Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling

The term “racial profile” first entered the American lexicon in January 1998 when an AP story titled “Veteran Cop Goes on Trial; Race an Issue in Traffic Stop” was published in several regional newspapers. The article described the trial of Aaron Campbell, a Black man who happened to be a police officer, who was pulled over by sheriff’s deputies in Orange County, Florida and then pepper sprayed, wrestled to the ground, and arrested when he objected to the stop:

Campbell is scheduled to go on trial today on charges of felony assault and resisting arrest with violence. His lawyer said the stop was illegal, and the only thing Campbell was guilty of was DWB, driving while black, and fitting a profile that Orange County deputies use to identify motorists to be stopped and searched for contraband…. The Orange County sheriff’s office says stops aren’t based on a racial profile. (AP, January 12, 1998)

“Racial profiling” was mentioned in a smattering of newspaper articles over the course of 1998, but by 1999 it had vaulted to the top of the nation’s public policy agenda. It was the subject not only of thousands of articles, editorials, and television and radio broadcasts, but also of Congressional and state legislative hearings and proposals. In 2000, both presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, deplored it during their campaigns, and both vowed to issue executive orders banning it if elected. By 2001, more than a dozen state legislatures had passed new laws requiring their law enforcement agencies to collect race and ethnicity data for all traffic stops. By the end of 1999, a majority of Americans, both Black and white, believed that racial profiling was both widespread and unfair.[1]

This case study describes the narrative shift that occurred in just 3 years, between 1999 and 2001, and how advocates made it happen. It also describes the gradual weakening of resolve to end racial profiling in the aftermath of 9/11 and the reemergence of the anti-racial profiling narrative in the years since the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.


  • John Crew, Founding Director of the ACLU’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling
  • Ira Glasser, former Executive Director of the ACLU
  • David A. Harris, author of Profiles in Injustice
  • Wade Henderson, former President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
  • Laura W. Murphy, former Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office
  • Reggie Shuford, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and former lead racial profiling litigator for the ACLU
  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010.
  • Frank R. Baumgartner, Derek A Epp, and Kelsey Shoub, Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • David Cole, No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System. The New Press, 1999.
  • David A. Harris, Profiles in Injustice. The New Press, 2002.
  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. First Harvard University Press, 2019.
  • Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (Eds.), Crack In America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. University of California Press, 1997.

To identify media trends, we developed a series of search terms and used the LexisNexis database, which provides access to more than 40,000 sources, including up-to-date and archived news. For social media trends we utilized the social listening tool Brandwatch, a leading social media analytics software that aggregates publicly available social media data.


The dangers of “driving while Black” were well known to Black people long before the late-1990s, as Ric Burns’s recent film of the same name documents so effectively. Efforts to control African Americans’ mobility date back to the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the New World in 1619. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1783 authorized local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners and empowered any white person to question any Black person they saw. But the “war on drugs,” declared by President Reagan in 1982, introduced a new tool to impede the free movement of motorists of color. In 1986, in the midst of the crack cocaine “epidemic,” which was depicted as a Black, inner-city problem, the Drug Enforcement Agency launched “Operation Pipeline.” This drug interdiction program ultimately trained 27,000 law enforcement officers in 48 states to use pretext stops (e.g., going slightly over the speed limit or failing to signal) in order to search for drugs. The training encouraged the police to use a race-based “drug courier profile” to pull over motorists; consequently, civil rights organizations saw an uptick of complaints of unfair treatment on the nation’s highways. By the early-1990s, the uptick had become a flood. Disturbing stories like the following examples began to appear in the media, often in the context of civil rights lawsuits brought by racial profiling victims:

An elderly African-American couple sued the Maryland State Police yesterday, alleging that a search of their vehicle and possessions along Interstate 95 by troopers was an unlawful act of racial discrimination and false imprisonment. The suit, stemming from a July 12, 1994, traffic stop in Cecil County, was filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Charles Carter, 66, and Etta Carter, 65. The Carters of Mount Airy, Pa., allege that they were traveling home on their 40th anniversary after visiting a daughter in Florida when they were stopped and detained for several hours while police “methodically examined the contents of virtually every item” in their rented minivan, scattering items on the roadside.


Officials in Eagle County, Colorado paid $800,000 in damages in 1995 to Black and Latino motorists stopped on Interstate 70 solely because they fit a drug courier profile. The payment settled a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of 402 people stopped between August 1988 and August 1990 on I-70 between Eagle and Glenwood Springs, none of whom were ticketed or arrested for drugs.


In California, San Diego Chargers football player Shawn Lee was pulled over, and he and his girlfriend were handcuffed and detained by police for half an hour on the side of Interstate 15. The officer said that Lee was stopped because he was driving a vehicle that fit the description of one stolen earlier that evening. However, Lee was driving a Jeep Cherokee, a sport utility vehicle, and the reportedly stolen vehicle was a Honda sedan.


In addition to compelling stories of innocent Black people being stopped, searched, and humiliated on interstate highways, the lawsuits led to the collection of hard data to prove the plaintiffs’ contention that racial profiling was real. Dr. John Lamberth, a Temple University Professor of Psychology with expertise in statistics, was retained by plaintiffs to carry out a series of studies. He designed a research methodology to determine first, the rate at which Black people were being stopped, ticketed, and/or arrested on a section of a given highway, and second, the percentage of Black people among drivers on that same stretch of road. He also measured the population of violators of traffic laws, broken down by race to see whether disproportionate stops of drivers of color were due to their driving behavior, rather than racial profiling. These studies were carried out in New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois, and Ohio, and they all came to the same conclusion: state troopers were singling out motorists of color for discriminatory treatment. In Maryland, although only 17 percent of the drivers on the relevant roadway were Black, well over 70 percent of those stopped and searched were Black. In New Jersey, the race of the driver was the only factor that predicted which cars police stopped. Professor David A. Harris, who has written widely on the subject, observed:

These findings and those in other studies—performed in different places, at different times, with different data, and involving different police departments—all point in the same direction: The disproportionate use of traffic stops against minorities is not just a bunch of stories, or a chain of anecdotes strung together into the latest social trend. On the contrary, it is a real, measurable phenomenon.[2]

The release of these statistics generated more media coverage. The number of stories about racial profiling published in U.S. newspapers increased tenfold between 1998 and 1999. Calls for action were coming from civil rights and civil liberties organizations and African American elected leaders as complaints from their constituents poured in. At community meetings and legislative hearings around the country, racial profiling victims were testifying, oftentimes in tears, about their experiences. The New Jersey Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, for example, held three regional public hearings in April 1999 and concluded:

The testimony and other evidence adduced at the Caucus hearings confirmed what minority motorists have known for years—racial profiling has long been the ‘unofficial’ modus operandi of the State Police. The State Police hierarchy has unofficially encouraged, condoned and rewarded the practice. Reverend Reginald Jackson, Executive Director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey explained the situation in stark terms: ‘Racial profiling was the worst kept secret in New Jersey.’

The New Jersey hearings were closely followed by the media, and headlines served to frame the issue:

  • “Hearing probes trooper racism,” Asbury Park Press, April 14, 1999
  • “In Hearing, Blacks Tell of Stops by Troopers; Legislators Examine Profiling Complaints,” The Record (Bergen County), April 14, 1999
  • “Minorities describe humiliation by State Police,” The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), April 14, 1999

At the federal level, Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) introduced the Traffic Stops Statistics Act, which would have required that police departments collect demographic data on each traffic stop and that the U.S. Attorney General then conduct a study based on the data. It passed the House in 1998 without a single dissenting vote, but it died in the Senate.[3]

In the meantime, pushback from the police establishment was increasing. In a much-quoted statement, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, then under scrutiny by the courts and the state legislature, opined, “The drug problem is mostly cocaine and marijuana. It is most likely a minority group that’s involved with that.” In the fall of 1998, Attorney General Janet Reno held a national summit on the problem of race and traffic stops. In addition to local, state, and federal law enforcement representatives and U.S. attorneys from around the country, several advocacy organizations, including the National Urban League and the ACLU, were in attendance. Those from law enforcement struck a defensive tone according to one of the participants, claiming: “There is no such thing as racial profiling. It doesn’t exist. Collection of data on traffic stops that tracked race would be unnecessary and dangerous and an insult to every person who wore a badge. Merely raising the issue was a slap in the face to the brave officers who risked their lives to keep the peace.”[4]

All the lawsuits, hearings, and media coverage were still not producing the kind of policy changes that were needed. Every hour of every day, motorists of color were still being stopped; searched; and, in some cases, traumatized on the nation’s roads and highways. More had to be done. As frustration mounted, the ACLU decided to escalate its campaign.


The ACLU’s first challenge to racial profiling had been in the form of a class-action lawsuit against the Maryland State Police (MSP) on behalf of Robert L. Wilkins, an African American attorney who was stopped, detained, and searched in 1992 while driving to Washington, D.C., from Chicago. When he refused to consent to a search, the police told him, “You’re gonna have to wait here for the dog.” Wilkins and the other members of his family who were passengers were forced to get out of the car and stand in the dark and the rain by the side of the highway until the canine patrol arrived and confirmed there were no drugs in the car. The case was settled in 1993 and the settlement decree included a requirement that the state monitor highway searches for any pattern of discrimination. Three years later, the data showed that the MSP was still engaging in racial profiling. In his report to the court, statistician John Lamberth concluded:

While no one can know the motivations of each individual trooper in conducting a traffic stop, the statistics presented herein, representing a broad and detailed sample of highly appropriate data, show without question a racially discriminatory impact on blacks and other minority motorists from state police behavior along I-95.

Other lawsuits followed, and as the cases mounted, the ACLU’s National Legal Department assigned one of its staff attorneys to work with the organization’s fifty-plus state affiliates to generate more cases.

In February 1999 the ACLU of Northern California launched its Driving While Black or Brown campaign. Under the direction of staff attorney Michelle Alexander and communications director Elaine Elinson, it “aimed to inspire a shift in public consciousness on race and criminal justice.” The campaign established a “DWB Hotline” and aggressively publicized the stories it received. It held press conferences so that people who had called the hotline could speak directly to the media. It put up fifty billboards in African American and Latino neighborhoods advertising the campaign and the hotline and it produced several radio ads that dramatized the experience of being unfairly pulled over by the police. All this activity succeeded in growing a coalition that included civil rights and civic and faith organizations. According to Alexander and Elinson:

In many respects, the campaign was a greater success than we ever hoped or imagined. When the campaign began, the terms ‘racial profiling’ or ‘DWB’ were not widely used, and the problems associated with those practices were not part of the political discourse. At the peak of the campaign, those terms, and the problems they represented, permeated the political discourse in communities of all color in California and nationwide. Thousands of people participated in grassroots organizing efforts. Personal stories of racial profiling filled the airwaves.[6]

The national ACLU decided to adopt the Northern California affiliate’s model. On June 2, 1999 the organization held a press conference at its headquarters in New York City to announce the launch of a new national campaign. “We are here today to demand an end to racial profiling. The ACLU is using all of its available legal resources as well as advertising, public service announcements, statistical reports and yes, the media, to get our message out. Racial profiling of minority motorists is restoring Jim Crow justice in America,” said Executive Director Ira Glasser. The press conference was the occasion for the release of a 43-page report, “Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on Our Nation’s Highways.” Authored by David A. Harris, then a Professor of Law at the University of Toledo College of Law, the report linked the increase in racial profiling to the war on drugs and articulated the narrative that the ACLU was committed to “getting out”:

From the outset, the war on drugs has in fact been a war on people and their constitutional rights, with African Americans, Latinos and other minorities bearing the brunt of the damage. It is a war that has, among other depredations, spawned racist profiles of supposed drug couriers. On our nation’s highways today, police ostensibly looking for drug criminals routinely stop drivers based on the color of their skin. This practice is so common that the minority community has given it the derisive term, ‘driving while black or brown’—a play on the real offense of ‘driving while intoxicated.’

The announcement and the report received widespread media coverage, with articles referring specifically to “driving while Black” increasing from just 72 articles in 1998 to more than 300 in 1999.

Some of the headlines that clearly named the problem included:

  • “Racial Profiling is Rising Nationwide, an ACLU Study Reports the ‘War on Drugs’ Targets Minorities, it says. Among its Suggestions: That Police Keep Better Data on Traffic Stops,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 3, 1999
  • “ACLU report blasts racial profiling,” The Boston Globe, June 3, 1999
  • “ACLU seeks end to racial profiling,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 2, 1999
  • “Racial Profiling in Drug War Like Jim Crow: ACLU,” New York Daily News, June 3, 1999

The ACLU’s strategy was based on the adage that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”[7] People would oppose injustice if only they knew about it. Glasser explains:

Racial profiling on our highways had long been a secret kept from most Americans and virtually from all white Americans. But it was never a secret to its victims…. And so it became important to us at the ACLU to spread this news around. It became our mission and our agenda to gather the information as systematically as we could and to make it as widely known as we could.

A nationwide toll-free hotline was established (1-877-6-PROFILE) for victims to call, and a complaint form was featured on the ACLU’s website. A full-page ad was placed in Emerge, then a popular magazine for Black audiences, and a public service announcement publicizing the hotline aired on Black radio stations nationwide. A “Driving While Black or Brown” kit composed of a sample letter to members of Congress in support of the Traffic Stops Statistics Act, stickers with the hotline number, and the ACLU’s so-called “bust card” explaining what to do if stopped by the police, was distributed in the tens of thousands. The organization’s Public Education Department kept up a steady stream of press releases and backgrounders for reporters and placed speakers, including victims of racial profiling, at conferences and on TV and radio broadcasts. Its Washington Legislative Office provided testimony and worked with the Congressional Black Caucus to drum up support for federal legislation. Its state affiliates worked with their allies, including the NAACP, the Urban League, and Black police organizations to generate support for state legislation and to pressure law enforcement agencies to collect data on a voluntary basis. It was all hands on deck.

Because the ACLU had offices in every state, the organization was able to generate activity on multiple fronts. Community speak-outs with journalists in attendance were held to give voice to victims of racial profiling. Advocates representing state and local civil rights coalitions engaged in public speaking and appeared in radio and television broadcasts and called for concrete action. The first step was to enact laws requiring the collection of data to establish that racial profiling was taking place. Once established, advocates would then lobby for legislation to ban it. The first state to pass legislation requiring data collection was North Carolina, with the ACLU of North Carolina working closely with the state legislature’s Black Caucus. Other states followed suit with substantial editorial support from all regions of the country:

  • An end to profiling,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), April 23, 2000
  • “State must do what it can to stop racial profiling,” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 18, 1999
  • “Racial profiling real and should cease,” San Antonio Express News, June 20, 1999
  • “Stop Racial Profiling,” St. Petersburg Times (Florida), December 23, 2000
  • “Act Now on Racial Profiling,” The San Francisco Chronicle, January 19, 2000

By any measure, the campaign was impactful. A week after the initial press conference and release of the Harris report in June 1999, President Bill Clinton declared that racial profiling was “morally indefensible” and ordered federal law-enforcement agencies to compile data on the race and ethnicity of people they question, search, or arrest to determine whether suspects were being stopped because of the color of their skin. A Gallup poll released in December 1999 revealed that 59 percent of the public believed that racial profiling was widespread, and 81 percent disapproved of its use by police. In 1999 alone, fifteen states considered legislation mandating the collection of traffic-stop information and, ultimately, twenty-nine of the forty-nine state police agencies with patrol duties would require the collection of race and ethnicity data.[8] Media coverage increased dramatically over the course of the campaign, from 2,741 stories in 1999 to close to 9,000 stories in 2001. In his February 27, 2001 address to a Joint Session of Congress, newly elected President George W. Bush declared that “racial profiling is wrong and we will end it in America.”

But the campaign’s most profound impact was its disruption of a deeply entrenched American narrative—what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the enduring myth of Black criminality.”


Negative stereotypes about Black people abound in America, and one of the oldest is the stereotype that they are violent and predisposed to crime. In his 2015 lengthy essay “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (published in The Atlantic magazine) Ta-Nehisi Coates avers that “Black people are the preeminent outlaws of the American imagination”:

Black criminality is literally written into the American Constitution—the Fugitive Slave Clause, in Article IV of that document…the crime of absconding was thought to be linked to other criminal inclinations…. Nearly a century and a half before the infamy of Willy Horton, a portrait emerged of Blacks as highly prone to criminality, and generally beyond the scope of rehabilitation.

Like other negative racial stereotypes, Black criminality has proven to be a long-lived feature of American culture. One scholar, writing in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, observes:

In American society, a prevalent representation of crime is that it is overwhelmingly committed by young Black men. Subsequently, the familiarity many Americans have with the image of a young Black male as a violent and menacing street thug is fueled and perpetuated by typifications everywhere. In fact, perceptions about the presumed racial identity of criminals may be so ingrained in public consciousness that race does not even need to be specifically mentioned for a connection to be made between the two because it seems that talking about crime is talking about race.[9]

The myth and stereotype of Black criminality was reinforced and magnified during the 1980s and ’90s when crack cocaine became a national obsession. The media depicted crack as a Black, inner-city phenomenon. Local and national news shows were rife with footage of police breaking down the doors of “crack houses” and of Black and Brown men and women being carted off in handcuffs. Time and Newsweek each devoted five cover stories to crack and the drug crisis in 1986 alone, and CBS aired 48 Hours on Crack Street, featuring Black drug dealers. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes:

Thousands of stories about the crack crisis flooded the airwaves and newsstands, and the stories had a clear racial subtext. The articles typically featured black ‘crack whores,’ ‘crack babies,’ and ‘gangbangers,’ reinforcing already prevalent racial stereotypes of black women as irresponsible, selfish ‘welfare queens,’ and black men as ‘predators’—part of an inferior and criminal subculture.[10]

Intensified street-level enforcement of the drug laws in low-income communities of color filled the jails and prisons with Black and brown people, further reifying the myth of Black criminality. Politicians, eager to prove their anti-crime bona fides, introduced and passed a raft of new drug laws, lengthening sentences and eliminating parole. By 1994, more Americans named crime as “the most important problem facing this country today” than any other problem, and 85 percent of the public thought courts were not harsh enough. That year a bipartisan Congress would pass and President Clinton would sign the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which incentivized states to enact mandatory sentencing laws and pumped close to $10 billion into new prison construction. That same year, the U.S. Justice Department announced that the prison population topped 1 million for the first time in U.S. history. What has come to be known as “mass incarceration” was well underway.

Then, in 1995, the myth received another boost. In November of that year, Princeton political scientist John DiLulio published an essay that would receive enormous media attention. Titled “The Coming of the Super-Predator” and appearing in The Weekly Standard, a then new conservative magazine, DiLulio darkly warned that like a contagion, Black criminality would spread beyond the ghetto and into “even the rural heartland”:

We’re not just talking about teenagers. We’re talking about boys whose voices have yet to change. We’re talking about elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches. We’re talking about kids who have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future. In short, we’re talking big trouble that hasn’t yet begun to crest. And make no mistake. While the trouble will be greatest in black inner-city neighborhoods, other places are also certain to have burgeoning youth-crime problems that will spill over into upscale central-city districts, inner-ring suburbs, and even the rural heartland.

The term was quickly adopted by the media; researchers found nearly 300 uses of the word “super-predator” in forty leading newspapers and magazines from 1995 to 2000.[11] Those researchers point out that just a few years before, the news media had introduced the terms “wilding” and “wolf pack” to the national vocabulary, to describe five teenagers—four Black and one Latino— who were convicted and later exonerated of the rape of a woman in New York’s Central Park. This incident incited sensationalist coverage that declared the teenagers guilty before trial and led then hotel mogul Donald Trump to call for their execution. Kim Taylor-Thompson, a law professor at New York University, noted: “This kind of animal imagery was already in the conversation. The super-predator language began a process of allowing us to suspend our feelings of empathy towards young people of color.”

This was the political and cultural environment in which the ACLU and its allies sought to build public opposition to racial profiling. Racial profiling and the myth of black criminality were, and are, inextricably intertwined. By focusing on how a system preyed upon the innocent, the campaign to end racial profiling disrupted the myth and complicated things, allowing a new narrative about race and criminal justice to emerge. The mistreatment of Black people by law enforcement was not a matter of a few bad apples among the police; it was a matter of policy decisions that were made by those in authority. In spite of a deluge of dog whistles and overtly racialized media coverage linking criminality with Black people, a very substantial majority of Americans—81 percent according to the Gallup poll—did not want the police to target people based on skin color. Racial profiling was wrong.


In August 2001 hearings were held before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary concerning the End Racial Profiling Act of 2001. The Act, which was sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Rep. Conyers and had bipartisan sponsors from both chambers, had been hammered out with input from civil rights and civil liberties advocates as well as law enforcement experts and practitioners. It would have required federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to take steps to cease and prevent the practice, including implementing effective complaint procedures and disciplinary procedures for officers who engaged in the practice.[12] In his welcoming remarks, Sen. Feingold said, “Racial profiling is a shame on our society that must be stopped. It is unjust. It is un-American.” He noted that, “There is an emerging consensus in America that racial profiling is wrong and should be brought to an end” and emphasized the profound harms it caused to African Americans:

I have also heard from African American parents that they feel they must do something that would not even cross the minds of white parents: instruct their children from a very early age about the prospect and even likelihood of being stopped by the police when they haven’t done anything wrong. That to me is a chilling fact. Racial profiling leads to our children being taught from an early age, as a matter of self-protection, that they will not be fairly treated by law enforcement based on the content of their character, but instead will be seen as suspicious based on the color of their skin.[13]

By September 10 headlines indicated that the Act and various efforts around the country to bring racial profiling under control were underway and still had considerable media traction:

  • “NJ kicks off two-day summit on racial profiling,” The Associated Press, September 10, 2001
  • “Racial Profiling New Police Policy is a Good Step Toward Ending Abusive Practice,” Editorial, The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), September 10, 2001
  • “Justice Dept. to begin nationwide study of racial profiling with voluntary participation by police,” The Associated Press, September 10, 2001
  • “Forum on Racial Profiling Aims to Ask Questions,” The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), September 10, 2001
  • Officials answer racial profiling questions at NAACP event,” The Kansas City Star, September 10, 2001

Then 9/11 happened.

The events of 9/11 and its aftermath stymied the campaign to end racial profiling. The new narrative—that racial profiling was systemic, wrong, unconstitutional, and un-American—was not yet strong enough or capacious enough to resist the calls for the widespread ethnic profiling that was a key feature of the domestic “war on terror.” In a white paper published by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the country’s largest and most diverse civil rights coalition deplored the breakdown of a “national consensus against racial profiling”:

In the months preceding September 11, 2001, a national consensus had developed on the need to end racial profiling. The enactment of a comprehensive federal statute banning the practice seemed imminent. However, on 9/11, everything changed. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the federal government focused massive investigatory resources on Arabs and Muslims, singling them out for questioning, detention, and other law enforcement activities. Many of these counterterrorism initiatives involved racial profiling.[14]

Ethnic profiling, by both law enforcement and the general public, would go on for years, and although it was challenged in numerous lawsuits and criticized by a broad coalition that included leaders representing the gamut of religious faiths, most Americans accepted it as a necessary tool to prevent new acts of terrorism. On the 1-year anniversary of the attack, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey and found that two-thirds of Americans favored allowing airport personnel to do extra checks on passengers “who appear to be of Middle-Eastern descent.”[15]

The national debate over immigration, which reached a.crescendo in the spring of 2007 when the U.S. Senate was considering the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, further weakened the nation’s commitment to end racial and ethnic profiling. The Act, which had the support of President Bush during his final year in office, would have provided legal status and a path to citizenship for the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants. In spite of the fact that public opinion surveys showed substantial support for comprehensive reform, the anti-immigrant movement led by media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly mobilized followers to inundate the Senate with anti-reform mail and the Act was shelved.

