Democrats would have you believe they are victims and have no power in this situation — which is, in a word, horseshit. And not just run-of-the-mill horseshit we’ve all gotten used to — this is especially dangerous horseshit, because we need them to actually use the power they currently have to oppose what’s going on. Right now.
They do have real power. The party controls one chamber of Congress that Trump needs to finance his power grab. They also fully control fifteen state legislatures and have partial control of another thirteen state legislatures. And they control nearly half the nation’s governorships and most major cities’ mayoralties — the former of which has authority over the national guard, and the latter of which run the police forces that are committing acts of violence in our streets.
That’s a lot of power to actually do something right now.
So . . . exactly what can they do? Here are ten kinds of things — and many of them can be done unilaterally by House Democrats, by states and by cities, and they can be done immediately, not at some unspecified time in the distant future.
1. For the love of God, stop trying to give Trump more police power.
In the lead-up to the protests, Democratic congressional leaders had been pushing to fortify Trump’s police powers. Yes, that’s right: they have repeatedly — and at times stealthily — worked with Republicans to try to reauthorize the Patriot Act in a way that would strengthen Trump’s warrantless surveillance power. Boosted by groups like Demand Progress, progressive Democratic lawmakers have thankfully helped temporarily stop the reauthorization for now — but Pelosi has been actively trying to revive the legislation. Giving Trump more police power as he promises to violently crush protests is insane. Stop. Just stop.
2. Do not pass a Pentagon spending bill that would fund Trump’s military invasion of American cities.
During the Iraq War, Democratic lawmakers gave speeches demanding an end to the conflict, and then turned around and cast votes to pass appropriations bills that funded the war. Now we face the prospect of Democratic lawmakers issuing press releases telling Donald Trump to not militarily invade America, and then potentially turning right around and voting for the spending bills to fund that invasion. That would be absolutely unacceptable. House Democrats can halt the annual Pentagon appropriations bill and write various restrictions into it preventing any resources from being used by the president to deploy troops into American cities, without the explicit consent of Congress. They can also amend the Insurrection Act. In 2006, Congress expanded that statute, but they can now go the other way and restrict it in ways that reduce Trump’s ability to start a civil war in the United States.
3. Call Trump’s bluff, use his own plan to defund the police — and launch investigations.
Trump recently proposed federal budgets cutting funding for local police departments. Democrats control the House that must pass a federal budget. Democrats could just sign onto the president’s own past proposals, and begin the process of defunding the police. They could also use their House majority to hold televised hearings spotlighting police abuses, and to issue subpoenas to fully investigate the situation in various cities. And, of course, they could also use all of these budget and oversight powers in legislatures, mayor’s offices, and city councils to do the same at the state and municipal levels.
4. Stop giving military-grade weapons to local police departments.
Research has shown a link between police violence and the use of the Pentagon program that provides excess military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Democrats right now have the power to restrict or fully eliminate that program. They could do it during the upcoming reauthorization of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is the overarching legislation that governs what the Pentagon can and cannot do. Or they could do it on the must-pass, annual Pentagon spending bill. In fact, they already have the legislative language to do that — it was tried by some House Democrats in 2014, but Democrats helped the GOP-run House kill it back then. Now that the Democrats control the House, they could just pass it.
5. Fire the bad police chiefs and deescalate.
Democratic mayors can fire police chiefs whose police departments are out of control. If you see rampant acts of police violence, as we’ve seen in cities across the country, and you see your Democratic mayor standing by the police chief, then your Democratic mayor is complicit. Your Democratic mayor could instead do what Louisville mayor Greg Fischer just did after a police shooting there. Your Democratic mayor can also order police to halt their antagonistic expressions of martial power — the unnecessary flaunting of heavily armed law enforcement and the chest-thumping displays of police power are just heightening tensions. Mayors could instead follow the lead of Newark’s Ras Baraka — the New York Times reports that his police force has “made a tactical decision not to position police officers in military-style gear along the route” and so far, the city has not seen the kind of violent clashes that we’ve seen in other population centers.
6. Prosecute the bad cops.
Democrats control many district attorneys’ offices and twenty-two state attorney generals’ offices. We’ve heard a lot about police mass arresting peaceful protesters — we’ve heard much less about whether or not the Democratic Party will use the prosecutorial authority it has to charge police officers for their brutal acts of violence.
7. Restrict the National Guard.
Democratic governors have the power to use the national guard to militarize the situation in their states. But until Trump federalizes the National Guard, they also have the power to carefully restrict or demobilize the National Guard’s actions and activities.
8. Pass legislation restricting the police and ending immunity.
Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna has a bill to change use-of-force standards at the federal level, so that under the law, violence must officially be a last resort in police conduct. As he notes: “The current legal standard gives nearly unfettered discretion to police over their use of force, as long as they claim to perceive a threat, even if there were other available options to de-escalate the situation.” There is also new legislation by independent Rep. Justin Amash to end the so-called qualified immunity standard that shields police officers and public officials from punishment for violating Americans’ constitutional rights. The House could pass both of these bills, and Democratic state legislatures could pass their own versions of these bills as well.
9. Repeal and block anti-protester laws, and pass state protections.
A recent PEN America report shows that fifteen states have passed anti-protester laws and “nearly a third of all states have implemented new regulations on protest-related activity in the past five years.” Democrats in legislatures and governorships can work to repeal these laws, and block similar new laws. They can also be proactive by using their majorities in blue states like New York to pass packages of much-needed reforms designed to bring accountability to local police departments.
10. Stop taking money from police associations.
Among the reasons Democrats haven’t already used their power to protect civil liberties and create stronger accountability is the influence of money — specifically, the very large sums of money that flow into state and local politics from police associations that oppose real accountability. New York Senate deputy majority leader Mike Gianaris is one of a number of lawmakers who are now saying they will reject this money and donate the money they have taken and use it to protect protesters. This should become a national trend.
Again, this is not a comprehensive list. However, it is a reminder that while Trump is the central threat to American liberties right now, we should not believe the Democrats’ current narrative that portrays themselves as innocent bystanders. They are in a position to actually deliver on their electoral promises to do whatever they can to oppose Trump.
If they don’t use the power they have right now, they are complicit.