***WATCH THE INTERVIEW HERE***
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand spoke with Errol Louis on NY1 last night about her upcoming introduction of the Excessive Force Prevention Act in honor of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and countless others killed by police violence. The legislation would make chokeholds or maneuvers that restrict oxygen intake or blood flow to the brain by law enforcement a federal civil rights violation. U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) introduced the original House bill following the death of Eric Garner in 2014. Gillibrand also discussed the recent protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, institutional racism and police brutality, and the disproportionate maternal mortality rate that black women face especially amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Below is a transcript of the interview:
ERROL LOUIS: Joining me now to talk about reform is one of New York’s two US senators, Kirsten Gillibrand. Welcome Senator. Thanks for being with us.
SEN. GILLIBRAND: Thank you.
LOUIS: You have introduced a companion bill to some legislation that was introduced in the House by Hakeem Jeffries. And this would be the Excessive Force Prevention Act. He’s been talking about this for a while, and I know it kicked around in the last Congress – it didn’t make much progress. What are its chances now, and have these demonstrations made it more likely that it might get a decent hearing and even passage?
SEN. GILLIBRAND: I think it has a real chance of a hearing and a passage. This bill was written and inspired by the life of Eric Garner. It is one that would also address what just happened with George Floyd. It is something that prohibits the chokehold, it prohibits putting a knee on someone’s neck, putting a knee on their back and making them asphyxiate. Too many people have died because of these excessive uses of force that deny air. Too many people have said to law enforcement, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and they’ve died. So this bill, I think, is one that will have resonance with this moment of extreme suffering, anger, and fear, and I believe that it is one that can begin to do the reform that we need in the criminal justice system – to hold police accountable for excessive use of force.
LOUIS: One part of this I want to make sure the viewers are clear on this is – if I understand this right – one part of the law, or maybe the main thrust of it even – is that it would make it possible to bring civil rights actions, federal civil rights action, if there is a case similar to Eric Garner. It’s not like we have a criminal code or a penal code that extends down to every nook and cranny of the criminal justice system. But, there would be a specific opportunity to bring federal charges if something like the Eric Garner case were to be repeated – is that right?
SEN. GILLIBRAND: Correct. It would allow for a federal right of action for excessive use of force for these particular actions. These would be defined as excessive use of force. And these individuals and their families would be able to sue for that excessive use of force, and it would be a criminal federal penalty.
LOUIS: Okay. Any co-sponsors so far? What are the chances of getting some Republicans to come along? I think you need at least three of them if you can hold all the Democrats together.
SEN. GILLIBRAND: I’m optimistic. I’ve talked to a number of people in our caucus already today. And we are going to work on broad based reform, and this piece of legislation would be a part of that. There are a lot of things we can do to fix the criminal justice system, but I think in light of this moment, we want to make sure that not another person will die because they say to a police officer, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Not another person will be denied that breath because they are in a chokehold or a knee is on their neck. I think it’s essential that we hold police officers that have murdered these individuals accountable.
LOUIS: I’d like to switch topics I saw that you authored a letter that’s got a bunch of co-signers that’s going to the Senate Majority and Minority leader talking about maternal health. And I was sort of startled reading your letter to see that there are hundreds of maternal deaths each year that are preventable. That 43% of all maternal births are covered under Medicaid. But that there are some real limitations. It starts to really contribute to the ongoing health crisis of COVID-19. How did all of this sort of get missed? We get daily briefings on what’s going on with the pandemic and this particular portion of it, I really hadn’t heard much about it before today.
SEN. GILLIBRAND: Well Errol to put into the larger context of where we are right now, people are marching and protesting across America because there is so much institutional and systemic racism in society. And we see it in every aspect of society, in our entire fabric. In our healthcare system. In our education system. In our economy. In our lending. In everything. And one area that I’ve noticed over the years is so stark is the number of maternal deaths because of institutional racism in our health care system. That bias where nurses and doctors don’t believe black women when they say they don’t feel right, or they’re in pain. Or they discount their words, discount what is happening.
I’ve had to sit with a husband who lost his wife because the doctor didn’t follow up on a test that he promised he would do. That he would do a CAT scan to see why she was in pain. In fact she was bleeding out from the C-section that they performed hours before, and she died. Because she didn’t get the health care that she needed. Because they did not take her concerns or her health seriously. We now see this enormous confluence of events with police brutality disproportionately harming individuals of color – black men. We see COVID disproportionately harming communities of color because of legacy health care injustices and inequities for generations. And so it is a perfect storm for black America, because they are bearing burdens in every aspect of their lives because of institutional and systemic racism. And so this bill is just one, another piece that has to be addressed in this time of COVID. That we have to protect these mothers and their children from death.
And, you know, in New York City, if you are a black woman, you are 12 times more likely to die in childbirth or within a year of giving birth because of that systemic inequity. Nationally you have 4 times more likelihood of dying of childbirth or within a year because of this inequity. And under this era of COVID, it’s even more serious and even a greater risk.
LOUIS: Okay we’re going to be following that bill as well as your Excessive Force Prevention Bill. As we’re all heading into a new era with curfews and other kinds of restrictions, what kind of job do you think the mayor and governor are doing in handling what we have seen this last week?
SEN. GILLIBRAND: Well I can tell you, our state is suffering. We are in enormous turmoil, enormous pain, enormous fear and anxiety. And I think both the governor and mayor are doing their absolute best. I can promise you that no one can be perfect in a time like this. We can all just do our best. And the governor is trying to do what he can do to stem the tide of COVID cases. The mayor is doing the same. I think we do need full transparency and accountability in cracking down on police brutality. But I do believe the public servants are working their best to do their best in times that are very difficult.
LOUIS: Okay, we’re going to leave it there for now. Thanks so much for joining us senator. You stay well and stay healthy.
SEN. GILLIBRAND: Same, be well Errol.