In this increasingly hostile political environment, the ethnic profiling of suspected “illegal aliens” reached new heights in 2010 with Arizona’s passage of the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070). The law sanctioned profiling by requiring state law enforcement officers to determine an individual’s immigration status during a “lawful stop, detention or arrest” when there was “reasonable suspicion that the individual is an illegal immigrant.” The law was immediately denounced by immigrants’ rights organizations and their allies and several lawsuits were quickly filed, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice, challenging the law’s constitutionality. But polls taken during the controversy showed that a majority of Americans supported the law, including 70 percent of Arizona voters.

It is fair to say that during the first decade of the twenty-first century, the nation’s commitment to ending racial profiling was in retreat. The issue did not disappear, and flare-ups such as the arrest of Henry Louis Gates as he entered his own home and the subsequent “beer summit” held by President Obama continued to draw headlines. But the narrative that had propelled so much discussion, protest, and policy advocacy during the period leading up to 9/11 had lost its urgency as the public discourse shifted its focus to national security, immigration, and other hot button issues.

Most of the laws passed by states mandating the collection of data stayed in effect for just 2 or 3 years as their purpose was to determine whether law enforcement was engaging in racial profiling. In most instances, the data were never even analyzed, and when they were, few meaningful steps were taken to address the racial disparities that were found.[16] North Carolina, which was the very first state to enact a data collection law, had accumulated data on 20 million traffic stops before an analysis was finally undertaken by three academics in 2015.[17] Although it was reintroduced year after year by Rep. Conyers, the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act was never passed. By 2011, when The Leadership Conference issued its white paper urging the restoration of a “national consensus” to end racial profiling and the passage of The End Racial Profiling Act (of 2010), the campaign was sputtering.


In early 2012, a tragedy rekindled the campaign to end racial profiling. On the night of February 26, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American high school student, was followed, shot, and killed by self-styled neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Protests erupted nationwide as the police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman. From the start, Martin was said to be a victim of racial profiling—a young Black man wearing a hoodie and walking alone in a gated community. The myth of Black criminality was never far from the surface in such scenarios. At a demonstration at the state capitol in Tallahassee 3 weeks after the killing protesters called for a task force to be formed to address racial profiling: “Trayvon Martin is dead because of racial profiling,” one of the organizers said. “We all deal with it every single day and we want the governor to pay attention to that.”[18] Finally, after weeks of nationwide “Justice for Trayvon” demonstrations and an announcement by the U.S. Justice Department of plans to investigate the killing, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.

The case went to trial in June 2013 and received massive coverage in the media, and the issues of race and racial profiling were front and center. “Zimmerman and profiling go on trial,” read one headline in USA Today. A CNN reporter described it as the case that “sparked a protest and passionate debate about race and racial profiling.” So potent was the term “racial profiling” that the trial judge granted the defense’s request that it not be allowed and ruled that only the word “profiling” could be used by the prosecution. On July 13, 2013 the jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges, provoking a nationwide outcry. Protests were held in more than 100 cities. In her statement following the verdict, Roslyn Brock, chairman of the NAACP said, “This case has re-energized the movement to end racial profiling in the United States.” And on July 14, Patrisse Cullors, an artist, author, and educator, reposted a message about the acquittal originally posted on Facebook by activist Alicia Garcia and used the hashtag #blacklivesmatter for the first time.

In the years since #blacklivesmatter went viral, the myth of Black criminality has been under siege and the narrative communicated by the original campaign against racial profiling—that it was systemic and based on anti-Black animus—has made enormous headway in the public discourse. A public opinion survey carried out by the Washington Post in June 2020 asked: “Do you think the killing of George Floyd was an isolated incident or is a sign of broader problems in treatment of black Americans by police?” 69 percent chose the latter explanation.[19] Another poll taken during the same period found that 76 percent of Americans considered racism and discrimination a “big problem,” up from 51 percent in 2015.[20] Brittany Packnett Cunningham, co-founder of Campaign Zero,[21] explains:

Six years ago, people were not using the phrase systemic racism beyond activist circles and academic circles. And now we are in a place where it is readily on people’s lips, where folks from CEOs to grandmothers up the street are talking about it, reading about it, researching on it, listening to conversations about it.[22]

Since its birth in 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement has, in essence, accomplished what the original ACLU campaign sought to accomplish: to expose a “secret kept from most Americans and virtually from all white Americans” and to “spread this news around”—but today with the benefit of the smartphone, police body cameras, and social media.

The ability to capture not only police interactions, but also ordinary or “casual” acts of profiling and discrimination carried out by white members of the public—for example, “shopping while Black,” “jogging while Black,” and “birdwatching while Black” —and then to share the videos via different social media platforms has accelerated the narrative shift in ways that would have seemed inconceivable in 1999. In September 2020 the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution hosted a webinar on the role of technology in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Dr. Rashawn Ray, a sociologist and fellow at the Brookings Institution explained that he and a group of researchers have been “collecting and curating data on social media and the Black Lives Matter movement”:

We have a large digital archive of Tweets, starting in 2014 when Michael Brown was killed, and we’ve just continued to curate those data, millions and millions of Tweets…. The way that the movement for Black lives has been able to use social media is unprecedented. Let’s go back to five or six years ago. For Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and so many others who weren’t so fortunate as to have a hashtag, the level of public support at that time was significantly lower. People were trying to figure out Black Lives Matter. But support for the Black Lives Matter movement has significantly increased in a short period of time because people affiliated with the movement have figured out how to use social media. They’ve particularly figured out how to use social media algorithms. So, part of what happened more recently with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor is that whether people are using hashtags on Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, or TikTok, the algorithm loads up additional videos for people to see to show that what happened to George Floyd is not isolated. That instead, it’s part of a broader pattern of systemic racism and police brutality. Not only that—the videos also show white people behaving in similar ways, but getting treated significantly differently than Black people. And I think that’s one of the biggest things. And it’s led to this racial awakening.”


As the Black Lives Matter movement propelled the issue of systemic racism into global public discourse, a smaller subsection of social media content has focused specifically on the everyday profiling of people of color. The so-named “Karen” video has become a regular trending topic on popular social media channels in recent years and points to an important shift in public understanding of the issue. The proliferation of smartphones has enabled people of color to capture not only instances of racial profiling carried out by the police and other government authorities, but also everyday instances of racism perpetrated by members of the general public.

While the exact origin of the term “Karen” (and the male equivalent “Ken”) remains a topic of debate, it is generally used to describe white women who behave in an entitled, rude, or authoritative way, usually toward people of color and other traditionally marginalized groups. Beginning as a pejorative, “Karen” has evolved into a catchall to describe a broader range of entitled behaviors (and even a hairstyle), with “mask Karen” (white women caught on camera refusing to wear masks in public in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic) being the latest example of the evolution of the term. As noted by journalist Helen Lewis in her piece on the development of the term and its link to a longer history of racism and sexism in America:

One phrase above all has come to encapsulate the essence of a Karen: She is the kind of woman who asks to speak to the manager. In doing so, Karen is causing trouble for others. It is taken as read that her complaint is bogus, or at least disproportionate to the vigor with which she pursues it. The target of Karen’s entitled anger is typically presumed to be a racial minority or a working-class person, and so she is executing a covert maneuver: using her white femininity to present herself as a victim, when she is really the aggressor.[23]

The genesis of the “Karen” video and its connection to wider narratives about racial profiling are visible in social media and traditional news media. References to “Permit Patty” and “BBQ Becky” first emerged in news media coverage in 2018 as a result of several viral videos depicting Black people being confronted by white women for engaging in everyday activities. One of most widely shared videos was uploaded in April 2018 and captured Jennifer Schulte, later dubbed “BBQ Becky,” calling the police on two Black men for the offense of using a charcoal grill in a designated grilling area in Lake Merritt Park in Oakland, California. The video of the encounter, which shows Schulte being questioned by a bystander for her decision to call the police, went viral and gave way to a surge of articles and “BBQ Becky” memes (often depicting Schulte calling the police on historical Black figures). Nearly 200 articles were published in mainstream news media in 2018 alone about Jennifer Schulte and other individuals caught on video calling the police on Black people.

“Permit Patty” and “BBQ Becky” have been joined by dozens of other viral videos depicting Black people being questioned and threatened in public parks; swimming pools; or, at times, in their own apartment buildings. Between 2018 and 2020, nearly 500,000 unique social media posts were generated referring to “Karens,” “BBQ Becky,” and other popular variants. At the same time, just over 3,700 news media articles have been published on the phenomena, with some of the headlines including:

  • “BBQ Becky, White Woman Who Called Cops on Black BBQ, 911 Audio Released: ‘I’m Really Scared! Come Quick!’,” Newsweek, September 4, 2018
  • “What exactly is a ‘Karen’ and where did the meme come from?” BBC News, July 30, 2020
  • “A Brief History of Karen,” New York Times, July 31, 2020
  • “The Mythology of Karen: The meme is so powerful because of the awkward status of white women,” The Atlantic, August 24, 2020

The most recent video to go viral featured Amy Cooper in Central Park calling the police on birdwatcher Christian Cooper after he requested that she put her dog on a leash. Amy Cooper was subsequently charged with filing a false police report following widespread media coverage of the encounter. Her case was dismissed after she completed therapeutic and educational programs on racial justice.

Beyond providing a space for Black and brown Americans to document their experiences and uplift the casual and, at times, absurd manifestations of racism, “Karen” videos have resulted in several municipalities across the country passing or proposing ordinances to tackle the issues of discriminatory 911 calls. The CAREN Act (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) introduced by Shamann Walton, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, is just one example of such measures. While online discussion of racial profiling remains overwhelmingly focused on law enforcement, an exploration of trending topics associated with racial profiling since 2018 reveals an important shift in the framing of the issue and a 98 percent increase in references to the “consequences” of racial profiling. Other notable shifts include the following:


In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson shows how America, now and throughout its history, has been shaped by a hidden caste system in which Black people occupy the lowest rung. She compares America to an old house in which signs of deterioration may not be visible. You may not want to investigate “what is behind this discolored patch of brick,” but “choose not to look at your own peril.” She writes, “You cannot fix a problem until and unless you can see it.” Profiling is, and has always been, one of the many tools used to maintain systemic discrimination in our country and to keep Black people “in their place.”

Racial progress in this country has been a maddeningly slow process punctuated by periods of upheaval. Decades can pass without real change, causing conditions to worsen, and then events occur that bring the festering problem into the light. Such was the televised spectacle of fire hoses and dogs being turned on nonviolent protesters in the South in the 1960s, the vicious beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, and the murder of George Floyd in 2020. The Black Lives Matter movement is carrying the campaign to end racial profiling forward by exposing its ubiquity and its dire consequences. Surveys taken in June 2020 during the massive protests following George Floyd’s murder showed that a majority of white adults supported the movement.[24] And the participation of tens of thousands of white people in protests throughout the nation was unprecedented. Along with exposure comes narrative shift. Racial profiling is real, it is wrong, and it must end.

Request Interview Transcripts

1 A Gallup poll released on December 9, 1999 showed that 59 percent of the public believed racial profiling was widespread, and an overwhelming 81 percent disapproved of its use by police.

2 David A. Harris, “When Success Breeds Attack: The Coming Backlash Against Racial Profiling Studies,” Michigan Journal of Race and Law, V. 6, 2001:237.

3 In August 2001, the End Racial Profiling Act was introduced in both houses but did not pass. The Act has been reintroduced virtually every year since.

4 Harris, p. 108

5 Wilkins is now a federal judge serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

6 Alexander and Elinson, unpublished manuscript.

7 Justice Louis Brandeis.

8 Bureau of Justice Statistics Fact Sheet: “Traffic Stop Data Collection Policies for State Police, 2004.”

9 Kelly Welch, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 23, August 2007.

10 P. 52

11 Carroll Bogert and Lynnell Hancock, “Superpredator: The Media Myth that Demonized a Generation of Black Youth,” The Marshall Project, November 20, 2020.

12 The bill also conditioned certain federal funds to state and local law enforcement agencies on their compliance with these requirements and authorized the attorney general to provide incentive grants to assist agencies with their compliance with this Act. Finally, the bill would have required the attorney general to report to Congress 2 years after enactment of the Act and each year thereafter on racial profiling in the United States.

13 BANNING RACIAL PROFILING, Federal Document Clearing House Congressional Testimony, August 1, 2001, Wednesday.

14 “Restoring a National Consensus: The Need to End Racial Profiling in America,” The Leadership Conference, March 2011.


16 David A. Harris, “Racial Profiling: Past, Present, and Future?” American Bar Association, January 21, 2020.

17 Frank R. Baumgartner, Derek A Epp, and Kelsey Shoub, Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race. Cambridge University Press, 2018. The study’s conclusion: “When we look across all police agencies in the entire state, and no matter if we base our estimates of the population on census data or more refined estimates of who is driving, we see strong, consistent, and powerful evidence that black and white drivers face dramatically different odds of being pulled over.” P. 77.

18 Tallahassee Democrat.




22 Adam Serwer, “The New Reconstruction,” The Atlantic, October 2020 issue.

23 Helen Lewis, “The Mythology of Karen: The meme is so powerful because of the awkward status of white women,” The Atlantic, August 2020.

Gun Politics and Narrative Shift

Gun violence in America claims 38,000 lives every year—an average of 100 per day—and the proliferation of firearms is astronomical. It is estimated that there are 393 million guns in circulation in the United States.[1] Americans are twenty-five times more likely to be killed in a gun homicide than people in other high-income countries. For decades, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully obstructed the passage of laws restricting gun ownership in any way. So successful have its efforts been that for years the NRA has been dubbed by the media as “the most powerful lobby in America,” a mantle the organization has worn with pride. Its “scorecard,” in which the NRA grades politicians from A to F depending on their responses to a candidate questionnaire, alongside the millions of dollars it spends on federal and state election campaigns, have, until recently, effectively muzzled lawmakers. This is in spite of the fact that a majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws.[2] One resulting dominant narrative has been that any politician who crosses the NRA will lose their bid for election or reelection.

The power of this narrative was on display in 2013 after the Sandy Hook tragedy in which twenty young children and six adults were murdered in their elementary school. Public support for a federal law to require universal background checks for all gun sales stood at 90 percent, but a modest bipartisan bill to that effect introduced by Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Toomey (R-PA) failed to pass after the NRA announced its opposition and sent an e-mail to all senators warning them the organization would “score” their vote; a vote in favor of the bill would negatively affect their NRA rating and lead to retaliation in their next election from an influential and united segment of their constituency: NRA members and supporters.

2013 was also a year in which there were stirrings of a new grassroots gun safety movement that would begin to challenge and disrupt the expectations around the NRA’s power and consequently the old narrative. This case study describes the ongoing shift that is taking place around one of the most controversial issues facing the country.

  • Clark Neily, libertarian attorney behind the Heller lawsuit, Vice President for Criminal Justice, Cato Institute
  • Robyn Thomas, Executive Director, Giffords Law Center
  • Lori Haas, Senior Director of Advocacy, National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
  • Josh Horwitz, Executive Director, National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
  • Chris Murphy, The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy. Random House, 2020.
  • Michael Waldman, The Second Amendment: A Biography. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
  • Shannon Watts, Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World. Harper One, 2019.
  • Adam Winkler, Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

To identify media trends, we developed a series of search terms and used the LexisNexis database, which provides access to more than 40,000 sources, including up-to-date and archived news. For social media trends we utilized the social listening tool Brandwatch, a leading social media analytics software that aggregates publicly available social media data.


The national debate over gun policy did not really begin until the 1970s. Before that, the National Rifle Association, which was founded in 1871 to promote gun safety and marksmanship among gun owners, did not actively oppose government regulation. The slogan prominently posted in 1958 on its then new headquarters in Washington, D.C., stated the organization’s mission succinctly: FIREARMS SAFETY EDUCATION, MARKSMANSHIP TRAINING, SHOOTING FOR RECREATION. But elements within the NRA began to press for a more political role after Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, the first federal gun control law in 30 years. The law was passed in the wake of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the wave of civil disturbances that then swept the country. It banned gun shipments across state lines to anyone other than federally licensed dealers, banned gun sales to “prohibited persons” (felons, the mentally ill, substance abusers. and juveniles), and expanded the federal licensing system.

When the Gun Control Act was adopted, Franklin Orth, the executive vice president of the NRA, stood behind it. According to Orth, while certain features of the law “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”[3] But some rank and file members rankled not only at the new law, but also at the very idea of gun control. Adam Winkler explains their growing opposition and hostility to the organization’s leadership:

In a time of rising crime rates, easy access to drugs, and the breakdown of the inner city, the NRA should be fighting to secure Americans the ability to defend themselves against criminals. The NRA, they thought, ‘needed to spend less time and energy on paper targets and ducks and more time blasting away at gun control legislation.’[4]


With its new, militant leadership, the NRA’s membership tripled, its fundraising reached new heights, and its political influence increased. The organization became a prominent member of the burgeoning New Right with its contempt for “big government” in general and any gun regulation in particular. The 1972 Republican platform had supported gun control, pledging to “prevent criminal access to all weapons…with such federal law as necessary to enable the states to meet their responsibilities.” But by the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980, the platform stated, “We believe the right of citizens to keep and bear arms must be preserved. Accordingly, we oppose federal registration of firearms.” That year the NRA gave Reagan its first-ever presidential endorsement. A year later, President Reagan narrowly avoided an assassination attempt that grievously wounded his press secretary, James Brady. The shooter, John Hinckley, Jr., suffered from mental illness. He had purchased a .22-caliber revolver for $29 from a pawn shop in Texas.

The eventual passage of the Brady Bill, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1993,[5] represented a rare federal legislative defeat for the NRA, but its fortunes soon improved. In the 1994 midterms, Democrats suffered defeats in congressional races, and Bill Clinton declared it was the gun issue, more than any other, that was to blame.[6] After Republicans took control of Congress, Newt Gingrich announced, “As long as I am Speaker of this House, no gun control legislation is going to move.” From that point on, the “gun lobby,” dubbed “the most powerful lobby in D.C.,” exerted outsized control over Congress by making support of virtually any form of gun regulation a political third rail.

On April 20, 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two 17 year olds, shot and killed twelve students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado before turning the guns on themselves. It was the second-worst gun massacre at a school in U.S. history and it shocked the nation. The shooters were able to buy their weapons because of a loophole in the Brady Bill that allowed “private sales” at gun shows to go forward without background checks. The NRA’s response was to go ahead with its annual meeting in nearby Denver in spite of calls for it to be relocated or postponed. On the day of the meeting, the Knight Ridder headline read, “Still grieving Colorado turns out to protest NRA meeting; Gun group remains defiant as 8,000 oppose presence in light of Columbine tragedy.” Charlton Heston, president of the NRA at the time, reassured his supporters, saying, “Each horrible act can’t become an ax for opportunists to cleave the very Bill of Rights that binds us.” The GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE; PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE bumper sticker made its appearance, and the NRA continued to oppose legislation to close the private sale loophole.

During the post-Columbine period, the NRA’s power and influence continued to grow, not wane. President Clinton, who was in the throes of his own impeachment proceedings, pushed to close the Brady Bill loophole by requiring universal background checks, but the NRA’s congressional allies killed the bill. The organization was bigger and richer than ever. Flush with membership contributions and large donations from the firearms industry, with active and vocal chapters in all 50 states and with a solid core of single-issue voters, the narrative promoted by the NRA that it was “the nation’s most powerful lobby” was carried by the media and reinforced each time a candidate with a poor NRA rating lost an election.

By the year 2000, the NRA’s political influence was undeniable, and it turned its sights to defeating Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for president. The organization spent millions on behalf of George W. Bush and Republican candidates in Senate races. In a leaked video circulated during the campaign, a high-ranking NRA official claimed, “If we win, we’ll have a president where we work out of their office—unbelievably friendly relations.” At the NRA’s 2000 annual meeting, Charlton Heston, who was to become its president, gave a legendary speech whose soaring rhetoric summed up the gun lobby’s philosophy:

Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blue steel, something that gives the most common man the most uncommon of freedoms…when ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty. As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed—and especially for you, Mr. Gore.

He then held up a replica of a colonial rifle and exclaimed, “From my cold, dead hands!”

The NRA’s political power was solidified during the first decade of the new millennium. Early in his first administration George W. Bush signed a law providing broad immunity from lawsuits for gun manufacturers and sellers, and the NRA’s coffers increased with funding from the industry. Republican candidates came to rely more and more on gun lobby contributions; in the year 2000, the NRA contributed close to $3 million to Republican campaigns, representing 92 percent of its total contributions.[7] In 2004, the assault weapons ban, originally passed in 1994, was allowed to expire. At the state level, the NRA successfully blocked the passage of gun control measures and campaigned for and won state constitutional protections for gun owners. By the mid-2000s, all but six states guaranteed a right to bear arms as a matter of state constitutional law, and nearly all of those explicitly protected an individual right. The stage was now set for a reckoning on the meaning of the Second Amendment.

For 200 years the Second Amendment of the Constitution was virtually invisible. It had come to be known as the “lost amendment” because it was almost never written about or cited by scholars and legal practitioners. Although for decades the NRA had invoked the individual right to bear arms, that concept was not supported by constitutional scholars or by the courts. Rather, the prevailing view was that the Amendment protected the “collective right” of the states to maintain their own militia, like the National Guard.

In the early 1990s the NRA funded a new group, Academics for the Second Amendment, and launched an annual “Stand Up for the Second Amendment” essay contest with a $25,000 cash prize. These efforts bore fruit. During the 1990s, eighty-seven law review articles were published and a majority of fifty-eight adopted the individual-rights position. The dial was moving; the NRA’s interpretation of the amendment was gaining ground in academic circles. In 2001, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (in Louisiana) became the first federal appeals court to adopt the individual-rights view.[8] By the mid-2000s two lawyers from the libertarian Institute for Justice[9] decided that the time was right to challenge the most restrictive gun law in the country on Second Amendment grounds.

The Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 was passed by the District of Columbia City Council in 1976. The law banned residents from owning handguns, automatic firearms, or high-capacity semi-automatic firearms and prohibited possession of unregistered firearms. The law also required firearms kept in the home to be “unloaded, disassembled, or bound by a trigger lock or similar device,” essentially a prohibition on the use of firearms for self-defense in the home. A challenge to the law, orchestrated by Institute for Justice lawyers Clark Neily and Steve Simpson, began to wend its way through the courts and was accepted for review by the Supreme Court in its 2008 term.[10] On June 26, 2008, the Court announced its ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller. In a 5-4 majority opinion authored by Justice Scalia, the Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, unconnected with service in a militia, for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home, and that the D.C. law was therefore unconstitutional.

Although the Court’s opinion acknowledged that, “[l]ike most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited” and warned that “[n]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” the gun lobby and its supporters in Congress declared total victory, further strengthening the narrative that the NRA was in control of the gun debate. Over and over again, they invoked “freedom” as the core value protected by the decision:

This is a great moment in American history. It vindicates individual Americans all over this country who have always known that this is their freedom worth protecting.


The Court made the right decision today because federal, state and local governments should not be able to arbitrarily take away freedoms that are reserved for the people by our Constitution.


Today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of freedom and democracy by overturning this unlawful ban.


As we in Congress consider new legislation, we could take a lesson from the Supreme Court today by ensuring that the freedoms granted in the Constitution are a guiding light to the formation of our nation’s legislation.


