When California Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the protests over police brutality and accompanying violence that had dominated his state over the weekend, he declared that for too long state leaders had not addressed systemic racism and called for an end to lip service without action.
“Our institutions are responsible. We are accountable in this moment,” he said from a church in Sacramento.
Pressed on Wednesday, two days later, about what those actions would be, Newsom pointed to a litany of policies his administration has already enacted as evidence state leaders aren’t being passive.
Among them: Signing a landmark law limiting when police can use force, creating the position of state surgeon general and appointing a black woman to the job, as well as investing in black maternal and infant health. He also highlighted broader inequality initiatives, such as investing in early childhood education and homelessness and legalizing marijuana, a ballot measure he supported in 2016 as lieutenant governor.
“These things are happening,” he said. “We’re re-engaging with a sense of resolve and intensity, we’re not going to let up on any of those things.”
Newsom’s comments came during a visit to Los Angeles following days of protests statewide over the death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who begged for air as a police officer held his knee on his neck last week. He toured black-owned businesses, including a coffee shop that provides meals to seniors isolated during the coronavirus pandemic, and met with Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Newsom has made just two public addresses on Floyd’s killing, the protests, and the violence that ensued, including break-ins and stealing from stores. He spoke briefly to reporters while in Los Angeles.
State Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus who accompanied Newsom, said his tone has been spot-on during a tumultuous time for the state.
“He stood square, looked into the camera, said that racism needed to end and it wasn’t black people’s responsibility to fix it,” Mitchell said of his Monday remarks from a Sacramento church.
Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager, another Democrat and caucus member from Los Angeles, said she would like to see the governor use his platform to advocate for more concrete change. She has introduced legislation to fund community groups to intervene in crisis situations instead of the police and to reduce the probation period for misdemeanors. Newsom’s January budget proposal included funding for the probation bill but was stripped from his updated budget in May.
The Legislative Black Caucus has also introduced a series of proposals.
“I think we have an amazing opportunity this year to fight for those things,” Kamlager said. “He strikes me as someone who knows how to use the moment.”
Elika Bernard, a co-founder of the Sacramento nonprofit Black Womxn United, said Newsom hasn’t done enough to specifically address issues that affect black Californians. She noted the police use-of-force bill was from Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
“It’s hard for me to be moved by him right now because we have no tangible evidence of anything,” she said.
Newsom’s response to the statewide protests and violence has been notably different from his response to the coronavirus pandemic that is still gripping the state. When the virus was first being detected in California, Newsom held a news conference on every weekday and some weekends, rolling out a litany of actions and specific details about how the state was responding.
In contrast, he spoke Friday about racial justice and Floyd’s killing but waited until Monday to address the state again, even as scenes of both peaceful protesting and violence played out all weekend. On Tuesday, Newsom cleaned up graffiti in downtown Sacramento alongside local activists, including the brother of Stephon Clark, a black man killed by Sacramento police in 2018.
“Gavin Newsom has been better on (the coronavirus) than he has been so far on the rebellion response. But he has spoken into it and he has said the right things,” said James Lance Taylor, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco. “He has been on the right side of these issues long before this happened.”
He noted that Newsom, like any politician, straddled his role.
“He has to stand on the side of the law, but he’s also on the side of the people. He’s in a very difficult position,” Taylor said.