," he said.

    j.bergman@theday.com

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