Following the Columbine massacre, mass shootings occurred in the United States at a steady pace. The year 2007 was an especially deadly year, with four separate incidents including the Virginia Tech mass shooting that left thirty-two people dead.[11] Nevertheless, the NRA’s influence did not wane. In April 2009, a year after the Supreme Court’s Second Amendment decision and one year into the first Obama Administration, in an article entitled “The Public Takes Conservative Turn on Gun Control,” the Pew Research Center reported that:

For the first time in a Pew Research survey, nearly as many people believe it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (45%) than to control gun ownership (49%). As recently as a year ago, 58% said it was more important to control gun ownership while 37% said it was more important to protect the right to own guns.[12]

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a total of 166 men, women, and children had perished in mass shootings. But while those incidents received the most media coverage, they represented and still represent a tiny fraction of the incidents of gun violence in the country. In 2010, for example, there were 31,672 deaths in the United States from firearm injuries, mainly through suicide (19,392) and homicide (11,078), according to Centers for Disease Control compilation of data from death certificates. The remaining firearm deaths were attributed to accidents, shootings by police, and unknown causes.

Guns were, and still are, by far the most common means of suicide, and the majority of intimate partner homicides are with guns. The number of firearm deaths has increased every year since 2000 and is especially dire in low wealth communities of color. Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by gun violence. They experience nearly 10 times the gun homicides, 15 times the gun assaults, and 3 times the fatal police shootings as white Americans. Black men make up 52% of all gun homicide victims in the United States, despite comprising less than 7% of the population.

But in spite of these damning statistics, as 2008 rolled into 2009 the NRA was at the pinnacle of its power, and the public’s support for stricter gun laws was at its lowest ebb in 20 years. According to the Gallup Poll, in 1991, 78 percent of the public felt that “the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict.” By 2009 support for stricter laws had dropped to 49 percent and dropped another five points by 2010. At the same time, the NRA was receiving millions of dollars from arms manufacturers including Smith & Wesson, the Beretta Group, and Browning.[13] During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama released an approving statement when the Supreme Court announced its Second Amendment decision, and he did not campaign on the gun control issue. During his first term in office, Obama did not push for any gun control measures despite the continuing carnage: mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas (thirteen dead); a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater (twelve dead); and the Tucson, Arizona shooting that left six dead and grievously injured Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. During the run up to the 2010 midterm elections, Republican and Democratic candidates alike sought donations and approval ratings from the NRA and openly opposed gun control measures. When the Republicans won back the House, the writing was on the wall: no restrictions on gun ownership were going to pass on their watch.


On December 14, 2012 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Fairfield County, Connecticut armed with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle and ten magazines with thirty rounds each. He forced his way into two first grade classrooms and methodically killed twenty children between the ages of 6 and 7 and six adult staff members. Earlier that day he had shot and killed his mother, and after the school massacre, he shot and killed himself. The nation reacted in horror, and the tragedy ushered in a period of soul searching during which the “thoughts and prayers” traditionally offered up by political leaders were soundly rejected as inadequate by a grieving community.

President Barack Obama gave a televised address on the day of the shootings and said, “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics” (emphasis added). The NRA stayed silent for a week; then, on December 21, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre issued a statement calling on Congress “to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation,” claiming that gun-free school zones attracted killers and that another gun ban would not protect Americans.

The Sandy Hook tragedy proved to be a watershed moment. In the words of Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), a passionate advocate for gun safety, “there was reason to believe that Sandy Hook, by itself, had fundamentally changed the politics of gun violence.”[14] On the morning of the shooting, in Zionsville, Indiana, Shannon Watts, a mother of five with a background in public relations, stood before her TV “transfixed by the live footage of children being marched out of their school into the woods for safety.” In her 2019 book, Fight Like a Mother, Watts expresses what millions of Americans were feeling that day:

I actually said out loud, ‘Why does this keep happening?’…. In my head, I heard only one word in response to my question, and that word was Enough. Enough waiting for legislators to pass better gun laws. Enough hoping that things would somehow get better. Enough swallowing my frustration when politicians offered their thoughts and prayers but no action. Enough listening to the talking heads on the news channels calling for more guns and fewer laws. Enough complacency. Enough standing on the sidelines.

That night, Watts created a new Facebook page called One Million Moms for Gun Control and the “likes” began pouring in.[15] “Women everywhere were asking how they could join my organization, and I didn’t even realize I’d started one,” she writes. Soon renamed Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, its message spread rapidly on social media, and a reinvigorated grassroots movement began to take hold.

Sandy Hook also birthed another organization that was to become a major force in the gun safety movement. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, still undergoing rehabilitation 2 years after she was shot in the head outside a Tucson supermarket, and her husband, NASA astronaut Captain Mark Kelly, now a U.S. senator, were moved to action. In 2013 they founded the organization now known as Giffords. Its mission statement boldly and explicitly took on the powerful gun lobby:

Giffords is fighting to end the gun lobby’s stranglehold on our political system. We’re daring to dream what a future free from gun violence looks like. We’re going to end this crisis, and we’re going to do it together.

Giffords and Moms Demand Action joined the established gun control organizations—including Brady[16], the National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence[17], and Mayors Against Illegal Guns[18]—to breathe new life into the movement. And they understood that above all, they had to challenge the narrative that for years had been a barrier to the passage of any gun safety laws: The NRA is the most powerful lobby in the nation, and any politician crossing it or not doing its bidding will be punished.

In the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook, public support for stricter laws covering the sale of firearms shot up to 58 percent, and nine out of ten Americans supported universal background checks. But in spite of public opinion and the demands of the bereaved parents that something had to be done, the effort to close the Brady loophole, a relatively modest goal that would require background checks for gun show and internet sales, still could not command a majority of votes in Congress. As mentioned earlier, a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) failed to pass in April 2013 after the NRA announced its opposition and sent an e-mail to all senators warning them the organization would “score” their vote, meaning it would factor into the NRA’s election-year grading system.

The bill failed by only six votes, but gun safety activists realized they needed a new strategy. “After that tough loss, we turned our focus to making challenges at the state level,” said Shannon Watts. Given the federal government’s inaction, several states had already begun to pass significant reforms to rein in gun violence. That year the governors of Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland signed new gun safety laws, and two out of three of them were re-elected (the third, Martin O’Malley of Maryland, was term-limited).


The Manchin-Toomey debacle may have seemed like an NRA victory, but it actually signaled the beginning of a historic realignment in gun politics. The gun rights movement’s political influence had long been attributed to the “intensity gap.” The NRA’s members were not that numerous—it had about 5 million dues-paying members—but what the organization lacked in numbers it made up for in intensity. Its members were highly motivated single-issue voters who could be mobilized rapidly to respond to calls to action. According to Robyn Thomas of the Giffords Law Center:

I’ve been showing up at hearings for a long, long time. For many years it was me and the gun rights activists. They show up in droves to every hearing, big or small. I could testify at a small city council or at a federal congressional hearing and in both cases, it was rooms filled with gun rights activists and no one on our side.

The fate of Machin-Toomey demonstrated how damaging the intensity gap was to any meaningful policy change. Ladd Everitt, then Communications Director for the National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, lamented:

We’ve always been too polite, by appealing to politicians to do the right thing…appealing to their conscience and hoping they’d come around even when the evidence suggested they wouldn’t. We went too far into the realm of educating the public and ceded the field of politics to the NRA.

While plenty of people support stricter gun laws, few advocated for them or were motivated enough by them to change their voting behavior unless they were personally affected. In the face of overwhelming but passive public support for universal background checks—90 percent favored universal background checks as did 75 percent of NRA members—the gun lobby prevailed. But the status quo was about to be disrupted. Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, describes the intense public response to Congress’s failure to act:

It wasn’t just the Sandy Hook shooting itself. It was the absolute horror when the Senate did nothing about it. But what happened was people were so appalled that they joined and donated to the movement. They became involved, and our movement became so much bigger and so much stronger as a result.

Moms Demand Action scored some early victories that demonstrated the savvy and potential power of a grassroots movement that united women (and men) from all over the country—north, south, east and west, rural, suburban, and urban. Social media was key to the movement’s success. Within months of its first appearance on Facebook it had attracted tens of thousands of supporters. “Stroller jams” became a popular tactic. Moms would show up for legislative hearings with their babies and toddlers in strollers and, “as a result, lawmakers didn’t have any room to maneuver past us; they had to stop and talk to us.”[19] Activists targeted companies that allowed open carry on their premises.[20] Their campaign “Skip Starbucks Saturday” went viral and forced Starbucks to change its policy and ban all guns from its stores. The organization became adept at using social media to encourage corporate responsibility. Using the hashtag #EndFacebookGunShows, it generated enough support to compel Facebook to announce a series of new policies around gun sales, including deleting posts offering guns for sale without a background check. Its #OffTarget petition garnered nearly 400,000 signatures and soon Target announced:

Starting today we will respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target—even in communities where it is permitted by law…. This is a complicated issue, but it boils down to a simple belief: Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create.

These examples of corporate responsibility generated a buzz in both traditional and online media. There were instances of counter-demonstrations by open carry activists who showed up en masse at stores and restaurants carrying guns and rifles. These incidents brought more media attention to the open carry debate and more opportunities for gun safety activists to broadcast their message. Shannon Watts describes how Moms Demand Action exploited these incidents to bring in new members and force companies to change their policies:

The first such event happened at a Jack in the Box in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area when members of a gun extremist group called Open Carry Texas walked into the restaurant carrying long guns. The employees were so scared that they locked themselves inside a walk-in freezer. We issued a press release, launched an online petition, and tweeted photos, with the hashtag #JackedUp, of our members eating at other fast-food restaurants that had safer gun policies. Within days the company announced it would begin enforcing its policy of no guns inside its restaurants. After that, there were similar incidents at Chipotle, Chili’s and Sonic-Drive-In.[21]

On April 16, 2014 the outgoing mayor of New York City and media mogul Michael Bloomberg announced what The New York Times dubbed “A $50 million Challenge to the N.R.A.” —the founding of a new organization called Everytown for Gun Safety. It would bring the two groups Bloomberg already funded, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, under one umbrella. Bloomberg’s rhetoric made it clear the gloves were off:

They say, ‘We don’t care. We’re going to go after you. If you don’t vote with us we’re going to go after your kids and your grandkids and your great-grandkids. And we’re never going to stop.’ We’ve got to make them afraid of us. (NEW YORK TIMES)

Everytown’s message was simple and straightforward: common-sense gun policies supported by a huge majority of Americans can save lives. Everytown’s goal was to be the NRA’s counterweight. It would back candidates who supported gun safety laws and oppose those who did not. It would mobilize its members to gather en masse at legislative hearings and when votes were taken. It would mount campaigns to compel corporations to exercise responsibility when it came to gun safety. In the words of one journalist, “A bigger, richer, meaner gun-control movement has arrived.”[22] And with its achievements, it would shift the narrative that had impeded progress for so many years and show that the NRA was no longer the most powerful lobby, the voters want action, and voting for “gun sense” laws was a win-win—lives would be saved and backers would win elections.

In its first year, Everytown for Gun Safety was instrumental in passing laws in eight states to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers—laws that in the past had been vigorously resisted by the NRA.[23]

As the gun safety movement continued to grow, the country continued to experience the terrible carnage of mass shootings and the death tolls would reach new heights. In June 2015, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, would murder nine African American worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina. One year later, forty-nine people were killed in the Pulse Nightclub massacre, a gay bar and performance space in Orlando, Florida, in a homophobic attack. In October 2017 in the deadliest mass shooting by a lone shooter in U.S. history, fifty-eight people died at a Las Vegas country music festival. And then came Parkland. On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz, a former student, opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing seventeen people and injuring seventeen others.

The reaction to the Parkland shooting was intense and global. Surviving students took to social media and within hours created a cascade of demands for lawmakers to act. Three days after the shooting, a 17-year-old senior named Emma Gonzalez electrified the world with her speech at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale:

The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and our parents to call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days, saying that all we are self-involved and trend-obsessed and they hush us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS. Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS. If you agree, register to vote. Contact your local congresspeople. Give them a piece of your mind!

Days later, Everytown for Gun Safety launched a new campaign called Students Demand Action—End Gun Violence in America, to be led by student activists. Weeks later, Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) signed into law restrictions on firearm purchases and the possession of “bump stocks” in what was reported as “the most aggressive action on gun control taken in the state in decades and the first time Mr. Scott, who had an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, had broken so significantly from the group.” On March 24, the organization formed by Gonzalez and other Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors, Never Again MSD, held The March for Our Lives, a massive protest in Washington, D.C. attended by more than half a million people. Close to 900 sibling events were held across the United States and around the world. A national survey taken 4 days after the shooting showed virtually universal support for background checks (97 percent in favor) and strong majority support for a ban on assault weapons and a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases.

The March for Our Lives was the largest student-led demonstration since the Vietnam War, and it included many thousands of youth of color from cities beset by gun violence. The student leaders’ commitment to diversity in their organizing work is a long overdue correction to what has been the country’s past racialized attention to the gun violence epidemic. Until recently, movements to end gun violence of long standing in communities of color have been ignored while mass shootings of mostly white people have garnered enormous public attention.

Soon after the Parkland shooting, the Peace Warriors, a group of Black high school students from Chicago who have been fighting gun violence for years without receiving much attention from the outside world, flew to Florida to meet with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas activists. Over the course of several days, young people from one of the safest cities met and got to know young people from a city beset by gun violence and learned from one another. “We found our voice in Parkland,” said Arieyanna Williams, a 17-year-old Peace Warriors member. “We felt like we weren’t alone in this situation and we finally can use our voices on a bigger scale.” Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Sarah Chadwick said, “White privilege does exist and a lot of us have it. If we could use our white privilege to amplify the voices of minorities, then we’re going to use it. The more we ignore it, the worse it gets.”[24]

The NRA waited a week before making any pronouncements on the Parkland shooting. But in his address before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Wayne LaPierre repeated his post-Sandy Hook talking point that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” and echoed President Trump’s tweet calling for arming the teachers. But the NRA was on the defensive. A Business Insider article titled, “Something historic is happening with how Americans see the NRA” reported that polls following Parkland showed that “[f]or the first time in nearly two decades, Americans have turned against the National Rifle Association” and that “significantly more Americans express a negative opinion of the National Rifle Association than a positive one.”

The mid-term elections of 2018 showed the impact of the new narrative—going against the NRA did not mean certain defeat at the polls. With support from both the Giffords PAC and Everytown for Gun Safety,[25] gun control advocates picked up at least seventeen seats in the House by defeating incumbents backed by the NRA. Many of the victors were women. One of them was Lucy McBath, an African American leader of Moms Demand Action whose 17-year-old son was fatally shot in 2012 and who made gun violence the centerpiece of her campaign to represent a Georgia district once held by Newt Gingrich. In a tweet celebrating her victory, McBath wrote, “Absolutely nothing—no politician & no special interest—is more powerful than a mother on a mission.” Another winner was Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick, who had been a staunch NRA defender and boasted an A rating from the organization, but in 2018 she won the Democratic primary on the promise to ban assault weapons and enact universal background checks. “I’ve changed my mind,” she explained.

By spring 2019, another shift in the narrative was taking place as an attempted coup erupted at the NRA’s annual meeting in Indianapolis. In an article titled, “Insurgents Seek to Oust Wayne LaPierre in N.R.A. Power Struggle,” The New York Times reported:

Turmoil racking the National Rifle Association is threatening to turn the group’s annual convention into outright civil war, as insurgents maneuver to oust Wayne LaPierre, the foremost voice of the American gun rights movement. The confrontation pits Mr. LaPierre, the organization’s longtime chief executive, against its recently installed president, Oliver L. North, the central figure in the Reagan-era Iran-contra affair, who remains a hero to many on the right.

La Pierre eventually beat back the attack and North and his supporters were forced to resign, but media coverage from that point on dwelled on the severe problems the NRA was facing, from a serious decline in revenue to the launch of an investigation by the New York State Attorney General, Leticia James, into its finances and tax-exempt status. Headlines described an organization riven by scandal and division.

  • “Major donors fire back against NRA; Turmoil has some keeping their cash while others sue,” Chicago Tribune, November 22, 2019
  • “Could turmoil at NRA be a game changer?” USA Today, August 9, 2019
  • “Turmoil persists as NRA sidelines its top lobbyist,” The Washington Post, June 21, 2019
  • “NRA beset by infighting over whether it has strayed too far,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 25, 2019

On September 12, 2019 presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke stole the show during that evening’s Democratic presidential primary debate when, in response to a direct question from the moderator about his gun control plan, he said, “Hell yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15! If it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on the battlefield, we’re going to buy it back.” This was only one month after forty-six people were gunned down at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso. Twenty-three died and twenty-three were injured. Most of the Democratic contenders had already announced their support for more gun restrictions by that point in the primary process, leading a Senior Politics writer from to observe, “Democrats Are No Longer Gun Shy.”


Virginia has long been considered a “gun friendly” state and a fitting home for the NRA’s national headquarters. But over the past decade, gun politics in the Commonwealth has undergone a 180-degree turn, and narrative shift, propelled by an expanding gun safety movement, has played a dominant role. As a result, Virginia went from being a state with virtually no restrictions on gun ownership to being the harbinger of a new gun safety sensibility in America. In April 2020, Governor Ralph Northam signed a package of five gun control measures into law—all of them priorities of the gun violence prevention movement:

Universal background checks for all gun sales in Virginia;

  • A one-per-month limit on the purchase of handguns;
  • A requirement for the loss or theft of a firearm to be reported within 48 hours (with a civil penalty of up to $250 for failure to report);
  • An increase in penalties for reckless storage of loaded and unsecured firearms in a way that endangers children younger than 14 years of age;
  • A “red flag” bill, which provides for a procedure for the temporary removal of guns from people at high risk of self-harm or harm to others.[26]

Governor Northam’s quote in the official press release acknowledged the role played by the advocacy community and echoed its message: “We lose too many Virginians to gun violence, and it is past time we took bold, meaningful action to make our communities safer. I was proud to work with legislators and advocates on these measures, and I am proud to sign them into law. These commonsense laws will save lives.”

This outcome was more than a decade in the making and was largely the result of organizing spearheaded by families impacted by the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting in which thirty-two students, professors, and administrators were killed and seventeen others were wounded. Lori Haas of Richmond, whose daughter Emily is a Virginia Tech survivor, recalls that “after coming out of the fog” of the disaster, she and others started trying to figure out “what went wrong. We started asking questions and speaking up, and then we got it: We don’t have any laws! The shooter didn’t have to have a background check. Nobody’s watching. Nobody’s paying attention.” Haas became a volunteer with the Virginia Center for Public Safety[27] and in 2009 became the Senior Director of Advocacy for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Her first several years as a gun violence prevention (GVP) advocate in Virginia were frustrating. The Republican Party controlled the Senate, the House of Delegates, and the governorship, and the gun lobby held sway. Not only were GVP advocates unable to get a meaningful hearing of their proposals, but also the gun lobby succeeded in passing a bill allowing concealed carry permit holders to carry their weapons into restaurants and bars. But the mood among voters was changing. Haas explains:

We began to be joined in our testimony by others who are affected by gun violence. People were willing to step up and talk about the awful shootings that occur throughout the Commonwealth in too many places. During that time our numbers were growing. We were going out across the Commonwealth speaking at every place we could: faith groups, book clubs, city councils, to ordinary everyday citizens. People would raise their hands and say, ‘will you come and talk to us in Charlottesville or in Roanoke or in Hampton Roads or Northern Virginia?’ The interest was growing by leaps and bounds and people kept asking, ‘Why can’t we get it done? Background checks are so simple. It’s such a low bar.’ And we would respond, ‘Let your voices be heard. And if you can’t change your representatives’ minds, you have to change their seats.’

This outcome was more than a decade in the making and was largely the result of organizing spearheaded by families impacted by the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting in which thirty-two students, professors, and administrators were killed and seventeen others were wounded. Lori Haas of Richmond, whose daughter Emily is a Virginia Tech survivor, recalls that “after coming out of the fog” of the disaster, she and others started trying to figure out “what went wrong. We started asking questions and speaking up, and then we got it: We don’t have any laws! The shooter didn’t have to have a background check. Nobody’s watching. Nobody’s paying attention.” Haas became a volunteer with the Virginia Center for Public Safety[27] and in 2009 became the Senior Director of Advocacy for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Her first several years as a gun violence prevention (GVP) advocate in Virginia were frustrating. The Republican Party controlled the Senate, the House of Delegates, and the governorship, and the gun lobby held sway. Not only were GVP advocates unable to get a meaningful hearing of their proposals, but also the gun lobby succeeded in passing a bill allowing concealed carry permit holders to carry their weapons into restaurants and bars. But the mood among voters was changing. Haas explains:

We began to be joined in our testimony by others who are affected by gun violence. People were willing to step up and talk about the awful shootings that occur throughout the Commonwealth in too many places. During that time our numbers were growing. We were going out across the Commonwealth speaking at every place we could: faith groups, book clubs, city councils, to ordinary everyday citizens. People would raise their hands and say, ‘will you come and talk to us in Charlottesville or in Roanoke or in Hampton Roads or Northern Virginia?’ The interest was growing by leaps and bounds and people kept asking, ‘Why can’t we get it done? Background checks are so simple. It’s such a low bar.’ And we would respond, ‘Let your voices be heard. And if you can’t change your representatives’ minds, you have to change their seats.’

The turning point came in 2013. By then polls were running in favor of more restrictions. A survey conducted by Lake Research Partners in two districts in southwestern Virginia, considered the most pro-gun districts in the state, showed that an overwhelming 94 percent of gun owners favored universal background checks and more than 70 percent of voters opposed guns on campuses.[28] All three Democrats running for statewide office that year made gun safety a prominent issue in their campaigns. In their gubernatorial debate, candidate Ken Cuccinelli (R) declared, “I’m running against the only F-rated candidate from the NRA,” to which candidate Terry McAuliffe (D) responded:

Now whatever rating I may get from the NRA, I’m gonna stand here and tell you today that as governor, I want to make sure that every one of our citizens in the Commonwealth of Virginia are safe. Every one of our children, when they go into a classroom, should know that they are safe. When any one of our loved ones goes into work…. We need to eliminate guns from the folks who should not own guns.

This turning point is seen in a dramatic increase in media coverage of gun violence in 2013. Between 1994 and 2020, roughly 85,600 news media articles were published in mainstream outlets in the United States referring to “gun control,” while another 15,300 articles were published with specific reference to “gun safety.” As seen in Figures 4 and 5, 1999–2000 saw a significant increase in media engagement with the topics of gun control and safety. This was followed by a decline in engagement, which remained stable until another major spike in coverage in 2013. Between 2012 and 2013, references to “gun control” nearly tripled (increasing from roughly 2,700 articles in 2012 to more than 7,500 articles in 2013), while references to “gun safety” more than quadrupled in sampled articles (increasing from 248 articles in 2012 to more than 1,060 articles in 2013).

Alongside the increase in mainstream news media focus, a growing number of politicians became willing to speak out against the status quo. Ralph Northam, who was running for lieutenant governor at the time, was outspoken about his opposition to the gun lobby, and Mark Herring’s first political ad after winning the nomination for attorney general highlighted the responsibility of leaders “to protect our families from gun violence.” All three won their elections.

