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COVID, police reforms top Pressley’s agenda

Congresswoman listens to concerns in Nubian Square

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
COVID, police reforms top Pressley’s agenda
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley chats with a commuter in the MBTA bus terminal in Nubian Square. BANNER PHOTO

In Washington, Ayanna Pressley has filed legislation at a rapid clip during the COVID pandemic and the anti-police-violence protests — bills covering everything from data collection to the qualified immunity standard that has compelled courts to let officers charged with murder beat their cases.

On a visit to Nubian Square last Thursday, Pressley pursued a more pedestrian agenda: making sure the bus drivers, passengers and merchants in the commercial district are doing ok. She spoke to T riders and bus drivers as her aides passed out masks.

As a bus pulled into a berth in the MBTA’s busiest bus terminal, Pressley approached the driver’s window.

“Do you have everything you need to stay safe?” she asked the driver.

“Yes I do. I was sick for a month, though,” the driver replied.

“I’m fighting for all the frontline workers like you,” Pressley said. “Your work is essential, but your life is more essential.”

Pressley was in Nubian Square as part of an effort to register voters and encourage participation in the U.S. Census. During her visit there, she spoke with the Banner about her legislative agenda.

Responding to a crisis

Pressley says that when COVID-19 cases first began growing in the U.S., she knew it could have a devastating effect in the 8th Congressional District, which she represents in Congress.

“We knew anecdotally it was going to hit our community the hardest, because we’re hit hardest by everything,” she said. “As the adage goes, ‘When the rest of America catches a cold, black folks get pneumonia.’ That is as metaphorical as it literal.”

But in the early stages of the pandemic, when Pressley sought information on how people of color were being affected by the virus, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar initially declined to share data. Pressley and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren filed the Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on COVID-19 Act, mandating the collection and sharing of data on COVID infections broken out by race. Data shared at the in Massachusetts has confirmed fears of a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

“The Massachusetts 7th [district] has been hit the hardest,” Pressley said. “Chelsea has the highest rates of infection per capita. Randolph, Roxbury and Dorchester have high numbers.”

In April, Pressley and other lawmakers in the Massachusetts delegation helped secure $36.5 million for community health centers, funding that helped the state provide needed services to communities hard hit by the pandemic. The funding helped pay for mobile testing, contact tracing and antibody testing.

In Chelsea, where many families live in packed, multi-generational households, the funding allowed public health officials to quarantine infected individuals in temporary housing. In Randolph, where there are many essential workers and no community health center, Pressley worked with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to make it easier for residents to obtain testing.

Pressley said the aid to community health centers can help them address some of the underlying causes of higher rates of infections in black and Latino communities.

“They need the investment to meet the scale and the scope of the pandemic, but they have to be viable after to address these health disparities,” she said. “That’s what we’re managing. It’s the co-morbidities and the impacts of structural racism.”

Business assistance

While in Nubian Square, Pressley also visited local pushcart vendors, purchasing T-shirts and a hand-stitched mask.

In Washington, she and California Sen. Kamala Harris introduced the Saving Our Street Act, which created $124.5 billion microbusiness grant fund.

“We saw that our true micro-businesses — businesses that employ 10 people or less, our beauty shops, our restaurants, our bodegas — they were not getting their Payroll Protection Program funds,” Pressley said. “These business owners don’t need loans. They need grants.”

The Saving Our Street Act would provide businesses with grants up to $250,000. The act requires that 75 percent of the funds go to businesses that are historically underrepresented and requires reporting on who’s getting the grant.

“Right now we’re lobbying very hard for that bill to be included in the next relief package,” she said.

Pressley said she’s also seeking the cancellation of rent and mortgage payments.

“I’m glad that our state legislature led on eviction and foreclosures, but if you do that and you’re not cancelling rent and mortgage, we’re going to deal with a tsunami of hurt — a mass eviction crisis,” she said. “Housing is a critical determinant of health. It is a basic human need. I think it should be a human right.”

Policing

At one Nubian Square kiosk, Pressley stopped to purchase a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. She said the demonstrations against police violence that have swept the nation indicate a broad mandate for change. But nothing will happen without legislative action at the local and national level, she warned.

“What we’re seeing is a culture shift, but we need to see a power shift,” she said. “Until we see laws change and until we see black humanity, dignity and health codified in our budgets, then we’ve not been successful.”

Pressley and U.S. Sen Ed Markey introduced a bill that would end qualified immunity, the legal standard that shields police officers from being prosecuted for acts undertaken while they’re on duty.

“If you believe that black lives matter, then you believe that justice matters for the black lives that we’ve been robbed of,” she said. “Qualified immunity has meant that officers could show callous disregard for human life, for black lives, with great impunity — without any accountability and without any justice. How do you deter behavior if there are no consequences? Justice is when people are held accountable for murder and prosecuted.”

In addition, Pressley has authored bills requiring officers to provide medical aid to people in their custody who are in need and banning “no-knock” warrants and chokeholds. She has also advanced a bill to stop the transfer of military-grade weapons to police forces.

Pressley said she agrees with calls to defund police departments and channel funding into social service programs.

“What this is about is investment in communities that have historically been divested from,” she said. “This is about funding our communities, investing in our communities. We know what works. We just don’t fund it.”

The volume of legislation Pressley is authoring and co-sponsoring is considerable, but she says the urgency of the crises facing the 7th Congressional District and the nation as a whole call for action.

“To be serving in Congress in such a moment of inflection and acute pain, there’s a tremendous responsibility,” she said. “I’m just trying to be an effective steward of the moment.”

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