Senators to DOJ: Police are Criminalizing Black People for Living

By Shani Saxon Apr 23, 2020

On April 17, six U.S. senators sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanding bias training for police officers attempting to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. The senators, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.,) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), were responding to recent reports that Black people around the country have been targeted by police for wearing protective face masks, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all Americans wear them in public to protect against COVID-19, Vox reports. Perhaps even more frustrating, the letter also states, “African American men are reportedly being harassed for not wearing masks and face coverings in public.” 

As Vox reports, one viral video out of Wood River, Illinois, shows two Black people wearing masks inside a Walmart store and filming themselves as a gun-gripping officer follows them and attempts to remove them from the premises “for being safe,” one of the victims explained.


Another person in Philadelphia was forcibly removed from a city bus for failing to wear a face mask as required by the city’s transit authority. 


As Colorlines reported on April 9, many Black people say they are too afraid to wear face coverings in public for fear of racial profiling: 

“The CDC coming to you and saying ‘put a bandana over your face, walk out and that will make you more safe,’ as a black man in New York City, it’s like them saying put on a hoodie and walk behind a white grandma. That’s not how life works for us,” comedy writer Greg Iwinski told NBC News in an article published April 9. “I already have people crossing the street to avoid me when I’m wearing my Warby Parker glasses and I sound like this. I’m very white-comfortable and even I’m thinking about: ‘Oh, am I wearing all red? Am I wearing all blue?”

And it’s not just Black men who are mindful of outward perception. Che Johnson-Long, who works for the Racial Justice Action Center in Atlanta, told CNN that her awareness of her Blackness is always with her. “I will be wearing a mask because it can protect other people from what I may potentially have,” Johnson-Long told CNN. “But what I will also do while wearing a mask is all the things that I’m already doing as a Black person in Atlanta. I will text people before I leave the house so that someone knows where I am. I’ll make sure to travel with someone that I know or to let someone know when I get back home.

In their letter to the DOJ and FBI, the senators wrote, “…Recent cases highlight the need for additional guidance on bias and enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic. If communities of color—especially African American communities—felt at risk of disproportionate or selective enforcement, they may avoid seeking help or adopting precautionary measures recommended by the CDC.” 

“These alarming reports highlight the fact that racial biases—implicit or otherwise—don’t cease and in some ways are heightened during a national crisis,” Sen. Booker said in an emailed statement to Vox. “The truth is, black men in this country are unfortunately all too familiar with racial profiling by law enforcement. It is especially important during these difficult times that these harsh truths continue to be exposed and revealed so that we can continue to work to eradicate bias in policing.”

Booker added that he and his colleagues wrote the letter because “we can’t afford the dire consequences of not addressing this issue.”

Click here to read the senators’ full letter to the DOJ and the FBI.