Despite the success that gun violence prevention groups enjoyed in the 2013 elections, however, efforts to strengthen gun laws in the state legislature remained stalled. The Virginia legislature even failed to act on legislation to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers—a law that passed with broad bipartisan support in a number of other states—despite its successful passage in the state Senate in 2014 after a 29-6 vote. Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) put forward a measure to make allowing a child 4 years old or younger to use a firearm a misdemeanor, saying, “I hope we can all agree that toddlers should not be allowed to play with a gun.” But the NRA lobbyist countered that the bill “would impose an arbitrary minimum age at which a person would be allowed to receive firearms training,” and the bill failed.[29]

The 2017 gubernatorial election between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie amounted to a state referendum on guns, with Michael Bloomberg and the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund contributing close to $2 million to elect Northam and his two running mates, Mark Herring for attorney general and Justin Fairfax for lieutenant governor. In the midst of the campaign, a shooter fired 1,000 rounds of ammunition on the crowd attending a music festival in Las Vegas, killing sixty people and wounding more than 400. A New York Times article was published several days later with the headline, “In Virginia, Gun Control Heats Up the Governor’s Race,” and the candidate’s dueling responses captured the partisan divide on the issue. Northam argued, “We as a society need to stand up and say it is time to take action. It’s time to stop talking.” Gillespie, who touted his “A” rating from the NRA, said it was “too early to discuss policy responses to gun violence.” In November Northam defeated Gillespie, winning by the largest margin for a Democrat in more than 30 years. On taking office in January 2018 Gov. Northam introduced several gun safety measures, but they failed in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Then, on May 31, the Virginia Beach mass shooting happened, in which twelve people were killed at the city’s municipal center by a heavily armed lone gunman.

Days after the shooting, the Northam Administration held a somber press conference at which the governor announced he would call for a special session of the General Assembly in July to take up gun safety measures. At the special session, however, the Republican majority adjourned the session after only 90 minutes without debating any bills. As voters contemplated the November 2019 midterm legislative elections, a Washington Post–George Mason University poll found gun safety to be their top issue, and the gun safety movement went into high gear. Democratic candidates embraced the issue. John Bell, running for a previously red Loudoun County Senate seat, aired a prime-time television ad that showed him striding across a school athletic field to pick up a bullet casing as he promised he was “not afraid of the NRA.” Dan Helmer, an army veteran, ran on the slogan, “You shouldn’t need the body armor I wore in Iraq and Afghanistan to go shopping. This country has a gun violence crisis. We need action now.” On November 12, 2019 Virginia Democrats won both the House of Delegates and the State Senate and Democrats took full control of state government for the first time since 1994.


The declining influence of the NRA is visible in online discourse that reveals the growing prominence of pro-gun safety messaging and the heightened ability of pro-safety advocates to challenge well-established NRA talking points and dog whistles. Since October 2018, more than 10 million posts were generated making specific reference to “gun control,” “gun laws,” “gun safety,” and “gun politics” from roughly 2 million unique authors. In the same timeframe, Virginia, which emerged as a key battleground state in the transformation of the gun violence narrative, saw nearly 200,000 distinct social media messages referring to “gun control,” “gun safety,” and related terms, with roughly 32,000 unique users participating in this statewide discussion. In a reflection of the dominant role the NRA has played and continues to play in national discourse related to gun violence, specific reference to the “National Rifle Association” or “NRA” generated 12 million mentions, from roughly a million unique users. However, a closer look at this content reveals the changing dynamic of the organization’s online interactions, as the tone and focus on online discourse has shifted in the past few years and the NRA has found itself on the defensive.

An exploration of volume trends, the number of unique posts generated over time, tells a complex story of how the gun control narrative has ebbed and flowed in recent years and the role of state-level advocacy in shaping the wider national discourse. Figure 6, 7, and 8 depict the various peaks and declines in online engagement. Letters A–F show the largest clusters of engagement when there was a significant increase in the number of unique social media posts generated about a given topic and a corresponding increase in the number of authors engaging in discussions about this topic.

In the past 2 years, there has been much overlap in the timeframes that have seen significant increases in engagement in Virginia and at the national-level discourse, with all but one increase in Virginia also seen at the national level. The majority of spikes were a direct result of widespread media coverage and public reactions following mass shootings events. As shown in Table 1, these pivotal dates include August 5, which saw two mass shootings in a 13-hour window in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, and November 5, 2018, the day of the mid-term elections, in which candidates’ support or opposition to gun control legislation took center stage. A variety of announcements and events sparked the increased that peaked on September 2, 2019, including a mass shooting in the West Texas cities of Midland and Odessa on August [31], 2019 and Walmart’s announcement of its plans to reduce its gun and ammunition sales.

Within this timeframe, then Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke featured heavily in online content for his outspoken condemnation of the NRA and staunch support for stricter gun laws. One of the most widely circulated tweets on September 2, 2020 came from self-proclaimed “Snarky Lawyer,” who explicitly called out the connection between guns and white supremacist violence and expressed support for Beto O’Rourke:

The volume clusters also indicate that Virginia took the lead in shaping national-level discourse on several occasions in the past few years. January 20, 2020 is the clearest example of the impact of Virginia and state-level advocacy on wider online discourse. The significant increase seen in cluster B is a direct result of the gathering in Richmond, Virginia of thousands of gun safety opponents (many of them armed), who came to protest Gov. Northam’s promise to pass a host of control measures. These events in Virginia were mirrored in national online discourse related to gun safety, as #GunSenseMajority, #VAleg, and @MomsDemand became trending topics. In the same 2-year period, volume trends related to the NRA remained largely distinct from national-level discourse related to gun control, gun safety, and related topics, reflecting the NRA’s strategy of deflecting or minimizing the issue of gun violence following mass shootings.

Alongside an examination of the volume of online content, the key phrases and terms that have tended to be included in posts reveal how language and terminology have shifted over time. Figures 9, 10, and 11 visualize the key phrases that have been used in association with gun safety between October 2018 and November 2020. The phrases on the right-hand side and shaded in darker orange have seen an increase in use, while the phrases on the left and shaded in lighter orange have seen a gradual decline.

At the national level, there has been a shift in the language used to discuss gun safety measures, with a 34 percent decline in use of “gun ownership” and a 33 percent decrease in use of “gun control laws” between 2018 and 2020. At the same time, references to “#istandwithvirginia” (and other phrases related to Virginia) and “Mike Bloomberg” have seen a dramatic increase. (During this time, Bloomberg also launched a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, which could account for many of these references.) Kenosha, Wisconsin has also seen a 100 percent increase in mentions related to gun violence as a direct result of the killing of two protesters by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse during a protest against police brutality.

At the state level in Virginia, the gradual shift in language reflects the efforts and strategy of gun safety advocates, with #2a seeing a 16 percent decrease in the state, while “#momsareeverywhere,” “#gunsensemajority,” and “gun extremists” have seen significant increases over time.

Finally, language trends related to the NRA reflect the shifting priorities and focus of the organization as mentions of “California” and “Vermont” have seen a significant decline, while a focus on “Virginia” saw a sharp increase. Key word trends also reveal the declining engagement of NRA members and the growing ability of NRA opponents to set the organization’s messaging agenda. As seen in Table 4, reference to “NRA Members” declined by 24 percent between 2018 and 2020, while references to “Black Lives Matter and “Philando Castile” saw a significant increase as a result of anti-NRA voices online.

The sample of tweets below showing the relationship between mentions of “Philando Castile” and the “NRA” are just a few examples of how gun safety advocates have explicitly called out the NRA as a racist and white supremacist organization in recent years.



On December 10, 2020 Everytown for Gun Safety released its “roadmap” for how the new Biden Administration can “tackle gun safety through executive action in the first hundred days and beyond.” The roadmap lists four actions that are prioritized by the gun safety movement.31 At the same time, the organization released the findings of a new poll demonstrating that a large majority of voters support the movement’s goals. According to the survey of more than 15,000 voters, an unusually large sample, 70 percent, agree that gun violence “is an urgent issue that the federal government needs to address quickly next year, alongside the economy & COVID-19” and 68 percent agree that “our nation’s gun laws should be stronger than they are now.”[32]

As the country enters a new era of gun politics with a new administration that supports stricter gun laws, the new narrative will be put to the test. Gun safety proposals that have been languishing in Congress will advance and generate intense debate. If the past is any guide, we know that the gun lobby and its supporters will mount strong opposition to any tightening of the rules. But today a new three-point narrative is taking hold:

  1. The NRA is no longer the most powerful lobby.
  2. The voters want action.
  3. Voting for “gun sense” laws is a win-win—lives will be saved and backers will win elections.

Will this shift embolden a majority of members of Congress to vote for new federal gun safety regulations?

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1 Gun sales hit a record high during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Three million more guns than usual had been sold as of July 2020, and first-time buyers were driving the increase.

2 According to the Gallup Poll, 57 percent of Americans favored stricter gun laws in 2020. Note that this figure tends to rise and fall with news of mass shootings. For example, in 2018, the year that saw the killing of seventeen students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL and the public outcry that followed, 67 percent favored stricter gun laws.

3 Adam Winkler, Gun Fight, p. 253.

4 Adam Winkler, Gun Fight, p. 254.

5 The Brady Bill, named for James Brady and spearheaded by his wife, Sarah, mandated a 5-day waiting period for handgun purchases so that law enforcement could undertake a background check.

6 Alec MacGillis, “This is How the NRA Ends,” The New Republic, May 28, 2013.


8 United States v. Emerson, 270 F.3d 203, cert. denied, 536 U.S. 907, is a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit holding that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees individuals the right to bear arms.6 Alec MacGillis, “This is How the NRA Ends,” The New Republic, May 28, 2013.

9 Based in Arlington, VA, the Institute for Justice describes itself as a “libertarian public interest law firm…that litigates to promote property rights, economic liberty, free speech, and school choice.”

10 Initially, the NRA did not support this litigation. At the time, it was not clear that a majority of Justices would endorse the individual right interpretation of the Second Amendment and the organization was afraid that a ruling would be unfavorable. The organization eventually came to support the effort and filed a friend-of-the-court brief.

11 The other mass shootings in 2007 were Trolley Square Mall, Salt Lake City, five dead; post-homecoming party at an apartment, Crandon, WI, six dead; Westroads Mall, Omaha, eight dead.

12 The change was driven by a thirteen-point increase in the percentage of white men who prioritized the right to own guns over gun control, from 51 percent in 2008 to 64 percent in 2009.

13 In 2011, the Violence Policy Center calculated that the NRA had received between $14.7 million and $38.9 million from gun industry “corporate partners.” Blood Money: How the Gun Industry Bankrolls the NRA, at

14 Chris Murphy, The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy, p. 161.

15 Shannon Watts admits that she didn’t realize that in 2000 there had been a Million Mom March on the National Mall calling for gun reform after the Columbine shooting. That march had been organized by a group of volunteers to fall on Mother’s Day, and it attracted some three-quarters of a million people with satellite events happening in more than 70 cities around the country. Million Mom March chapters formed and soon merged with one of the country’s oldest gun violence prevention organizations, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But the energy generated by the march dissipated in the face of such an inhospitable political environment (Waldman, p. 151).

16 Formerly known as Handgun Control, Inc. and founded in 1980.

17 Founded in 1974.

18 Founded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston in 2006.

19 Shannon Watts, Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World, p. 29.

20 Open carry refers to the practice of “openly carrying a firearm in public,” as distinguished from concealed carry, where firearms cannot be seen by the casual observer. Thirty-one states allow open carrying of a handgun without a license or permit; fifteen states allow it with some form of license or permit.

21 Shannon Watts, Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World, p. 107

22 Alec MacGillis, “This is How the NRA Ends,” The New Republic, May 28, 2013.

23 Minnesota, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Washington.

24 Melissa Chan, “‘They Are Lifting Us Up.’ How Parkland Students Are Using Their Moment to Help Minority Anti-Violence Groups,” Time, March 24, 2018.

25 The Giffords PAC spent close to $5 million backing gun sense candidates, and Everytown spent more than $30 million.

26 Two additional gun-control bills were signed that year after Northam proposed amendments to them. One of those bills requires evidence that anyone subject to a protective order has surrendered their firearms within 24 hours and was amended so that those who fail to comply would be found in contempt of court. The other bill allows for municipal regulations of firearms in public buildings, parks, and recreation centers and during public events.

27 The Virginia Center for Public Safety is a small nonprofit founded in 1992 dedicated to reducing gun violence in the state.


29 Rachel Weiner, “Gov. McAuliffe’s gun control efforts for Virginia die in Senate Committee,” Washington Post, January 26, 2015.

30 Reid J. Epstein, “Bloomberg’s gun control group calls for a raft of executive actions from Biden,” The New York Times, December 10, 2020.

31 1. Keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them by strengthening the background check system. 2. Prioritize solutions to the city gun violence devastating communities every day. 3. Heal a traumatized country by making schools safe, confronting armed hate and extremism, preventing suicide, and centering and supporting survivors of fun violence. 4. Launch a major firearm data project and protect the public with modern gun technology.


Narrative Shift and The Death Penalty

In this case study, The Opportunity Agenda explores a narrative shift that transpired over a period of almost 50 years—from 1972, a time when the death penalty was widely supported by the American public, to the present, a time of growing concern about its application and a significant drop in support. It tells the story of how a small, under-resourced group of death penalty abolitionists came together and developed a communications strategy designed to raise doubts in people’s minds about the system’s fairness that would cause them to reconsider their views.

In its early days, the abolition movement was composed of civil liberties and civil rights organizations, death penalty litigators, academics, and religious groups and individuals. Later, new and influential voices joined who were directly impacted by the death penalty, including family members of murder victims and death row exonerees. Key players used a combination of tactics, including coalition building—which brought together litigators and grassroots organizers—protests and conferences, data collection, storage, and dissemination, original research followed by strategic media placements, and original public opinion research.

This case study highlights the importance of several factors necessary in bringing about narrative shift. Key findings include:

  • It can be a long haul. In the case of issues like the death penalty, with its heavy symbolic and racialized associations, change happens incrementally, and patience and persistence on the part of advocates are critical.
  • Research matters. Although limited to a few focus groups, the public opinion research undertaken in 1997 was critical in terms of both informing the communications strategy going forward and building unity among stakeholders.
  • Going on the offensive can change the game. Armed with an effective communications strategy, advocates can reset the terms of the debate and make considerable headway.
  • Bring in diverse voices. New messengers, especially “strange bedfellows”—in this case, families of murder victims who oppose the death penalty—can have a big impact.


Our research methodology included in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, a document review, and a scan and analysis of traditional and social media.

  • Richard Dieter, founding director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)
  • Robert Dunham, current director of DPIC
  • Sister Helen Prejean, longtime abolition activist and author of Dead Man Walking
  • Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP)
  • Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy

We analyzed both public opinion data and traditional and social media content to corroborate and validate our interviewees’ observations. Leading research organizations such as Roper, Gallup, and Pew have been measuring changes in public opinion on the death penalty for many years, making it possible to see trends clearly. We also had access to proprietary qualitative research conducted by the ACLU. To identify media trends, we developed a series of search terms and used the LexisNexis database. For social media trends we utilized the Crimson Hexagon online data library. Our interviews with key stakeholders and our review of public opinion and media/social media trends reveal a dynamic relationship that continues to reshape the public narrative about the death penalty in America.

Based on a series of historical benchmarks, we identified five time periods and their external (i.e., events beyond the control of the advocates) and field-wide tipping points that comprised the stages of narrative shift:

EARLY YEARS: 1972–1980

  • A 4-year moratorium begins following the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia. The death penalty statutes in 40 states are voided as arbitrary, cruel, and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
  • Surveys show public support for the death penalty for those convicted of murder is less than 50 percent.
  • States undertake reforms and the Supreme Court reinstates the death penalty in 1976 in Gregg v. Georgia.
  • The execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore, the first person to be executed post-Gregg, has intense media coverage
  • An uptick in crime reported and sensationalized by media occurs.
  • The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty is established.
  • Strategies other than litigation are explored and implemented.

THE 1980s

  • Fear of crime increases. “If it bleeds, it leads” media coverage (i.e., fear-based media coverage focusing on murder and mayhem because it increases sales) intensifies it.
  • Law and order and racist dog-whistle political rhetoric increases, and Ronald Reagan is elected.
  • As new death sentences increase, appeals and procedural delays come under attack.
  • Support for the death penalty climbs; politicians take note.
  • The Supreme Court rejects racial bias argument in McClesky v. Kemp.
  • Bush/Dukakis campaign, the “Willie Horton ad,” and Dukakis’s anti-death penalty stance are shown to be a political liability.
  • None: Abolition movement on the defensive.

THE 1990s

  • Candidate Clinton presides over the Arkansas execution of a mentally disabled man.
  • In reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was enacted.
  • New death sentences and executions reach an all-time high.
  • Eighty percent of the public favors the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.
  • The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is established.
  • The Innocence Project and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) are founded.
  • 60 Minutes airs a feature story about EJI’s efforts to free Walter McMillian from Alabama’s death row.
  • Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile films are released.
  • Kirk Bloodsworth becomes the first death row inmate to be exonerated through DNA testing.
  • The American Bar Association passes a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions.
  • The Northwestern School of Law holds a conference with 29 “death row refugees.”
  • ACLU commissions focus groups; researchers recommend focusing on systemic unfairness.
  • A 3-day gathering at the Musgrove Conference Center of leaders from around the country is held to hammer out a new communications strategy to move hearts and minds.

THE 2000s

  • Illinois Governor George Ryan declares first moratorium on executions.
  • Executions and new death sentences begin to decline.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ends execution of people who have mental disabilities and people who committed crime as juveniles.
  • Exonerations receive increasing media attention; Congress passes the Innocence Protection Act.
  • The public supports life sentence without parole over death penalty.
  • Botched lethal injection controversy grows.
  • Pope Francis says the death penalty is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
  • Public support drops to a four-decade low.
  • Gov. Newsom orders moratorium on executions in California, the state with the largest death row.
  • The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty grows to more than 100 affiliates and adopts a state-by-state strategy.
  • The DPIC website becomes a one-stop shop for journalists covering the issue; media coverage focuses on systemic flaws.
  • Murder Victims Families for Human Rights is founded.


  • New Jersey is the first state to abolish capital punishment legislatively; nine more states follow suit.
  • Governors in four states—California, Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—declare moratoriums on executions.
  • Editorial support for abolition grows.
  • Public support for death penalty falls to lowest point since the 1970s.
  • Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty is founded.
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is published and sells more than 1 million copies; a major film based on the book is released.
  • The campaign to save Rodney Reed, a Texas death row inmate convicted by an all-white jury, wins indefinite stay of execution.


On March 23, 2020 Colorado became the twenty-second state to abolish the death penalty and the tenth to do so since 2007. Once assumed to be a permanent fixture in the nation’s criminal justice system, with a few notable exceptions the death penalty has been in retreat since the early ’00s as one state after another has either repealed their death penalty statute or imposed a moratorium on executions. As of 2020, for the first time in U.S. history the death penalty is in perfect equipoise: 25 states retain it, and 25 states reject it, either through repeal (22) or moratorium (3). Once considered a third rail in politics, opposition to the death penalty has become sufficiently mainstream for elected leaders to openly embrace it.

These recent policy reforms would not have been possible were it not for the erosion of public support for the death penalty. In the peak year of 1995, 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty and only 16 percent opposed it for people convicted of murder. Today support for the death penalty is the lowest it has been in the past 40 years, with 56 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed. The decline in public support, in turn, is reflected in the imposition of fewer death sentences by juries. In 2018, 42 new death sentences were imposed as compared to 315 in 1996.

This case study describes the role that public narrative, as expressed through media coverage, popular culture, and the opinions of influential voices, has played in causing Americans to reconsider their position on what had, for decades, been a hot button issue. We look at how a relatively small movement of death penalty litigators and abolitionist advocates and activists representing arguably the most stigmatized constituency in America—people on death row—used the tools at their disposal to change the story.


We need the death penalty to punish those who break society’s rules and bring order to a criminal justice system that does not protect the public’s safety. The finality of the death penalty brings order to chaos and brings closure for the victims’ families.

The death penalty as it’s applied in this country is flawed, is infected with racial bias, and can’t be fixed. There are other ways to protect the public’s safety that are less costly, are just as effective, and don’t run the risk of executing innocent people.

Executions were rare in this country prior to the mid-1980s. In 1965 there were seven executions nationwide, four of them in Kansas. In 1966 there was one, and in 1967 there were two. Because of how rarely it was carried out, the death penalty was relatively uncontroversial. That changed in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in Furman v. Georgia, holding that the death penalty statute in question violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments because it was applied “arbitrarily and capriciously.” The 5-4 decision had the effect of abrogating every death penalty statute in the country. All pending death sentences were reduced to life imprisonment, and states understood that they had to go back to the drawing board if they wanted their statute to pass constitutional muster.[1]

The Furman decision was the result of a litigation strategy. Diann Rust-Tierney explains:

The same tools that were available to address civil rights violations were applied here by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. When you have a primarily legal argument it makes you think about issues a certain way, and it makes you think about your audience a certain way. The way that the LDF and others prosecuted these cases was to amass a great deal of information and facts and data and arguments and put them before the Court, and the Court makes a ruling. At the time there was the expectation that once a case was won the issue was settled. But states went right back to the drawing board. We learned that litigation strategies have to be accompanied by the work of changing public opinion.

In the aftermath of Furman, 37 states enacted new death penalty laws, and in 1976, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ended the de facto moratorium when it reviewed five new statutes (Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina) and found them to be constitutional. The number of new death sentences climbed rapidly, from just under 50 in 1973 to 300 in 1975, and that number would remain relatively constant until 2001.The number of executions grew slowly at first and then rose rapidly beginning in the mid-1990s. Ninety-eight executions were carried out in the peak year of 1998. The fact that 81 percent of those executions were carried out by southern states was not insignificant. Bryan Stevenson argues that “the death penalty is lynching’s stepchild”:

The race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty in America. We moved lynchings from outside to inside in the 1940s and ’50s when the political pressure on these communities that tolerated this spectacle of violence got so great that they no longer felt they could do it with impunity. I think that connection is directly linked to what we tolerated during the era of lynching. And we use this lethal threat of violence from an electric chair to replace the threat that was created through hanging. I don’t think it’s an accident that the states with the highest lynching rates are the states with the highest execution rates. Nor do I think it’s an accident that communities in those states feel deeply burdened by our continuing willingness to kill people in this racialized way.[2]

The reinstatement of the death penalty arrived as law and order rhetoric came to dominate the public discourse. The Reagan Administration loudly attacked constitutional “technicalities” like the Exclusionary Rule and the Miranda warnings, claiming they “tied the hands of the police.” The war on drugs was declared, and politicians, concerned with being labeled “soft on crime,” enacted a raft of harsh anti-crime laws at the state and federal levels. “If it bleeds, it leads” came to dominate local media coverage, and fear of crime intensified. Underlying the growing support for the death penalty was the extent to which crime in America was racialized (i.e., experienced by whites, and others, in racial terms). According to public opinion surveys, white Americans overestimated (and still overestimate) the proportion of crime committed by people of color and the proportion of people of color who committed crime. And social science research shows that attributing crime to people of color limits empathy toward the accused and encourages retribution as the primary response to crime.[3] The death penalty, of course, is the ultimate form of retribution. The narrative promoted by “tough on crime” pundits that judges were too lenient and prisons were like country clubs also gained ground. In this environment, the death penalty was viewed as all that stood between the public and the most heinous crimes.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision reinstating the death penalty, there was minimal organizing and advocacy against it and abolitionists relied almost exclusively on litigation to press their case. A small group of legal organizations, most notably the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU, and a handful of attorneys and academics worked together to coordinate court challenges to various aspects of the death penalty. Days after the Gregg decision, Henry Schwarzschild, the head of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, sent out a tersely worded mailgram to leaders of the small abolition movement:

In light of the Supreme Court decision on death sentences, we are convening a working meeting on non-litigation strategy to prevent executions and abolish capital punishment. Your attendance is urgently invites. Please advise.

The meeting, held just a few days later, led to the founding of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and the earliest efforts to mobilize a grassroots movement.[4] As the organization’s name makes clear, the goal was, and still is, the complete eradication of the death penalty in the United States. Within its first year, 40 state affiliates had joined the coalition, representing faith, civil rights, and civil liberties organizations. Eventually growing to more than 100 affiliated organizations, the NCADP spread its message of abolition, grounded in opposition to all “state-sponsored killing,” through public speaking engagements, publications including Execution Alerts that reported impending executions, and vigils.

The 1980s: “Endless Appeals and Procedural Delays”

During the decade of the 1980s the death penalty became a potent symbol of toughness on crime, and its favorability rating among the public climbed steadily. Between 1980 and 1985, media coverage of the death penalty more than tripled. By the end of 1985, the death row population exceeded 1,500 people but executions were still relatively rare, and procedural delays in carrying out executions became a contentious issue. Headlines about legally thwarted executions such as the following were common:

  • Gray Execution Blocked Again (The Washington Post, July 7, 1983)
  • Convicted Murderer Gets a Stay in Louisiana (Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1981)
  • Execution of Child-Killer Stayed by U.S. Court (The New York Times, March 1, 1982)
  • Killer Wins Reprieve (Miami Herald, October 22, 1982)
  • State High Court Overturns 2 More Death Sentences (Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1986)

The Washington Legal Foundation, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, and other pro-death penalty organizations aggressively lobbied for limiting the appeals process and shortening the length of time between sentencing and execution. In 1989, a special committee of federal judges, set up at the request of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to study the judicial system’s handling of death penalty cases, recommended strict new limits on the multiple appeals filed by death row inmates. Pressure built for Congress to enact legislation curtailing the rights of people on death row.

As the 1980s came to an end, death penalty opponents were in an acutely defensive position. In 1987 the movement suffered a major legal defeat when the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp, rejecting the argument based on powerful statistical evidence that the application of the death penalty was racially biased.5 In 1988, the presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis reinforced the message that the death penalty was needed to protect public safety and that opposition to it was a definite political liability. First, the Bush campaign aired the “Willie Horton” TV attack ad.

Considered one of the most racially divisive ads in modern political history, it depicted an African American man who had been convicted of murder, who raped a white woman and stabbed her partner while furloughed from prison under a Massachusetts program in place when Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, was governor. In a voiceover, the narrator says: “Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.” Between 1988 when the ad first launched and 1990, more than 1,600 articles were published in mainstream media outlets making reference to Willie Horton.

Then, during a televised debate between the candidates, Gov. Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. He responded, “No, I don’t… I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” Labeled “Dukakis’ Deadly Response” by Time magazine, pundits attributed his election defeat to his answer to this question.

In spite of the opposition’s efforts to sway the public through protest, argument, and litigation, by the end of the decade the dominant narrative about the death penalty was deeply embedded in the public discourse: The death sentence was needed as a deterrent to crime and an expression of the American public’s desire to punish wrongdoers, and the delays in executions brought about by defense lawyers and liberal judges violated the public’s trust. Politicians opposed it at their peril. Abolition leaders knew that a course correction was imperative.

In the 1980s, most of us were trying to just survive the tough on crime rhetoric and we were on the defensive. In the 1990s, some of us started to talk about what we needed to do to be proactive, and that’s what gave rise to the effort around creating concerns about the death penalty as applied, rather than in the abstract.

Bryan Stevenson

The 1990s: The Beginning of a Contest Over Narrative

In early 1990, a small group of leading abolitionists met in New York City to come up with a plan to break through what they viewed as a stalemate. They feared that the debate had been reduced to confrontations outside prisons on the eve of executions, with one side praying and the other side calling for death. Convened by journalist and philanthropist John “Rick” MacArthur, those present expressed their frustration with the limits of what they believed had been a mostly “philosophical” argument about the morality of capital punishment. They agreed with what Justice Thurgood Marshall had written in his opinion in Furman v. Georgia: If Americans knew all the facts, they would be against the death penalty. How, then, to bring all the facts to the attention of the public?

The result of that meeting was the birth of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), whose mission was to “serve the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.” DPIC, with a full-time staff of one, was initially housed in the offices of Fenton Communications, a public relations agency founded by David Fenton to further the goals of the movements for the environment, public health, and human rights. DPIC engaged in intensive media relations, identifying and working with journalists to tell a different story about the death penalty. It began to publish special reports focusing on the systemic flaws in its implementation, including racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, and so on.

At first there was some resentment within the abolition movement about the funding of DPIC. At a time when the death penalty defense bar had so few resources, some felt the money would be better spent on providing more and better legal services to the condemned. But several early breakthroughs that demonstrated the power and potential of favorable media coverage began to win those detractors over, including:

  • In May 1992 Time magazine published a cover story about Roger Keith Coleman, on Virginia’s death row for the murder of his sister-in-law. The cover headline, superimposed over a photograph of Coleman, read “THIS MAN MIGHT BE INNOCENT; THIS MAN IS DUE TO DIE.”

  • In the fall of 1992 CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a feature story about Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to free Walter McMillian from Alabama’s death row, illuminating the role of racism in the railroading of an innocent black man in the Deep South.
  • In June 1993, the exoneration of Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person on death row to be released as a result of DNA evidence, was covered in close to 200 stories in major U.S. newspapers and featured on television news programs nationwide.

These “earned media” stories were the results of hard work by advocates armed with a proactive communications strategy. They, and others like them during the early 1990s, were at the forefront of what would become a steady stream of stories that complicated, and gradually undermined, the widespread belief that the death penalty was fair and that miscarriages of justices were rare. In 1992 two professors at Cardozo Law School, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, founded the Innocence Project, putting the spotlight on the risk of miscarriages of justice by using DNA evidence to reopen cases, and the number of death row exonerations began to grow.[6] The Innocence Project, which eventually expanded into a large network of projects throughout the country, has been hugely influential in the narrative shift process. Since its founding, it has been featured in close to 7,000 news media articles. In April 2020 Netflix released a nine-part documentary series, The Innocence Files, which features the work of the Innocence Project.

Other events during this decade also contributed to growing unease about the death penalty. Two award-winning films based on best-selling books were released. In 1996, Dead Man Walking, based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean of the same title, came out to wide critical acclaim. The film introduced a mass audience not only to Sister Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon, and her moral crusade against the death penalty, but also to the character of Earl Delacroix, the father of one of the victims, who opposed the execution of his son’s murderer. The film’s portrayal of a grieving father who disputed the claim that the execution would help him find “closure” presented viewers with a counternarrative to the one they had been given. In 1999, The Green Mile, a fantasy crime drama starring Tom Hanks and based on a book by Stephen King, told the story of the execution of an innocent black man and the emotional toll it took on the prison official supervising the execution. Speaking of the impact murder victims’ families and corrections officials would have in voicing this counternarrative, Sister Helen Prejean explains:

When the New Jersey legislature was having hearings about the death penalty, sixty-two murder victims’ families testified saying ‘don’t kill for us.’ More and more victims’ families are saying the death penalty re-victimizes us. It puts your grief in the public spotlight. Every time there’s a change in the status of the case the media is at your door. You can’t grieve. You’re in trauma. It doesn’t help. Then there are the voices of wardens who have to carry out executions, and guards that are part of the execution squad. One warden in Florida has said publicly that he will be in therapy for the rest of his life: ‘I participated in the killing of someone who had been rendered defenseless.’

Events in Illinois were unfolding that would have an impact on public opinion nationwide. A spate of death row exonerations, some of them brought about through the investigatory efforts of journalism students at Northwestern University, put a spotlight on police and prosecutorial corruption and misconduct. By 1998, the Illinois death penalty score stood at 11 executed (since the reinstatement of the penalty in 1977) and nine exonerated. In November, the Northwestern School of Law held a conference that brought together on one stage 29 “death row refugees,” eight from Illinois and the rest from other states. An AP photo of the exonerees along with Professor Anthony Amsterdam, a well-known abolitionist attorney, was a jolting image of how serious the risk of executing the innocent really was.

Two months after the conference, the Chicago Tribune published a five-part series by two investigative reporters entitled, “Trial & Error. How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win.” A month after this hard-hitting series was published, in early 1999, another Illinois death row prisoner, Anthony Porter, was exonerated within 48 hours of his scheduled execution when an investigator hired by the Northwestern project obtained a video-recorded confession from the man who actually committed the murder. The Porter exoneration was swiftly followed by three more–Steven Smith, Ronald Jones, and Steven Manning—setting the stage for the new governor, George Ryan, to declare the country’s first moratorium on executions in January 2000. It was clear that the risk of executing the innocent was a key component of a new narrative about the death penalty. As Richard Dieter put it:

We had to reach a critical mass in the amount of information people heard about innocence. They had to hear it again and again. Innocence opened the door and you started to hear political leaders saying the reason they were stopping executions or voting to abolish the death penalty was the risk of an innocent person being put to death. Innocence was the breakthrough that was needed to deflate the pro-death penalty argument.

The progress in shifting the narrative did not lead to policy change right away. In fact, the abolition cause suffered a setback after the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in April 1995. President Bill Clinton, who had demonstrated his death penalty bona fides in 1992 when he interrupted his campaign for president to preside over the Arkansas execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally disabled man, signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 into law. The bipartisan act greatly limited the ability of federal courts to grant writs of habeas corpus, often the only legal relief available to those on death row.[7] The number of executions was climbing steadily at this juncture, and abolition advocates felt a new sense of urgency.

In 1997, the ACLU commissioned a series of focus groups to inform the organization and its allies about the general public’s attitudes toward the death penalty. Participants were either somewhat supportive of the death penalty or had no opinion on the issue. At the time the focus groups were held, public opinion surveys showed that three-quarters of Americans supported the death penalty. In a report titled, “Making the Case for Abolishing the Death Penalty,” the research firm of Belden Russonello & Stewart advised that “overall, the groups uncovered deeply-held support for the death penalty among these participants, but the discussions also identified some possible ways to begin to erode this support through long-term education.” The report and its recommendations were shared and discussed widely with the abolition community.

The views expressed by the focus group participants demonstrated that calling for abolition had little chance of success in the near term. According to the researchers’ analysis, the overarching theme that emerged from the focus groups was “don’t get rid of the death penalty, but use it wisely.” Participants believed that the death penalty was at times administered unfairly, but they did not see the problems as serious enough to warrant ending its use. In response to a story about an innocent person who had been sentenced to death, for example, a focus group participant said:

I just don’t think that’s a good reason to not kill the people that are guilty for fear that you might make a mistake and kill someone who’s innocent. You have to hope that the judicial system is fair and is structured so that it catches those mistakes.

The direction for changing the dominant narrative became clear: The anti-death penalty movement had to expose the many ways that the judicial system was riddled with errors and unfairness and use all the tools at its disposal to communicate those problems to the American public. In other words, follow Justice Thurgood Marshall’s admonition to “shock the conscience” of the “average American.”

In 1998 the ACLU received a grant to underwrite a convening of movement leaders to build unity around a new narrative—one based on exposing and challenging systemic flaws in the administration of the death penalty, state by state. For some organizations and individuals, this approach was problematic and smacked of “greasing the rope”—fixing the death penalty system so that it worked better. Bringing everyone on board would require the time and space for in-depth discussion and debate. The convening took place over several days at the Musgrove Retreat and Conference Center on St. Simons Island, Georgia. It included a presentation by the public opinion research firm that had conducted the ACLU’s focus groups. By the end of the convening, agreement had been reached on a new narrative and the state-based strategy. According to Richard Dieter, who participated in the Musgrove convening:

The narrative shifted from a theoretical, philosophical debate to a more pragmatic approach. And that brought in a broader group of people who questioned the death penalty but didn’t necessarily oppose it on principle. The broader approach, the ‘bigger tent,’ has been effective on this issue.

From 2000–2006: A New Narrative Takes Hold

By the turn of the new millennium, support for the death penalty in cases of murder had begun its downward trajectory.[8] On January 27, 1999, Pope John Paul II condemned it as “both cruel and unnecessary” during his Papal Mass in St. Louis, reinforcing the moral imperative for a moratorium. The abolition movement had reached a critical mass in terms of influencing the debate through public appearances, media outreach, and other forms of communication. As Robert Dunham points out, the movement had also grown increasingly diverse:

There are many organizations that have made a tremendous impact. The Southern Center for Human Rights, the Equal Justice Initiative, Witness to Innocence, and the Catholic Mobilizing Network. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon, because of her role in Dead Man Walking, attracted media attention. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the American Bar Association, Amnesty International, the Innocence Project, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Some of the most important people are the institutional capital defenders, because without them you would not see the stories of all the miscarriages of justice. They all play a vital role.

With the arrival of the internet, the Death Penalty Information Center became an even more efficient “one stop shop” for news and analysis. Between 1990 and December 31, 2019, 3,869 news articles were published in the mainstream U.S. news media referencing DPIC. In terms of overall share of media coverage, DPIC significantly outpaced its major opposition, the Washington Legal Foundation, a pro-death penalty organization.

New voices entered the debate, most significantly family members of murder victims who opposed the death penalty, and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights was founded. Affiliates of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty ramped up their efforts to expose the flaws in their states’ systems, issuing public reports and engaging in legislative advocacy and local media outreach. According to Diann Rust-Tierney:

The focus on changing the law at the state level—that was huge. Before, all of us thought our job was to just keep talking to people and if we convinced them to oppose the death penalty, something would happen. It was when we linked the communications strategy to actual state policy reforms that we began to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

A survey of coverage in major U.S. newspapers during this period reveals the shifting narrative in real time. More and more, journalists focused on issues that the abolition movement was pressing: the role of race and poverty; the problems of prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate counsel that led to miscarriages of justice and exonerations; the cruelty of “botched” executions. These stories reinforced the public’s growing unease and also revealed the systemic fault lines that the movement had been trying to expose. In particular, the availability of post-conviction DNA testing revealed how high the risk of executing an innocent person really was.

News coverage of death row exonerations began to increase in 2001 and spiked in 2003. That year there were more than 500 stories published in major U.S. newspapers highlighting the rising number of exonerations. Hundreds of stories reported on Gov. George Ryan’s moratorium on executions and his decision to grant blanket commutations during his last days in office for all 156 people still on Illinois’s death row. His statement that “Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die” received wide coverage in the print and broadcast media. Other stories reported on individual cases of exoneration around the country, some occasioned by new DNA evidence and others by evidence of prosecutorial misconduct or racial bias among jurors. Between 2003 and 2006, there were 1,495 news reports and opinion pieces nationwide focusing on exonerations, and anti-death penalty op-eds, columns, and editorials far outweighed the pro side. Other flaws in the system, including prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense, and racial disparities also received increasing media attention during this period.

From 2007–2020: An Era Drawing to a Close

This period saw a marked increase in the number of police shootings of unarmed black men and an uptick in media coverage of these incidents. The frequency and number of police killings gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement and a marked shift in the public’s consciousness about racial bias in the criminal justice system overall. In 1995, a majority of Americans believed the criminal justice system gave black people “fair treatment.” By 2007, the percentage that thought the system was “biased against Blacks” was on the rise, and between 1995 and 2015 it increased by almost 30 points.[9] This growing acceptance of the reality of systemic racial bias added to people’s disquiet over the death penalty.

By 2007, the efforts to shift the death penalty narrative began to bear fruit in the policymaking context. In December of that year, New Jersey became the first state to abolish capital punishment legislatively. (New York’s statute had been declared unconstitutional by the state’s high court in 2004.) New Jersey was followed by New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Maryland (2013), Nebraska (2015), Delaware (2016), Washington (2018), New Hampshire (2019), and Colorado (2020). In 2019 moratoriums were declared by the governors of four states: Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, and Colorado. The statements made by the governors explaining their reasons for suspending executions reflected the new narrative:

Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure. It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.


This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania.


If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.


The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all.


Important new voices joined the chorus. Former prison wardens who had overseen executions, including Ron McAndrew of the Florida State Prison at Starke, Ohio Corrections Director Reggie Wilkinson, and San Quentin Warden Jeannie Woodford, publicly express their opposition. Newspapers in death penalty states published powerful editorials. In 2008, the Dallas Morning News called upon Texas, with its hyperactive death chamber, to stop the executions: “It’s the view of this newspaper that the justice system will never be foolproof and, therefore, use of the death penalty is never justified.” That same year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which had long supported the death penalty, changed its position stating, “The government ought to limit itself to protecting the public—and ought to refrain from playing God.” In 2013, a group of conservative thinkers and publishers formed Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty under the banner, “We are questioning a system marked by inefficiency, inequity, and inaccuracy.”

Social media came to play a significant role in the narrative shift process, and the available data show a growing public engagement with the issue. Between January 2009 and December 2019, more than 11.6 million social media posts were generated making reference to the death penalty, capital punishment, and related terms, averaging roughly 88,000 posts per month. The first significant spike occurred in September 2011 preceding and following the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.[10] Overall online engagement with the death penalty began a steady and sustained increase beginning in March 2015, reaching a peak in July 2019 when the Trump Department of Justice announced its plan to resume executions after an almost two decade de facto moratorium.

There were significant developments in the cultural field as well, most notably the publication of Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, recounting the racist railroading and eventual release from Alabama’s death row of his client, Fred McMillian. The book remained on The New York Times best seller list for more than a year, selling more than a million copies. A film based on the book, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, was released in December 2019 to critical acclaim.


Slow but steady progress characterizes the narrative shift when it comes to the death penalty. Armed with a proactive communications strategy based on fundamental American values (in this case, fairness) this case study shows that advocates can change the story even when the dominant narrative is firmly embedded in the public consciousness.

The power of the new narrative was on display in the nationwide campaign to win a stay of execution for Rodney Reed, an African American man sentenced to death by an all white jury in Texas in 1998. Reed, who has always maintained his innocence, was scheduled to be executed on November 20, 2019, but an outpouring of public support won him an indefinite stay of execution so that he could introduce new evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. In the weeks leading up to the execution, nearly 3 million people signed a petition to stop it, and celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, QuestLove, and Oprah Winfrey spoke out. Supporters protested outside Gov. Abbott’s mansion, and the governor received pleas from the Catholic Bishop of Austin, the European Union, and the American Bar Association. On November 8, 26 bipartisan members of the Texas House of Representative sent a letter to the governor seeking a reprieve to allow for DNA testing, followed by a similar call by a bipartisan group of 16 Texas state senators. On November 10, the Houston Chronicle published an editorial that opened with the simple declarative: “Don’t kill, wait.”

On November 15, just days before the scheduled execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in what the press called a “stunning decision” and a “dramatic turn of events” issued an indefinite stay, directing the Bastrop County district court to review Reed’s claims that prosecutors suppressed exculpatory evidence and presented false testimony and that he is actually innocent. The campaign to spare Rodney Reed from the busiest death chamber in the country has amplified the narrative that the death penalty is fatally flawed.

In his 1972 concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, “Assuming knowledge of all the facts presently available regarding capital punishment, the average citizen would, in my opinion, find it shocking to his conscience and sense of justice.” Thirty years ago, the abolition movement set itself the task of educating the “average citizen” about the many flaws in the application of the death penalty, but the ultimate goal was always to “shock the conscience” to the point where the average citizen would find it morally unacceptable. Since 2001, the Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs Survey has been asking the following question: “Do you believe that in general the death penalty is morally acceptable or morally wrong?” In 2019 60 percent said they still believed it was morally acceptable. Although still a majority belief, the percentage has dropped 10 points since 2005.

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1 Furman v. Georgia was brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.


3 The Opportunity Agenda, “A New Sensibility: An Analysis of Public Opinion Research on Attitudes Towards Crime and Criminal Justice,” pp. 40–41. This publication can be found at

4 According to the NCADP’s publication, “A 30th Anniversary History,” 26 organizations comprised the new coalition at its birth. In addition to the ACLU, they included, most notably, the Southern Poverty Law Center, American Friends Service Committee, NAACP LDF, U.S. Jesuit Conference, United Presbyterian Church, and National Conference of Black Lawyers.

5 The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) represented an African American man sentenced to death in Georgia for killing a white police officer during a robbery. On appeal, LDF presented the Court with statistical evidence showing that racial bias played a role in the state’s capital punishment system: African Americans were more likely to receive a death sentence, and African American defendants who killed white victims were the most likely to be sentenced to death. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the “racially disproportionate impact” shown by the statistics was not enough to overturn the guilty verdict without showing a “racially discriminatory purpose.”

6 By the end of the 1990s, eight people on death row had been exonerated and released as a result of DNA testing.

7 A writ of habeas corpus allows a defendant (now called the petitioner) to raise many issues that cannot be raised in an appeal because a writ is not limited to re-arguing points that were raised and lost below.

8 There was a brief uptick in support following 9/11.

9 New York Times/CBS News Poll on Race Relations in the U.S., July 23, 2015, A 2019 poll of North Carolina voters showed that a majority (57 percent) believed it was likely that racial bias affected whether or not a person received a death sentence.



12 The execution of Troy Davis, who maintained his innocence, received massive media coverage and was highly controversial. World figures, including Pope Benedict XVI and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, human rights groups, and commentators urged the execution to be halted.

Criminal Justice Reform Phrase Guide

Five Tips for Language That Changes Hearts & Minds

Momentum has grown for policymakers to improve the criminal system and adopt strategies that keep all communities safe; prevent harm; and uphold the values of fairness, equal justice, respect, and accountability. But we know that current conversations often perpetuate misconceptions, reinforce stereotypes, and hamper improvement of the system.

This tool includes tips to promote a more equitable and more accurate discourse that is respectful and effective at addressing the harms of the system.

Whether you are a public defender, legislator, community organizer, judge, professor, or communicator, adopting harmful language can impact the discourse and policies that affect people and communities.

Our words matter. The goal of this document is to provide suggestions for effective and appropriate language to move the needle toward transformation. The Opportunity Agenda welcomes your experiences, reactions, ideas, and insights.

1. People, Not Labels

The traditional language of the criminal justice system is often dehumanizing and fosters stigma, stereotypes, and fear. Instead of labels, talk about the people touched by the system; they are members of our community and nation.

For all of the above, depending on how specific the description needs to be, say: People who have been caught up in the criminal justice system.


2. Connect the Harm to Systemic Solutions

Conversations about the criminal system often respond to individual examples, which the media frequently sensationalizes. These accounts contribute to a public culture of fear about crime, and often feature individualized responses rather than systemic reform. To promote a new narrative about what community safety looks like, try to reframe the conversation and remind people that reforming the system is a path toward true community safety. We don’t need to rely on punishment and harshness to keep everyone safe.

When they say: we need more police and criminal laws.

YOU SAY: We need real community safety. That happens when we provide the resources communities need to thrive, particularly those who are suffering from a lack of investment.

When they say: violent crime is skyrocketing.

YOU SAY: Working toward real community safety will always be our priority. We know that most harms happen between people who know each other or who are family and are experiencing stressors. We encourage investment in programs that alleviate the financial and emotional burdens of the moment.

When they say: We need to return to more law and order.

YOU SAY: Safe communities mean that personal security and equal justice co-exist. We are safer when we invest in social welfare programs and community-based anti-violence programs.

When they say: X person committed this violent crime, so criminal justice reform policies should be abandoned.

YOU SAY: We have to be smart about the way we approach something as important as community safety. It makes no sense to throw out carefully considered policies that have helped so many communities based on one instance. If ever there were a time to dig deep for solutions, that time is now.

We are all safer when we look at the system as a whole; when we support people as they reenter their communities; and when we adopt policies that keep people within their social support network. We should examine criminal policies by looking at their effects on the whole system. We should not allow politicians to sensationalize individual instances to promote policies that do more damage than good.

When they say: Calls to defund policing will result in chaos.

YOU SAY: We should welcome any calls to examine a system that is causing people harm. When we take a closer look at how police interact with communities and how we can better approach community safety and prevent harm, we get closer to true community safety – our shared goal.

We can help communities become even safer by investing in programs and policies that allow them to hold individuals accountable for harm while providing alternatives to incarceration.

When they say: We need to punish people for their crimes.

YOU SAY: We know there are many ways to hold people accountable without relying on outdated or dehumanizing forms of punishment. For example, restorative justice programs have proven to provide a process of accountability while allowing people affected by harm to fully participate in the process.

When they say: Our cities will become dangerous if we don’t punish violent offenders.

YOU SAY: We can best keep our cities safe by increasing our investments in education, housing, food, access to recreation and other programs that allow people to thrive.

When they say: We need police to protect us from criminals.

YOU SAY: Whatever our perspective, our shared goals should be community safety and harm prevention. As the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor show us, we need to rethink our approach to preventing harm because police violence also makes communities unsafe. We can do this by looking at effective programs that have managed to prevent harm and support communities without relying on police.

3. Obstacles Before Outcomes

Instead of jumping straight to unequal outcomes, take the time to explain the unfair systems and inequitable treatments that lead to those outcomes. Otherwise, many audiences will inaccurately assume that unequal outcomes happen because some groups are simply more prone to crime.

Black man waves Black Lives Matter flag set against pink-blue gradient.
Photo by Clay Banks

4. Break Stereotypes

Antiquated language about communities and crime tends to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and drive flawed and misdirected policy. Use language that respects communities and acknowledges the disinvestment in neighborhoods and groups that contributes to higher levels of crime and violence.


5. Avoid Unnecessary and Harmful Distinctions

Public opinion research shows that most Americans support reforming the justice system and do not automatically distinguish between violent and nonviolent crimes or drug and other offenses. Avoid making those distinctions unnecessarily; these lines of demarcation can reduce support for broad-based reform of the system.


Respect People’s Voice and Choice

This phrase guide provides helpful tips for talking about issues relating to the criminal system. However, there may be instances when you are talking with communities and individuals whose preferences differ from the advice in this guide. That’s okay. Respect people’s choices and voices. Not everyone in a group is the same. Although the language from this guide builds upon organizing, advocacy, and research arguing that humanizing people most impacted by the criminal system is a step toward making the system fairer, some people might have different language preferences in certain instances. The most important thing to recognize is that people impacted by the criminal system are people, and how we talk about them affects the public discourse, narratives, and policies that impact their everyday life.

Values to uplift in your messaging:

  • Preventing Harm
  • Promoting Community Safety
  • Accountability
  • Rehabilitation
  • Dignity
  • Restoration
  • Equal Justice
  • Due Process
  • Doing what works

Additional criminal justice reform communication resources:

Shifting the Narrative


Both research and our lived experience consistently show that the language we use and the stories we tell play a significant role in shaping our views of the world and, ultimately, the policies we support. As the concept of “narrative” has grown in prominence within the advocacy space, more stakeholders are recognizing the centrality of storytelling to systemic change. But how do we define narrative and the elements that contribute to a successful narrative change strategy? Is change inevitable or the product of coordinated efforts that are possible to replicate?

At The Opportunity Agenda, we define narrative as: a Big Story, rooted in shared values and common themes, that influences how audiences process information and make decisions. Narratives are conveyed not only in political and policy discourse, but also in news media, in popular culture, on social media, and at dinner tables across communities.

To lay the groundwork for a sustained 21st century narrative change effort promoting mobility from poverty, criminal justice reform, and opportunity for all, The Opportunity Agenda embarked on a six-part narrative research study, with the aim of identifying the essential and replicable elements of past successful efforts, gleaning the insights captured in academic literature, consulting with diverse leaders from practice, and sharing our analysis and recommendations broadly with the field.

To this end, we chose a range of narrative-shift examples to study. Some were long-term narrative-shift efforts that resulted in shifts to both cultural thinking and policy; others were shorter-term, single-issue–focused campaigns with a particular policy goal that required a shift in narrative to achieve.

Across efforts, it is clear that narrative change does not happen on its own, particularly around contested social justice issues. It typically results from a sophisticated combination of collaboration, strategic communications tactics, and cultural engagement, all attuned to key audiences and societal trends. It requires both discipline and investment. The involvement of people whose lives are directly impacted by the narrative change being attempted is critical in the development and deployment of strategy. The process is a feedback loop because shifting narratives over time requires listening and learning from what is and is not working and incorporating that back into movement goals, more refined research, and narrative evolution.

External circumstances change, moreover, requiring recalibration and, sometimes, reformulation. A human rights narrative that worked before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, would have to evolve in the years immediately after those events. Conversely, a more populist and transformative economic justice narrative became possible after the economic crisis and rising inequality of the past decade. Ignoring those seismic changes risks clinging to a narrative that has become out of date.

Among these very divergent and diverse case studies, there are consistent tactics, trends, and revelations that we found throughout. We believe that the recommendations below, as determined through our analysis, can provide social justice advocates, policymakers, activists, and media commentators with insight into the elements of successful narrative shift efforts, as well as recommendations about what to consider when undertaking such campaigns.

…narrative change does not happen on its own, particularly around contested social justice issues. It typically results from a sophisticated combination of collaboration, strategic communication tactics, and cultural engagement, all attuned to key audiences and societal trends.

Talking About Justice and Equity Through Sports

Tips for Advocates Seeking Guidance on How to Add to the Conversation

From Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to Simone Biles speaking candidly on the importance of prioritizing mental health, athletes continue to use their power and platforms as cultural influencers to tip the scales towards justice and equity for all.

The power of political and narrative organizing by athletes and grassroots organizers has forced the hand of professional sports leagues and collegiate associations to, in the least, manage a public relations crisis, and at best, look internally to how their structures replicate social inequity. Furthermore, personal acts of resistance by athletes in the public view have forced the nation into conversations about injustice and liberation.

Here are five principles for advocates who don’t follow sports closely but want to engage in these conversations. Together, we can speak with sports fans who share our values but fail to recognize how systemic injustice plagues American institutions. Once we reach that shared understanding, we can move them to support justice reform in both their communities and favorite sports leagues.

1. Lead with shared values of fairness and community and widen the lens towards systemic equity. Sports fans hate cheaters, love underdogs, understand the value of teamwork, and crave stories about people who overcame long odds to find success — the rags to riches story. When viewed through a racial justice lens, however, sports narratives tend to be grounded in assumptions of meritocracy, relying on a familiar (and false) assumption that we social justice communicators regularly tackle about how everyone starts on an equal playing field. There are two important points to remember when you are facing this framing:

  • Be cautious of how the use of sports themes like “equal playing field” create a competitive framework that implies that one person’s win is another person’s loss. This framing can lead to a false sense of scarcity that expanding economic security or educational opportunity in one community threatens access for another. Abundance messaging counters scarcity mindsets. By starting with an abundance frame, it becomes easier for audiences to see how equitable and inclusive health care or investments in public education can contribute to the common good.
  • Shift the conversation from one of individual opportunity to institutional equity. This narrative shift creates space to tackle how accessibility gaps have grown as youth sports transition into costly, club-based programs or how sports scholarships serve to reinforce racial disparities in higher education.

Required listening: “Special: Sports, Racism and The Myth of Meritocracy,” WBUR (June 26, 2020)

2. Know your audience and avoid “inside baseball” talk. The bleachers are one of the rare places where people with a very broad spectrum of political beliefs come together with the shared identity of being loyal fans of their team. Your goal should never be to reach everyone; however, you need to make sure you use language that is approachable to athletes and fans. Once you see that an emerging issue is developing, it essential that you decide on the frame you want to present that would have the greatest impact with your audience.

If your goal is to reach a demographic subset of sports fans and move them into action:

  • What do you know about their current thinking? Look into public opinion research, social media scans, or their own words.
  • What do you want to change about their thinking in order to inspire action?
  • Who do they listen to?

If you’re trying to leverage a moment in sports to speak to wider audiences:

  • What context does the broader audience need in order to understand what is at stake?
  • What details are needed for audiences to understand how the issue connects back to systemic policy solutions?
  • Do your advocacy goals align with those of grassroots, community-based groups or the athletes themselves who are closest to the problem?

In both cases, especially when speaking to sports fans, avoid jargon, which can leave many people out, and instead craft accessible messages that emphasize human-centered language to invite more people into the conversation. We recommend tailoring messages to specific audiences using the Values, Problem, Solutions and Action framework (VPSA).

Extra credit: complete “Vision, Values and Voice: A Communications Toolkit.”

3. Lean into your advocacy expertise and lived experience to add value to the conversation. Similar to cable news, sports programming has shifted strongly towards point, counter-point programs that thrive on spectacle and personality. In this media environment, analysis often focuses on internal or interpersonal dynamics — players’ faults, divisions among athletes, or tension between players and team owners or league commissioners. What is lacking in this analysis is the acknowledgment of how systemic inequality may manifest in player’s lives and their communities.

In the coverage of Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, commentators connected her honesty about mental health to Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open. Some on-screen personalities “didn’t know what to make” of how these athletes’ decisions conflicted with the longstanding culture of toughing it out. Others applauded the shift toward athletes feeling empowered to be honest about their mental health, a struggle many of us share. In both contexts, however, discourse largely focused on the athletes themselves — not on athletic institutions — and how they personally react to pressure and stress.

In contrast, fellow Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes added deeper context to the history and culture of misogyny and sexual abuse that pervaded many gymnasts’ training long before the pressure of high-profile competitions. Obviously, Dawes is uniquely positioned to pen this perspective, but you don’t need to be an expert sports analyst to add value. By leveraging your expertise in racial equity, economic opportunity, or any related issues, you can connect media moments in sports to larger systemic issues that sports pundits may miss in their analysis.

4. Follow Black athletes and journalists on social media to monitor for biased reporting in the news. You should trust your instincts when what’s on the surface (i.e. in the news or on social media) doesn’t resonate with what you know to be true in your own lived experience. Like organizing, being a good ally requires some level of accountability to those closest to the problem. By following influential athletes and sports journalists you can more effectively engage with them when issues arise to help reframe conversations in the broader context, rather than allowing the dominant narrative to dictate the frame.

We don’t need to tell you that how news media functions often reinforces racism, and the same is true in sports media. More than a decade after it happened, NBA basketball point guard Allen Iverson’s viral “talking about practice” rant was revealed to be a sound bite from a larger statement where he also spoke honestly about his pain over the killing of his best friend, a case that went to trial days before this media moment. Rather than view Iverson with empathy and compassion for the deeply painful experience he was navigating, reporting in the moment focused on the drama between Iverson and his coach, reinforcing biased assumptions about his work ethic and commitment to the team.

Russell Westbrook’s NBA career has been marked by highly visible, heated exchanges with fans. Westbrook plays with a level of passion rarely seen, and his intensity on the court resonates with harmful stereotypes historically assigned to Black masculinity in media portrayals. The verbal assaults, sometimes referred to as “playful bantering” by fans, are rooted in racism that views Black athletes as less-than-human, and NBA franchises have acted decisively to issue lifetime bans against fans who verbally and physically assaulted Westbrook.

Looking at these specific incidents, how both athletes’ experiences were initially reported is emblematic of the racially biased ways Black men can be portrayed in the media. Following Black athletes and reporters on social media can help add context when learning more about unfamiliar narrative territory in sports.

5. Use the public commitments of sports leagues and teams as a jumping-off point for larger conversations about representation and justice. Much like our national and local politics, professional and amateur athletics are at a key inflection point in our work towards creating an equitable, inclusive society. While this is a key moment to leverage the power of professional athletes and leagues in our work for justice, it’s also vital that we validate players’ internal, anti-oppression organizing to reform policies and practices within their own leagues.

Scrutiny of professional league’s diversity, equity, and inclusion practices continues to reveal significant disconnects between demographics of athletes and their coaches, team owners and executive leadership. Most professional leagues have a labor union, often referred to as the players association. Tracking the efforts of both these bodies and their player representatives helps add context to disputes between athletes and owners during collective bargaining negotiations. In 2020, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Players Association made gains to increase base salaries, bonuses and secure paid family leave. In the international arena, the United States Women’s Soccer Team (USWNT) legal battle for pay equity continues.

Acts of resistance by athletes are also challenging leagues and teams to make public statements and financial commitments to addressing systemic racism. Analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) records on political contributions, however, raise questions of whether publicly stated commitments to racial justice or admissions of wrongdoing serve as little more than public relations window dressing.

As advocates, our expertise in both policy reforms and anti-racism cultural change within institutions uniquely positions us to use the public statements of athletic associations as openings for larger conversations about social justice.

As one example, a recent Supreme Court decision regarding financial compensation for college athletes further complicated the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reluctance to answer state legislative action that opens the door for amateur athletes to monetize use of their name, image and likeness (NIL). The NCAA has justified its position by arguing that athletes receive a free education. When reframed as yet another example where primarily white coaches and administrators are profiting off the free labor of predominantly Black athletes, the roughly $8 billion collegiate sports industry serves as yet another example of a “plantation economy.”

Required viewing: watch LFG on HBO Max (released June 24, 2021)


Since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in August 2016, hundreds of athletes have joined his protest of police brutality. His actions sparked a significant increase in both social media discourse and news media articles over a 12-month span preceding and following his protest. As we saw again with Simone Biles, cultural influencers hold tremendous power to propel conversations into our national discourse and create space for other high-profile individuals and the public to speak out.

Working directly with cultural influencers, or engaging in the conversations they spark, creates an opportunity to center the voices of people with direct experience of the issues at hand and convert short-term media moments into long-term narrative shifts and lasting policy changes. Given the upside of jumping into the debate, we shouldn’t sit on the sidelines.

Talking About the Attacks on Critical Race Theory

Narrative Principles for Promoting Truth in Education & How to Tell the Story about our Country

Our nation has been forced to reckon with its history of racial oppression, particularly after the tragic and senseless circumstances surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery, and many others.  Millions have protested in the streets, on a global scale, to demand the elimination of racially biased policing and the respect for Black lives. Corporations, school districts, nonprofits, institutions of faith, and others have declared their commitment to recognizing that “Black Lives Matter.”

In the wake of what has been considered by many a national racial reckoning, there has been opposition against efforts to educate the public, including our children in schools, about this country’s legacy of racial inequality. The most prominent of this opposition includes efforts to ban and demonize “critical race theory,” a legal theory that emerged in the 1980s by scholars in legal academic literature. Simply put, critical race theory is a theory about the law that recognizes that racism has been a core feature of American history. As a theory, it is primarily discussed within legal scholarship. However, conservatives have labeled any approach to education that recognizes this nation’s history as “critical race theory,” distorting its definition and concurrently distracting the public from efforts to undermine inclusive participation in our democracy through limits on voting and other aspects of civic participation (e.g., undermining the U.S. Census and efforts to consider racial factors in redistricting), as well as the promotion of false narratives about the so-called, “fairness and accuracy of” the 2020 election.

This memorandum provides recommendations for addressing the attacks on critical race theory and the misinformation being promoted around it. As is the case in the majority of our recommendations, The Opportunity Agenda believes that social justice communicators must tell an affirmative and aspirational story about the importance of education that reflects our diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, which includes aspects of our history that are tough or challenging to discuss, but nonetheless important to touch on with honesty about our country’s legacy of racial injustice. This advice is informed by our past experience and research on communicating effectively about racial and social justice.

General Advice

1. Acknowledge that most audience don’t know what critical race theory is. Critical race theory was developed by legal scholars in the late 1970s and 1980s, and it examines how the law reproduces racism. While critical race theory includes a diverse array of perspectives, some of its core tenets include (1) an acknowledgement that race is a socially-constructed phenomenon rather than a biological fact; and (2) racism is a core feature that permeates American legal and social structures rather than an aberration. As a legal theory, it is most commonly debated within legal and academic circles, and most audiences are not very familiar with its principles. Nevertheless, critical race theory has become a symbol for conservatives, and this body of legal theory is being redefined through divisive rhetoric. Those who decry critical race theory are particularly concerned about education on our nation’s factual history of colonialism, slavery, and racial segregation. The concern is less about “critical race theory” per se than a truthful retelling of history that acknowledges this country’s shortcomings, or, as some put it, greatest sins.

We advise that communicators briefly explain what critical race theory is (e.g., critical race theory is a legal theory that recognizes that racism has been a core feature of American history, which has shaped American laws and society) but spend most of your time emphasizing the need for a truthful recounting of our history in order for us to get to racial healing. The Opportunity Agenda agrees with the basic reminder that in order to heal, one must first diagnose and discuss the malady.

2. Focus on how the refusal to tell the full truth about our history undermines our shared values. It’s important to find ways to engage on a level that can connect with audiences who are unfamiliar with critical race theory, and a great way to do this is to focus on values. While most audiences are probably unfamiliar with the history and content of critical race theory, they are generally familiar with our country’s legacy of slavery and racial inequality. They know that slavery existed and that there was a reconstruction, and a continuing Civil Rights Movement that began by contesting Jim Crow laws. Most Americans know that these events occurred.

Remind audiences that banning education about our racial history, which these bans on “critical race theory” seek to do, undermine our efforts to promote shared values like equal justice, honesty, opportunity, and basic compassion. For example, remind people of the kind of country we want to be and draw on how our best ideals mean that we be truthful about our past. We have come a long way, and we can only continue to move forward by confronting our past shortcomings. Discuss how these attacks undermine these shared values and others including: Free Speech, Education, Fairness, and Opportunity.

3. Tell an affirmative story about the importance of inclusive education that allows us to confront our history as a nation. Explaining the details of how K-12 schools don’t teach “critical race theory” is not as powerful as affirmatively stating what type of education we should be striving for and what our opponents are really trying to do: eliminate a truthful recounting of history, which is necessary for us to finally overcome our country’s legacy of racial inequity. Remember that engaging the opposition arguments and myth busting on critical race theory also serves to feed into the conversation that opponents have started and are shaping. Talk about our goals instead: we should aim for an education system that is inclusive, reflects diverse perspectives, and facilitates an equitable future. Spending too much time “myth busting” or telling audiences that schools don’t teach critical race theory, only repeats the phrase and strengthens it in audiences’ minds.

4. Connect the attacks on critical race theory to the attacks on racial and social justice more broadly. Right now, there is a coordinated effort to undermine this country’s democracy as conservatives launch a cultural war on critical race theory, among other imagined “woke” threats. These provide a useful distraction from the current unprecedented threat to democracy. Racial and social justice advocates should connect the attacks on critical race theory to the attacks on participation in our democracy and on how they amount to attempts to concentrate power in voting blocks that are white while limiting the power of new citizens or people of color. They are attempts to undermine social justice and progress, and they share a collective goal to uproot democracy. The cultural attacks on “critical race theory” are a distraction from the social and political attacks on our democracy. Be explicit about this.

5. Discuss the importance of the values of Honesty, Truth, and Free Speech. As the population of children in this country becomes increasingly diverse, efforts to ban a full and truthful accounting of our country’s history ensures that children will not learn about their peoples’ own histories. Efforts to equip children to thrive in a diverse society will be undermined if these bans persist. Attempts to ban racially inclusive education also violate the free speech rights of educators who want to talk about the truth; they encourage a dishonest accounting of our nation’s history; and they promote disinformation and dishonesty. We can’t work together if we can’t even be honest about where we’ve been. We must ensure that the history that is taught celebrates ethnic diversity and acknowledges that slavery was a part of this country’s legacy so we can learn from the past rather than hide from it.

6. Pivot to solutions and action. The early reporting on this issue was lackluster to the extent that it reflects a lack of knowledge about critical race theory and general confusion about how to respond to the attacks. There has been little focus on the solutions for this issue or the path forward.  It is therefore important to discuss the constitutional values that are threatened by these attacks (Free Speech and First Amendment protections) and how they are inconsistent with our Constitution and the spirit and values of our democracy.  Advocates should provide ways for ensuring that education becomes inclusive and emphasize that despite the rhetoric about critical race theory, we still have a way to go to make education more inclusive. Promote your solutions for providing an education that promotes an equitable society.

Values to Lead With

1. Honesty and Truth: In order for this country to achieve racial healing, we must be honest about what has ailed our nation and how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.  Being truthful about where we have been as a country can be challenging, but it is also rewarding if we consider how far we have come. While we still have a long way to go, discussing this history provides guidance on how we can continue to make progress toward racial justice.

2. Inclusivity: Equal justice is a founding principle for this country, and it requires that we strive to create an inclusive environment where everyone can learn about their and other cultures and histories at school.

3. Education: Our schools should be places where young people learn the skills to thrive in our increasingly diverse society. They should learn about each other’s culture and should leave schools equipped to thrive with these teachings so that we can ensure that our modern society is forward-thinking and learns from the past.

Talking About the Supreme Court

Narrative Principles for Discussing Supreme Court Cases

As the Supreme Court prepares to issue its final decisions of the term, it is vital that we remember the values which underly the essential liberties we strive for. Although our hope is that the Court will ensure that everyone can fully enjoy the protections and rights provided by the Constitution, there are a number of cases pending that could set us back on this aspiration. This includes challenges regarding the extent to which local governments can take steps to prevent organizations from discriminating against LGBTQ couples who want to foster children; whether states can constitutionally restrict voting; and whether the healthcare protections in the Affordable Care Act remain constitutional, among other important cases.

The Opportunity Agenda strongly believes that it is important to uplift the need to protect the hard-fought gains our country has made in promoting and preserving opportunity, while also acknowledging that these hard-fought gains are, in many respects, still incomplete. It is on this premise that we prepare ourselves to critically analyze Supreme Court decisions that might undermine the very progress that has been achieved.

We encourage communicators, advocates, and anyone concerned with social justice to uplift the important point that Supreme Court justices must preserve prior decisions that protect and advance constitutional rights. Below are some suggestions for how to do this, informed by recent opinion research for talking about the Supreme Court as it gets ready to issue these end-of-term decisions.

General Advice

  1. Focus on what Supreme Court decisions mean to our shared values. Most audiences are not at all familiar with – or even focused on – the outcomes of Supreme Court cases and their impressions will be shaped by headlines and topline rhetoric. It’s important to find ways to engage at that level. A great way to do this is to focus on values, such as reminding people of the kind of country we want to be and drawing on our best ideals. Consider what the decision suggests for the celebration or undermining of those values. Values: Justice, Freedom, Dignity, Fairness, Opportunity, Democracy, Family.
  2. Don’t focus on what a decision is not. Discuss what it is. Explaining the legal details of what the case does not mean is less powerful than affirmatively stating what it does mean. Spending too much time “myth busting” or telling audiences that the ruling does not outlaw abortion, for instance, only repeats the phrase and strengthens it in audiences’ minds. Remember that “myth busting” doesn’t result in audiences remembering your point – it instead results in the further penetration of the points that opponents make.
  3. Pivot to solutions and action. While reporters covering the case may want “just the facts,” there are many opportunities to remind audiences of the solutions that the case highlights, and what they can do to make those solutions happen. Progressive and base audiences will be fired up to do something to celebrate or express anger or discontent, so make sure to provide a concrete action. Sympathetic audiences need to be primed to feel as though their efforts matter, and that they can be both despairing of this moment in history, while at the same time remembering that our country’s core principles and history are to slowly make progress even through challenging times. Undecided audiences need to hear the positive alternatives that are possible. Values: Pragmatism, Common Sense, Innovation, Determination to Do the Right Thing, Our Shared Responsibility to Fix Flawed Policies, Solidarity.

Specific Advice for the Pending Decisions

1. LGTBQ Justice and So-Called Religious Freedom

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

The Supreme Court will be deciding whether the City of Philadelphia improperly terminated its relationship with a Catholic charity that refused to screen same-sex couples as foster parents. The City of Philadelphia refused to work with this charity because of its discriminatory screening practices. Now, the charity is arguing that this termination violated its right to freedom of religion. This case presents a conflict of rights in which the City of Philadelphia is concerned with same-sex couples’ right to be free from discrimination, and the charity is claiming that it has a right to religious freedom in its discriminatory decision not to work with same-sex couples.

Recent public opinion research is helpful in assessing how to respond to this case and the others that are before the Court this term. A recent study polled a nationally representative sample of 2,158 American adults about their views on upcoming Supreme Court decisions[1] The SCOTUS Study asked respondents whether they believed that requiring foster agencies to place children with same-sex couples violated the foster agencies’ right to religious freedom, and 52.2% of the public stated that it does violate these agencies’ right to religious freedom.

Table 1[2]

This finding suggests communicators and advocates should emphasize the government’s role in preventing discrimination and in ensuring that everyone is able to build a family with dignity. Emphasizing the government’s role in preventing discrimination and the importance of protecting everyone’s right to family and equal justice – including the rights of potential LGBTQ foster couples and their prospective foster children – will be critical. Moreover, communicators and social justice leaders should connect the outcome in the case to our shared values by describing how the outcome in this case might undermine or bolster local governments’ abilities to prevent discrimination.

Values to Uplift When Discussing This Case: Family, Equal Justice, Human Rights, Community, Empathy.

2. Affordable Care Act

California v. Texas

Following its 2012 decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court will again be deciding upon a challenge to its constitutionality. The Court will decide on two main issues: (1) whether the individual mandate is constitutional; and (2) if the individual mandate is unconstitutional, whether it is nevertheless severable from the Affordable Care Act, allowing this Act to remain in force even if the individual mandate provision is no longer part of it. While it is possible that the Court will not decide upon the substance of the case and will instead find the parties who brought the case to not have standing, it is important to plan for the decision, nonetheless.

The SCOTUS Study found that 55.8% of respondents believed that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. This finding suggests that there is additional work needed to explain how the mandate broadens access to healthcare and is critical to a better-functioning healthcare system.

Table 2[3]

Nevertheless, most respondents (53.3%) stated that even if the individual mandate is unconstitutional, it should not affect the rest of the law.

Table 3[4]

If the Court strikes down the mandate and thereby strikes down Obamacare, it will be important to emphasize how the Supreme Court’s choice was excessive and that millions of Americans will be left uninsured by it.

Remind audiences of our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. Access to healthcare is incredibly important and should be uplifted as a value, and after enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences may be more open to these messages than ever before. As we are starting to see glimmers of hope regarding the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains important to protect everyone’s access to healthcare.

Values to Uplift When Discussing This Case: Human Rights, Community, Health, Empathy, Compassion, Looking Out for One Another.

3. Voting Rights

Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee I

Following Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, his followers have initiated a massive effort to both continue the drumbeat promoting fraud and suppress voter turnout in many states. For example, Arizona passed a law that (1) prohibits people from getting assistance from others to drop off their ballots on their behalf, and (2) requires that provisional ballots be automatically discarded when a voter votes in the wrong precinct. According to the SCOTUS Study, voters are evenly split on how the Court should resolve these two issues.

Table 4[5]

Table 5[6]

The widespread, “big lies” about the 2020 election present unprecedented challenges to our democracy and warrant bold action. The response to the Supreme Court’s decision in this case should emphasize the Court’s role in ensuring that every citizen is able to exercise their right to vote. The Court’s decision may include a ruling about the appropriate standard for challenging voter suppression efforts, which may or may not make it more difficult to contest these threats to our democracy.

Values to Uplift When Discussing This Case: Democracy, Equal Justice, Human Rights, Community, Fairness.

4. Criminal Justice

Terry v. United States

Taharick Terry was convicted for possessing just 4 grams of crack cocaine, the equivalent weight of around four paper clips. He was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison because of a law that produced a 100:1 sentencing disparity for crack cocaine as compared to powder cocaine. This disparity contributed to gross racial inequities in sentencing by targeting the form of cocaine – crack cocaine – that is more prevalent in Black and brown, and lower-income, communities for grossly higher sentences than its powder form.

In 2010, President Obama and Congress reduced the disparity to 18:1 in the Fair Sentencing Act. In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which allowed sentencing reforms to apply retroactively to people already sentenced in prison because of draconian sentencing laws. This case addresses whether offenses like Terry’s fit within the provisions that allow for less serious offenses to be re-sentenced. The decision in this case could have a broad impact on efforts to address some of the harms of excessive and racially biased sentencing laws.

Values to Uplift When Discussing This Case: Equal Justice, Fairness, Human Rights, Community, Family, Due Process.


As a general matter, it is important to communicate carefully, as the first read of any decision can sometimes mislead communicators into saying something they come to later regret, or to say something that isn’t quite the message that is important to uplift. It is therefore especially important to carefully review the Court’s holding(s) in each case and consult those who are working directly on interpreting and commenting about them. Sometimes it may be beneficial to narrowly construct any comments on a decision when formulating your response. Don’t comment until you’ve seen the facts and the lead party’s statement, as well as consulted with those most closely connected to the story that social justice leaders are recommending. Remember, the first statement you make will be the most powerful. Regardless of the outcome, it is beneficial to emphasize how values represent our vision for the aspirations we have for our country, and the importance of what the Supreme Court means to those values.

[1] Stephen Jessee, Neil Malhotra, & Maya Sen, “What Do The American People Think About the 2021 Supreme Court Cases? Results from SCOTUSPoll, a collaboration between researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the University of Texas” (April 22, 2021),

[2] Id. at 3.

[3] Id. at 4.

[4] Id. at 5.

[5] Id. at 6.

[6] Id. at 7.

Moving Forward: Three Ideas for Talking About the Moment

As we process, discuss, and continue to respond to the January 6th attack on our democracy and what it means for the days leading up to the Inauguration and beyond, The Opportunity Agenda offers a few messaging ideas for the immediate moment that also advance a long-term vision for justice.

Together, we must put forth a strong and unified message that names the hypocrisy and violence that white supremacists perpetuated at our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. We must call for those who inspired and carried out this insurrection to be held to account, and we must uplift the aspirations and vision we are striving for our democracy to be. Our communities and our country’s ideals depend on it.

1. Lay out a long-term vision, framed with values. In crafting your message, uplift the values that serve us in the current moment while also strengthening our long-term narrative. For instance:

Voice: Our Democracy depends on ensuring that all our voices are heard, and votes counted. The history made in Georgia in the runoff election on Jan. 5, with BIPOC organizers and voters leading the way with their organizing prowess, voices, and votes, cannot be overstated, and we must continue to celebrate this #BlackJoy and #JoyToThePolls as progress for our democracy – it is a defining moment for what our country aspires to be. The values of Voice, Community, and Inclusion ruled the day in Georgia and in the nation with record voter turnout – particularly Black, Latinx and APIA voters — and with the historic election of Rev. Warnock to the U.S. Senate. It is progress that we should continue to celebrate and uplift loudly despite everything else we are witnessing and facing.

Safety: We must ensure the true safety of everyone, whether they are working a job during the pandemic, peacefully protesting, or experiencing an encounter with law enforcement. We can use the jarring memory of the January 6th actions at the U.S. Capitol as a stark reminder that we must commit to doing all that is in our power to promote true Safety for all. This means resoundingly rejecting white supremacy’s grasp on our society, our police departments, the White House, and all who enable it. We will not stand for a system that is complicit with the violence promulgated against Black protesters, while at the same time is easy going on white vigilantes who run roughshod on federal spaces.

Dignity: Because we are humans first, and all people deserve to live in peace and dignity. We must remind people that our new future is built upon everyone having a voice, all of us coming together as a community to solve shared problems, keeping each other safe, and helping each other live with Dignity. We cannot go back to business as usual because that is what led to this crisis. We must take bold action to make this country a true, inclusive democracy where we stand with and for each other and where our elected officials and public servants respect our rights, no matter who we are.

2. Emphasize moving forward. Many of the events of the past year have reminded us of some of the country’s worst instincts and darkest history. But we have a moment now to underscore with audiences the message that we can move toward a better version of this nation if we come together to address our shared challenges and go beyond. Emphasize your long-term vision and paint a vivid picture of that future as well as the clear actions we need to take to achieve it. Remind people that to move forward, we have to come together in our diverse experiences, ideas, and strengths to build an economy, society, and country that truly embraces and embodies justice and opportunity. This means fighting for transformational changes, not accepting incremental or piecemeal solutions that leave people out and put us on a sluggish path toward our vision. We have a moment, and we must seize it.

3. Build messages that move your long-term narrative. The events at the Capitol and the actions of this administration, both recent and over the past four years, represent much of what is wrong with our country. But remember to choose your examples carefully to build your story for moving forward. For instance, the hypocrisy of law enforcement’s response to the white nationalist attack on the Capitol compared to their stealthy and violent strong handling of Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer makes a powerful argument for those who are advocating to Defund the Police in favor of building community resources for achieving true safety. Also, those focusing on Democracy work may choose to highlight the president’s attacks on voice and vote that culminated in January 6th’s violence. Spending too much time describing or explaining all the many dimensions of a specific event will likely keep audiences in that experience rather than looking forward – so remember to keep a simple framework for talking about the Values, Problems, Solutions and Actions we are trying to share.

More resources:

Democracy Rising Social Media Toolkit

Speaking Out About January 6,” Frameworks Institute

Our Democracy’s Ideals Depend on Our Actions Today,” The Opportunity Agenda

Reflecting on 2020, Going Beyond in 2021,” The Opportunity Agenda

Beyond Policing


The Opportunity Agenda wishes to first acknowledge the decades of activism that have led to the prominence of the movement to fully invest in healthy communities, which includes the labor and thought leadership of many Black feminists, and to thank and acknowledge the many people who contributed to the history of work and discourse, as well as to the research and writing of this report.

This report’s author is Opportunity Agenda Law & Policy Fellow I. India Thusi, Associate Professor of Law at Delaware Law School. Substantial research support was provided by: Mitch McCloy, Washington and Lee University School of Law class of 2021; Kristen Rosenthal, California Western School of Law class of 2021; and Paul Schochet, St. John’s University School of Law class of 2021. The messaging guidance was written by Julie Fisher Rowe, Director of Narrative and Engagement at The Opportunity Agenda, and Eva-Marie Malone, Director of Training and Criminal Justice at The Opportunity Agenda. Special thanks to those who contributed to the analysis, review, and editing of the report, including Eva-Marie Malone; Adam Luna, Vice President for Program, Strategy and Impact at The Opportunity Agenda. Additional thanks go to Christiaan Perez, Manager of Media Strategy, for outreach support. This report was designed and produced by Lorissa Shepstone and Gordon Clemmons of Being Wicked. Production was coordinated by Elizabeth Johnsen, Outreach and Editorial Director at The Opportunity Agenda. Sarah Wasko created the original artwork on the cover of the report. Overall guidance was provided by The Opportunity Agenda’s President, Ellen Buchman.

Finally, this research would not have been possible without the generous support of The Joyce Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely those of The Opportunity Agenda.


We all deserve to live in communities where we feel safe. And true community safety means feeling safe from violence by the state, which includes the police.

Social inequity has systematically and institutionally permeated our country since its founding, becoming more visible at various times in our history. We are now living in one of those moments of tremendous clarity, and it calls on us to look deeply at the efficacy of the reforms and narratives which preceded it. The deadly consequences of political decisions that create health disparities are now a wound that cannot be unseen as the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately ravages Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. At the same moment, Americans of all backgrounds are bearing witness to the pervasive nature of racism in this country as we watch a seemingly endless stream of viral videos of police officers and white supremacist vigilantes murdering Black people.

This storm of violence, awareness, and anger about racial injustice has energized a new social justice movement to address police violence. Protesters around the world have taken to the streets chanting “Defund the Police” and “Black Lives Matter” to eradicate the ongoing threat of police violence. In light of the growing acknowledgment that policing has been an institution that compromises the safety of marginalized communities, the political will to re-imagine the very essence of community safety is growing.

Society must move beyond police and punishment when thinking about community safety, so that we can enjoy solutions and interventions that promote dignity, humanity, anti-racism, and freedom from fear.

Beyond Policing reveals that calls to enact moderate policing reforms are not backed up by a track record of success. Instead, the analysis shows why calls to defund the police open doors to new solutions, which show promise and move beyond the police and punishment. It is intended as a tool for advocates and policymakers to talk about the importance of defunding the police and investing in communities. Beyond Policing includes:

  • A 13 city analysis of police departments that have adopted moderate reforms to improve policing but have nevertheless continued to engage in police violence. Our analysis provides support for the #DefundthePolice movement’s acknowledgment that it is past time to look beyond the old reforms and old ways of communicating about police reform.
  • A detailed look at numerous community groups and programs that enhance community safety without relying on police involvement. These programs adopt restorative justice, community empowerment, peer mediation, and economic support to address and prevent harm. They provide concrete solutions that address the question, “If not police, then what?”
  • Tips for talking about #DefundthePolice, including guidance for supporting a narrative that recognizes that the demand is realistic and needed in this moment.


Advocates are calling for policymakers to #DefundthePolice because many moderate reforms, such as bans on chokeholds and the use of body-worn cameras, that are typically suggested—and often implemented— after incidents of police violence have failed to systemically transform the practice of policing.

We conducted a survey of existing police department policies in 13 cities to illustrate how these policies have not led to the elimination of pervasive police violence and discriminatory policing. We looked at the policies of the police departments in New York City; Chicago; Philadelphia; Washington, DC; San Francisco; Los Angeles; New Orleans; Miami; Atlanta; Minneapolis; Yonkers; Oklahoma City; and Milwaukee. We compared: (1) bans on chokeholds, (2) de-escalation trainings, (3) implicit bias trainings, (4) “community policing” programs, (5) civilian complaint review boards, (6) body cameras, and (7) duty to intervene and/or report.

We found that the selected police departments have adopted the vast majority of the moderate policing reforms. Every city, except Milwaukee, has adopted a ban on chokeholds.1 Likewise, every city except for Yonkers has adopted a body-camera-wearing policy,2 a de-escalation training course,3 and a duty to intervene against or report misconduct by a fellow officer.4

In addition, all the cities adopted implicit bias training5 and a community policing program.6 Finally, with the exception of Yonkers, each city has an independent department for complaints or civilian complaint review board to evaluate police misconduct.7

In sum, moderate police reform policies have already been adopted across the country.


The prevalence of these policies in police departments suggests that moderate reform policies have failed to eliminate systematic police violence. Systemic racial disparities in police enforcement have continued as well. One study found African Americans were nearly three times more likely to die at the hands of police officers than white Americans.8 African Americans are similarly overrepresented in arrest rates. Indeed, in one study of more than 800 jurisdictions across the country, African Americans were five times more likely to be arrested.9 And once arrested, African Americans are, according to one study, 50 times more likely to “experience some form of force.”10 These disparities continue unabated even as departments have adopted the moderate policies that some commentators are suggesting as a response to the ongoing policing crisis.

In some cases, the civil rights violations by officers have been severe enough to require federal intervention. Specifically, cities have entered into “consent decrees” with the federal government, a court order where the city agrees to take or refrain from certain actions.11 Of the cities covered by this memorandum, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Yonkers, and Los Angeles (for the county sheriff’s department) are subject to some federal supervision.12

The need for federal intervention and the failure to reverse systemic disparities reveal the limits of moderate reforms. Some of the limits are practical. Implicit bias training, for instance, is helpful, but it is unlikely to change a new officer with a preexisting racial bias.13 Some of the limits are institutional. Duties to report and intervene when another officer is engaging in unauthorized acts of violence are helpful. Yet such requirements cannot overcome ingrained cultures of silence among officers, especially when strong police unions stand ready to fight any accusation against an officer.14 Officers in Buffalo and Chicago, for instance, were fired for reporting a fellow officer’s misconduct.15 Other limits include legal doctrines that shield officers, qualified immunity chief among them.

Yet all these policies share a common thread: they depend on officer buy-in. And officers are buying in. This resistance to reform has been pronounced with body camera requirements. According to a New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board investigation, officers would tip each other off when they had a camera on16 and in Chicago, officers often either did not wear or turn on their body cameras.17 Given these violations, it should come as no surprise that the use of body cameras has shown no statistical impact on a reduction in force.1

Following that trend, the near-uniform ban on chokeholds across the country actually seemed to increase the use of force. In fact, a review by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board in 2014 found the practice on the rise.19 And this “banned” technique has caused the death of multiple victims, including Eric Garner, James Thompson, and Gerald Arthur.20 The resistance to the chokehold ban has become so prevalent in Washington, DC, that city legislatures felt compelled to pass a new law to strengthen the ban.21

Moderate reforms have failed to curb racially disparate treatment by police across the country. These policies have been met by resistance and sabotage by the departments the policy is meant to restrain. Thus, cities should look to more systemic change to end racially disparate treatment by the police. Acting under that frame of change, Berkeley, California, recently replaced officers at traffic stops with unarmed, city employees.22 Other police departments across the country should follow Berkeley’s lead by adopting policies that look beyond police for public safety. The following chart outlines the various moderate policies that the selected police departments have already adopted. Advocates can use this chart to respond to the “Why Defund the Police?” question.

The chart below suggests that we need to move beyond the same old reforms if we want to promote true community safety.


* Yonkers police to test body cam program for 90 days in response to the George Floyd killing.

* Philadelphia has the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission



Below is a list of programs and organizations that look beyond policing to promote true community safety. It aims to assist advocates with addressing the question, “If no police, then what?” The techniques surveyed here include the use of violence interrupters, peacemaking circles, mobile crisis intervention systems, the use of stipends, and youth and community courts. The featured programs are illustrative of the potential of a model of community safety that redirects resources from the police to programs that aim to provide true community safety.


Restorative justice organizations with violence interrupter programs employ local members from the community who have experienced violence themselves to connect with young adults to stop violence before it happens.113 Violence interrupters and other community-based outreach workers use their “personal relationships, social networks, and knowledge of their communities to dissuade specific individuals and neighborhood residents in general from engaging in violence.”114 After connecting with high-risk individuals, the program links youth with needed services.115 Organizations with this type of program include Cure Violence, Oakland Unite, the Newark Community Street Team, and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. In October 2017, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a study of two Cure Violence programs located in the South Bronx and in Brooklyn.116 The study included analysis of a variety of metrics, including the reduction in social norms that support violence and violent acts. In terms of social norms, the study found that propensity to use violence in petty disputes declined by 20%.117 Overall, young men in neighborhoods with Cure Violence and violence interrupters reported “sharper reductions in their willingness to use violence compared with young men in similar areas without programs.”118

When it came to gun violence, the study found that gun injury rates fell by 50% in the Brooklyn neighborhood with Cure Violence, whereas injury rates only fell by 5% in a Brooklyn neighborhood without Cure Violence.119 In the area of the South Bronx with Cure Violence, gun injuries declined by 37% and shooting victimizations fell by 63%, compared with 29% and 17% in an area of Harlem without Cure Violence.120 Overall, the study concluded that Cure Violence’s approach to violence reduction “may help to create safer and healthier communities.”121


Many restorative justice organizations now use a Native American traditional approach to justice: peacemaking circles. Circles include disputants as well as their family members, friends, and other members of the community, giving them the chance to resolve the dispute but also heal relationships among those involved.122 A number of restorative justice organizations have a peacemaking circle program, including the Red Hook Community Justice Center, the Brownsville Community Justice Center, Philly Stands Up, Common Justice, and Men As Peacemakers.

Several qualitative studies of programs implemented in schools and by restorative justice organizations reveal the beneficial impact peacemaking circles have had on participants. For example, a study focusing on two Chicago schools that used peacemaking circles found that peace circles “effectively provide young people a nonjudgmental, safe, and trusting space to express themselves” and serve as “effective sites of social and emotional learning.”123 A study of the Red Hook Community Justice Center’s peacemaking program showed more mixed results, but generally participants positively responded to the program and felt like they were making progress with the dispute.124 Victims, however, were generally less likely to say the program had a positive impact on them.125 Nevertheless, peacemaking circles can serve as an effective way to resolve disputes through community-led efforts.


Mobile crisis centers modeled after Eugene, Oregon’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program are promising alternatives to policing. Established in 1989, CAHOOTS is a “community-based public safety system to provide mental health first response for crises involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.”126 Rather than deploy police officers, mental health specialists respond to situations to “ensure a nonviolent resolution of crisis situations.”127 In 2019 alone, CAHOOTS responded to 24,000 calls and only requested police backup 150 times.128 In terms of cost, CAHOOTS saves the city of Eugene around $8.5 million every year in public safety costs.129 The CAHOOTS budget of $2.1 million is a fraction of the size of the Eugene and Springfield police departments, which have an annual budget of around $90 million.130

Other cities have responded by implementing their own mobile crisis programs, including Portland, which just last month approved the budget for Portland Street Response.131 Organizations in other cities like Denver are currently advocating for the establishment of mobile crisis centers.132


Advance Peace has implemented one of the more unique but encouraging programs to resolve gun violence that does not rely on the police. Upon learning that 70% of shootings in Richmond, California, were caused by 17 people, Advance Peace created a program to identify the most potentially lethal men, invite them to a meeting, and offer to pay them a monthly stipend of up to $1,000 for a maximum period of 9 months to attend meetings, stay out of trouble, and respond to mentoring.133 Advance Peace’s founder explained the reasoning behind the stipend in a New York Times op-ed: “The social context for our prospective fellows was a laundry list of deprivation and dysfunction: high unemployment, fragmented families, inadequate education and a heavy dose of substance abuse.”134 Compared to the massive amount of money spent on law enforcement and prisons used to respond to gun violence, the stipend is modest.135

After 6 years of the program, 94% of the program fellows were still alive, 84% had not sustained a gun-related injury or been hospitalized for one since becoming fellows, and 79% had not been arrested or charged for gun-related activity since becoming fellows.136 After just the first year of the program, Richmond homicides fell by half, from 45 to 22.137


Community courts are part of a larger “problem-solving courts” movement that “seeks to prevent crime by directly addressing its underlying causes” rather than simply relying on punishment to address social issues.138 The nation’s first community court was established in Manhattan in 1993 as a way to relocate justice from courts to the local community, aiming to encourage communities to enforce social norms, and now there are at least 70 community courts around the world.139 Distinguishing features of community courts include individualized justice through wider access to information about defendants, expanded sentencing options, varying mandate length, offender accountability, community engagement, and community impact.140 Community courts, unlike other problem-solving courts, do not specialize in one particular problem like drugs, mental health, or domestic violence.

In November 2013, the National Center for State Courts released an extensive evaluation of the Red Hook Community Center’s community court in Brooklyn. The study found that adult misdemeanor offenders who went through the community court were to a “statistically significant degree less likely to become recidivists” than adult misdemeanor offenders in a control group.141 The probability of rearrests for offenders that went through the community court reduced by 10%.142 In addition, although the study could not definitively conclude that there was a causal relationship between the opening of the Community Center and a reduction in local arrests, there were “sharp decreases in the levels of both felony and misdemeanor arrests in the catchment area precincts” when the Center opened.143 Overall, the study concluded that “the community court model can indeed reduce crime and help to strengthen neighborhoods” and “the practice of procedural justice in interactions with individual representatives of the justice system…comprise[s] highly effective criminal justice policies.”144


This evaluation of one particular community court falls in line with the results of other studies including an Urban Institute report conducted in 2002. This report focused on youth teen courts in Alaska, Missouri, Arizona, and Maryland and concluded that “teen courts represent a promising alternative for the juvenile justice system” after finding that youth who were sent to teen court were less likely to re-offend than youth in comparison groups.145 Nevertheless, community courts should not be used to expand the reach of the criminal system, nor should they be the primary basis for providing social welfare services. Instead, they should be viewed as an alternative when interaction with the criminal system would otherwise be required.

When it comes to community safety and justice, no one size fits all: each community’s needs are unique and each responds differently to efforts to resolve complicated issues like violence. However, there are effective alternative ways to improve community safety that do not involve the police. The programs outlined here reveal the powerful impact that restorative justice methods can have on communities in terms of both their ability to directly address issues like violence and their potential to strengthen communities as a whole by relying on community members to serve as active participants in community safety.



The Opportunity Agenda believes that any conversation about policing practices must start with the aspiration to redefine safety and for communities that can live without fear. Below is a guide to shifting to a narrative about true community safety and away from one rooted in state violence.

1. Lead with a Positive Vision and Shared Values.

The Opportunity Agenda’s past analysis shows that commentators are often divided about how they discuss criminal justice issues. Uplifting the values that you share with different audiences will allow them to “hear” what you’re saying. Most communicators agree: people don’t change their minds based on facts alone, but rather based on how those facts are framed to fit their emotions and values.

Share a clear and inspiring vision. In many cases, audiences have a difficult time envisioning what a different system would look like. Offer a vision that both shows how a new approach will uphold our values and what that could concretely look like. What would it look like to have first responders who were unarmed mental health specialists work with those experiencing a crisis in public? How would it be different for those experiencing homelessness if they had an ongoing relationship with a trained social worker instead of periodic encounters with police? Paint a clear picture for audiences that shows what defunding looks like and how it benefits the larger community while also protecting those most currently affected by problematic policing policies.

Be prepared to answer tough questions, but don’t dwell on them. Many who are opposed to the idea of defunding the police, or who don’t fully understand the vision it represents, will start with the toughest questions: “What happens when someone is murdered?” “How should we handle school shooters?” and so on. It’s important to have a strategy for these questions and to not appear to dodge them. Then, you can move on to the larger part of the argument that affects far more people: what the country would look like with more and better mental health services, enough affordable housing and robust anti-homelessness programs, and well-funded schools, for instance.

Evoke shared values. Some values to engage audiences in conversations about policing include:

  • Equal Justice—the assurance that what you look like, the accent you have, or how much money you make should not affect the treatment you receive in our justice system. Current disparities in the application of laws violate this value, and the emphasis on policing and punishment has contributed heavily to these disparities.
  • Community—the notion that we share responsibility for each other and that opportunity is not only about personal success but about our success as a people. Define what a truly healthy and safe community looks like and remind audiences that we can use the resources we expend on policing to promote our shared values by enhancing health and education and protecting family.
  • True Community Safety—the belief that we all want to live in communities where our family and property are safe. We should work toward communities where all individuals feel safe and paint a picture of what that can look like and what steps will get us there.
  • Voice—the idea that we should all have a say in the decisions that affect us and our communities.
  • Basic Rights/Human Rights—the guarantee of dignity and fairness we all deserve by virtue of our humanity, some of which are also itemized in the Constitution.

2. Clearly identify and describe the problem. Emphasize how police violence undermines community safety.

The violence that police inflict upon Black and Brown communities is often unreported and uncounted but nevertheless very dangerous for these communities. This everyday violence may take the form of aggressive searches and verbal abuse on the streets, and it is often overlooked in crime statistics that police officials use to argue that we should rely on police to redress community harms. Remind your audience that the police themselves have undermined safety in many communities through acts of everyday violence that is often unrecorded and without witnesses.

3. Communicate that reforms that fail to name the harms of racial discrimination, namely anti-Black racism, perpetuate the status quo.

The centrality of racism to police violence is apparent, and policymakers should address this issue directly. Adopting colorblind reforms and language that fail to name racism will only continue to exacerbate the racist outcomes that persist in policing. It is time to have the tough conversation about racism in policing and to look for solutions that deal with it head on.

4. Discuss the overreliance on punitive responses to social problems.

Remind your readers about the harms of this country’s overreliance on incarceration and policing to address social issues. Emphasize that there are alternatives for addressing social issues that don’t involve punishment and incarceration, both of which can separate families, punish people for being poor, and come with collateral consequences that keep people from voting and living in public housing after they have been incarcerated.

5. Highlight the failures of moderate reforms that allow police departments to operate as business as usual.

The Opportunity Agenda has provided charts that advocates can use to illustrate the need for transformative demands that move beyond the minor reforms of the past that have been ineffective or moderately successful. Many of these reforms direct more public dollars into the nation’s police departments.

6. Provide solutions that go beyond policing to achieve community safety.

Tell people what works. Put forward specific goals and solutions and show how they support the larger vision.

Talk about the need to re-examine our laws. What should be de-criminalized and what does that look like? How can our laws be fair, be fairly enforced, and lead to true safety?

The Opportunity Agenda chart on effective alternatives to policing (page 10) provides community programs that may serve as examples for thinking about a world that looks beyond police for community safety. Advocates can use this chart to respond to questions about how to provide safety while taking resources away from the police.

7. Be cautious when discussing data and statistics.

Make sure to frame racial disparities in statistics and data as caused by systemic obstacles to equal opportunity and equal justice. For some audiences, disparities that are not properly framed as the result of systemic obstacles may only reinforce racist views that those audiences already had about why those disparities exist. Explain how systemic biases affect all of us and prevent us from achieving our full potential as a country. We can never truly become a land of opportunity while we allow racial inequity to persist. And ensuring equal opportunity for all is in our shared interest.

8. Redefine the notion of community safety.

Don’t shy away from conversations about safety. #DefundthePolice is about providing safety for everyone and doing so in a manner that respects everyone’s rights and dignity. It’s about well-resourced communities that feel empowered. The goal is to achieve True Community Safety that is centered on empowering communities rather than punishing them.

9. Don’t forget the importance of staying intersectional.

It’s important to keep the conversation intersectional. At times, there can be a tendency to only focus on Black men and boys when talking about police violence. But it’s important to remind your audiences that Black women and girls have experienced unique harms from police violence in this country, as have Black trans people, indigenous women, and others. In addition, people with disabilities, mental health issues, and other communities that have experience with systemic discrimination should remain a part of the conversation.

10. Emphasize the uniqueness of this moment, and invite audiences to imagine a world that matches our values as a society.

We are at a unique moment of our history. Now is the time for us to use our imagination to create the world we would like to see.


Call out the fear-based narratives that our opponents will use to undermine the movement.

The call to #DefundthePolice is a call to fundamentally shift power from the police to the community. It is a radical demand, and advocates should expect strong opposition to it. Some of the opposition may come through direct responses to the demand. But much of the opposition will likely come through the manipulation of crime statistics, threats that the police will not enforce the law, and other indirect tactics to stoke fear. Call out these fear-based tactics and narratives for what they are. Remind your audiences that #DefundthePolice is about providing True Community Safety.



We all deserve to live in communities where we feel safe. And true community safety means being safe from violence from members of the government, including the police.


Americans have witnessed the pervasive nature of racism in this country from the steady stream of videos of police officers and vigilantes murdering Black people. These videos demonstrate that racism permeates policing and cannot be addressed by tinkering with the system.


It’s time for policymakers to defund the police and readjust local budgets to provide resources back to the communities. In NYC, the New York City Council should reallocate $1 billion from the NYPD budget to education, healthcare, and social services for the city’s low-income communities.


Call your city council representative.


Mariame Kaba, Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police, The New York Times

  • Suggesting community care workers replace officers when responding to mental health checks as well as recommending restorative justice groups.

Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan, Fumbling Towards Repair

  • A workbook on facilitating restorative justice groups.

Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes, A Jailbreak of the Imagination: Seeing Prisons for What They Truly Are and Demanding Transformation,

  • Discusses how rhetoric in response to prison abolition sometimes demands answers for the most extreme cases that there is not necessarily an answer to instead of the vast majority of cases, and how advocates should not feel pressured to answer those questions and should continue to critique the current system.
  • “Questions like, ‘what about the really dangerous people?’ are not questions a prison abolitionist must answer in order to insist the prison industrial complex must be undone. These are questions we must collectively answer, even as we trouble the very notion of ‘dangerousness.’ The inability to offer a neatly packaged and easily digestible solution does not preclude offering critique or analysis of the ills of our current system.”

Mariame Kaba, Free Us All: Participatory defense campaigns as abolitionist organizing, The New Inquiry

  • Highlighting the importance of defense campaigns as a part of the abolitionist movement, especially for advocating for the freedom of survivors of gender-based violence. Includes a helpful list of ideas to keep in mind when organizing.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

  • Outlines the dilemma of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in California and how California criminal justice policies were fueled in part by the PIC.

Amna K. Akbar, Toward a Radical Reimagination of Law, 93 New York University Law Review 405 (2018)

  • Discussing how the police provides the “armed protection of state interests” and that the law allows for more racialized police violence. Professor Akbar argues that legal scholars should imagine change beyond the current legal bounds, influenced by the social movements driving the change that should be centered.

Allegra McLeod, Developments in the Law: Envisioning Abolition Democracy, 132 Harvard Law Review 1613 (2019)

Allegra McLeod, Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice, 62 UCLA Law Review 1156 (2015)

  • Explaining that abolition is less about physically tearing down prisons and is more focused on abolishing the culture of racialized punishment.
  • Discussing abolition as a positive and a negative project.

Charlotte Rosen, Abolition or Bust: Liberal Prison Reform as an Engine of Carceral Violence, The Abusable Past

  • Explaining why liberal policing reform is harmful from a historical context, branching off of work by Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right.

K. Agbebiyi, Sarah T. Hamid, Rachel Kuo, and Mon Mohapatra, Abolition Cannot Wait: Visions for Transformation and Radical World-Building, WEAR YOUR VOICE

  • Discussing the many issues that abolition affects, including anti-white supremacy, anti-capitalism, and anti-imperialism.

INCITE! Community Accountability page. Abolition page generally.

1 Monika Evstatieva & Tim Mak, How Decades of Bans on Police Chokeholds Have Fallen Short, NPR (June 16, 2020),; Jodie Fleischer & Rick Yarborough, DC Police Banned Neck Restraints Years Ago; Council Wants to Make Law Clear, NBC Washington,; Nicholas Iovin, San Francisco Police Sue Over City’s Chokehold Ban. Courthouse News Service (Dec. 27, 2016),; Atlanta passes ban on police chokeholds, empowers citizen review board. News Break (June 6, 2020),; New Orleans Police Department Operation Manual, available at; Oklahoma Police Department policies, available at; Governor Cuomo Signs Legislation Requiring New York State Police Officers to Wear Body Cameras and Creating the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office, Yonkers Tribune (June 16, 2020),; Skyler Swisher, Miami-Dade Police Department bans chokeholds, Sun Sentinel (June 11, 2020),

2 Christina Carrega, Some NYPD officers tip each other off when body cameras are on: watchdog report. ABC (Feb. 27, 2020),; Megan Hickey, How Often Do Chicago Police Officers Fail To Activate Their Body Cameras? It’s Hard To Know, CBS Chicago (July 30, 2019),; Samantha Melamed, What happens when Philly police get body cameras—but don’t turn them on? The Philadelphia Inquirer (July 15, 2020),; MPD and Body-Worn Cameras.,; Megan Cassidy, San Francisco police turned off body cameras before illegal raid on journalist, memo says, San Francisco Chronicle (June 18, 2020),; LAPD Body-Worn Cameras, ACLU,; Martin Kaste, New Orleans’ Police Use of Body Cameras Brings Benefits and New Burdens, NPR (Mar. 3, 2017),; Body Worn Camera Program, Miami Police (2013),; Equipment and Supplies Policy, available at; Body-Worn Cameras,,; Atlanta Police Department Policy Manual, available at; Ashley Luther, What you need to know about Milwaukee police body cameras, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (May 23, 2018),

3 Specialized Training Section, New York City Police Department,; Annie Sweeney, Chicago police rolling out new, mandatory “de-escalation” training, Chicago Tribune (Sep. 17, 2016),; George Fachner & Steven Carter, Collaborative Reform Initiative: An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Police Department; Metropolitan Police Department Recognizes Crisis Intervention Officer of the Year,,; Improving our response to crises involving the mentally ill. San Francisco Police Department (July 15, 2020),; Community Inquiries on LAPD Training and Practice, The Los Angeles Police Department,; Ambria Washington, In 2016, NOPD Prioritized De-Escalation Training for New and Veteran Officers, NOPD News (Dec. 13, 2016),,-nopd-prioritized-de-escalation-training-f/; De-escalation in High Risk Tactics, Miami Dade College,; Atlanta Police Training Academy, available at; Minneapolis Recruitment and Training, available at; Police Chief Wade Gourley,,; Recommendations. City of Milwaukee,

4 Emma Ockerman, More Police Departments Are Adopting “Duty to Intervene” Policies. But They Didn’t Save George Floyd. Vice (June 5, 2020),; Bernard Condon & Todd Richmond, Duty to intervene: Floyd cops spoke up but didn’t step in, Associated Press (June 7, 2020),; Chicago Police Department Use of Force Policy, available at; Philadelphia Police Department Use of Force Policy, available at; Police Complaints Board Releases Report on D.C. Police Officers’ Duty to Intervene, (Aug. 28, 2019),; San Francisco Police Department General Order on Use of Force, available at; Volume 1 of LAPD Manual, available at; A Newsletter Of The Police Executive Research Forum, Police Executive Research Forum (July–Sept. 2016),; Miami-Dade Police Department releases letter to community amid protests, (June 8, 2020),; Atlanta Police Training Academy, supra note 3; Lauren Daniels, Oklahoma City Police respond to nationwide “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, Oklahoma’s News 4 (June 15, 2020),; Amanda St. Hilaire, What Milwaukee police policies really say (and why it matters), Fox 6 Now (June 22, 2020),

5 Seth Barron, Explicit Danger, City Journal (Aug. 29, 2019),; Debbie Southorn & Sarah Lazare, Officers Accused of Abuses Are Leading Chicago Police’s “Implicit Bias” Training Program, The Intercept (Feb. 3, 2019),; Kelly Cofrancisco, Breaking down the FY21 Philadelphia Police Department’s proposed budget, City of Philadelphia (June 5, 2020),; Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Academy Sessions, Georgetown Law,; New Orleans Police Department Operations Manual, available at; Bias-Free Policing, San Francisco Police Department (updated July 15, 2020),; Volume 1 of LAPD Manual, supra note 4; Candice Wang, Can implicit bias training help cops overcome racism? Popular Science (June 16, 2020),; Atlanta Police Training Academy, supra note 3; Riham Feshir, Minneapolis budgets $300,000 for police bias training, MPR News (Dec. 10, 2015),; Council Majority Leader Pineda-Isaac: Repeal 50a and Body Cameras for the YPD, Yonkers Times (June 13, 2020),; Matt Dinger, Oklahoma City officers take long look at themselves and citizens in bias training class, The Oklahoman (Dec. 27, 2016),

6 Neighborhood Policing, New York City Police Department,; Chicago Police Department Strategic Plan, available at; Philadelphia Police Collaborative Reform Initiative, available at; MPD Community Outreach,,; Community Policing Strategic Plan, San Francisco Police Department (updated July 15, 2020),; Community Policing Unit, The Los Angeles Police Department,; New Orleans Police Department Community Engagement Manual, available at; Community Policing, Crime Prevention, and Juvenile Programs Evaluation by Miami-Dade Police Department, available at; Reginald Moorman, Community Policing Programs, Atlanta Police Department,; Minneapolis Community-Oriented Policing and Community Relations Training, available at; Yonkers Police Department Public Opinion Survey 2017, available at; Community Programs,,; Office of Community Outreach & Education, Milwaukee Police Department,

7 Complaints, NYC,; Civilian Office of Policy Accountability; City of Chicago,; About Office of Police Complaints,,; Department of Police Accountability, available at; Mark Puente, All-civilian panels could review LAPD misconduct cases starting June 13, Los Angeles Times (June 4, 2019),; New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, available at; Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), MIAMI,; Atlanta Citizen Review Board, available at; OKCPD Citizens Advisory Board,,; Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, available at

8 Sarah DeGue, Katherine Fowler, & Cynthia Calkins, Deaths due to use of lethal force by law enforcement: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System, 17 U.S. States 2009–2012. Am J Prev Med. 2016 Nov; 51(5 Suppl 3): S173–S187, available at

9 Pierre Thomas, John Kelly, & Tonya Simpson, ABC News analysis of police arrests nationwide reveals stark racial disparity, ABC (June 11, 2020),

10 Roland G. Fryer J., An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force, Journal of Political Economy (2017), available at

11 See DECREE, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

12 The Department of Justice’s Interactive Guide to the Civil Rights Division’s Police Reforms, available at; Chicago Police Consent Decree, available at; Aaron Mosselle, ACLU: New stop-and-frisk numbers “not what people of Philadelphia deserve,” Whyy (Apr. 28, 2020),

13 Michael Hobbes, “Implicit Bias” Trainings Don’t Actually Change Police Behavior, HUFFPOST (Updated June 15, 2020),

14 Cf. Douglas Belkin, Kris Maher, & Deanna Paul, Clout of Minneapolis Police Union Boss Reflects National Trend, The Wall Street Journal (July 7, 2020),

15 Justin Sondel & Hannah Knowles, George Floyd died after officers didn’t step in. These police say they did—and paid a price, The Washington Post (June 12, 2020),

16 Christina Carrega, supra note 2.

17 Megan Hickey, supra note 2.

18 Ethan Zuckerman, Why filming police violence has done nothing to stop it, MIT Technology Review (June 3, 2020).

19 Monika Evstatieva & Tim Mak, supra note 1.

20 Id.

21 Jodie Fleischer & Rick Yarborough, supra note 1.

22 Summer Lin, California city votes to remove cops from traffic stops, aims to slash police budget, Miami Herald (July 14, 2020),

23 For a discussion of violations of the reform-policies by police departments, see accompanying memorandum.

24 Monika Evstatieva & Tim Mak, How Decades of Bans on Police Chokeholds Have Fallen Short, NPR (June 16, 2020),

25 Christina Carrega, Some NYPD officers tip each other off when body cameras are on: watchdog report, ABC (Feb. 27, 2020),

26 Specialized Training Section, New York City Police Department,

27 Seth Barron, Explicit Danger, City Journal (Aug. 29, 2019),

28 Neighborhood Policing, New York City Police Department,

29 Complaints, NYC,

30 Emma Ockerman, More Police Departments Are Adopting “Duty to Intervene” Policies. But They Didn’t Save George Floyd, Vice (June 5, 2020),

31 Monika Evstatieva & Tim Mak, supra note 57.

32 Megan Hickey, How Often Do Chicago Police Officers Fail To Activate Their Body Cameras? It’s Hard To Know, CBS Chicago (July 30, 2019),

33 Annie Sweeney, Chicago police rolling out new, mandatory “de-escalation” training, Chicago Tribune (Sep. 17, 2016),

34 Debbie Southorn & Sarah Lazare, Officers Accused of Abuses Are Leading Chicago Police’s “Implicit Bias” Training Program, The Intercept (Feb. 3, 2019),

35 Chicago Police Department Strategic Plan, available at

36 Civilian Office of Policy Accountability, City of Chicago,

37 Chicago Police Department Use of Force Policy, available at

38 Chicago Police Consent Decree, available at

39 Monika Evstatieva & Tim Mak, supra note 57.

40 Samantha Melamed, What happens when Philly police get body cameras—but don’t turn them on? The Philadelphia Inquirer (July 15, 2020),

41 George Fachner & Steven Carter, Collaborative Reform Initiative An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Police Department,

42 Kelly Cofrancisco, Breaking down the FY21 Philadelphia Police Department’s proposed budget, City of Philadelphia (June 5, 2020), get/.

43 Philadelphia Police Collaborative Reform Initiative, available at; MPD Community Outreach,,

44 Philadelphia Police Department Use of Force Policy, available at 13758/Philadelphia+less+lethal+force.pdf.

45 Aaron Mosselle, ACLU: New stop-and-frisk numbers “not what people of Philadelphia deserve,” Whyy (Apr. 28, 2020),

46 Jodie Fleischer & Rick Yarborough, DC Police Banned Neck Restraints Years Ago; Council Wants to Make Law Clear, NBC Washington,

47 MPD and Body-Worn Cameras,,

48 Metropolitan Police Department Recognizes Crisis Intervention Officer of the Year,,

49 Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Academy Sessions, Georgetown Law,

50 MPD Community Outreach,,

51 About Office of Police Complaints,,

52 Police Complaints Board Releases Report on D.C. Police Officers’ Duty to Intervene, (Aug. 28, 2019), %99-duty-intervene.

53 Nicholas Iovin, San Francisco Police Sue Over City’s Chokehold Ban, Courthouse News Service (Dec. 27, 2016),

54 Megan Cassidy, San Francisco police turned off body cameras before illegal raid on journalist, memo says, San Francisco Chronicle (June 18, 2020),

55 Improving our response to crises involving the mentally ill, San Francisco Police Department (July 15, 2020),

56 Bias-Free Policing, San Francisco Police Department (updated July 15, 2020),

57 Community Policing Strategic Plan, San Francisco Police Department (updated July 15, 2020),

58 Department of Police Accountability, available at

59 San Francisco Police Department General Order on Use of Force, available at

60 Monika Evstatieva & Tim Mak, supra note 57.

61 LAPD Body-Worn Cameras, ACLU,

62 Community Inquiries on LAPD Training and Practice, The Los Angeles Police Department,

63 Volume 1 of LAPD Manual, available at

64 Community Policing Unit, The Los Angeles Police Department,

65 Mark Puente, All-civilian panels could review LAPD misconduct cases starting June 13, Los Angeles Times (June 4, 2019), 4-story.html.

66 Volume 1 of LAPD Manual, supra note 96.

67 The Department of Justice’s Interactive Guide to the Civil Rights Division’s Police Reforms, available at

68 New Orleans Police Department Operations Manual, available at

69 Martin Kaste, New Orleans’ Police Use of Body Cameras Brings Benefits and New Burdens, NPR (Mar. 3, 2017), meras-brings-benefits-and-new-burdens.

70 Ambria Washington, In 2016, NOPD Prioritized De-Escalation Training for New and Veteran Officers, NOPD News (Dec. 13, 2016),,-nopd-prioritized-de-escalation-training-f/.

71 New Orleans Police Department Operations Manual, available at

72 New Orleans Police Department Community Engagement Manual, available at

73 New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, available at

74 A Newsletter of the Police Executive Research Forum, Police Executive Research Forum (July–Sept. 2016),

75 The Department of Justice’s Interactive Guide to the Civil Rights Division’s Police Reforms, supra note 44.

76 Skyler Swisher, Miami-Dade Police Department bans chokeholds, Sun Sentinel (June 11, 2020),

77 Body Worn Camera Program, Miami Police (2013),

78 De-escalation In High Risk Tactics, Miami Dade College,

79 Candice Wang, Can implicit bias training help cops overcome racism? Popular Science (June 16, 2020),

80 Community Policing, Crime Prevention, and Juvenile Programs Evaluation by Miami-Dade Police Department, available at

81 Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), Miami,

82 Miami-Dade Police Department releases letter to community amid protests, (June 8, 2020),

83 Atlanta passes ban on police chokeholds, empowers citizen review board, News Break (June 6, 2020),

84 Atlanta Police Department Policy Manual, available at

85 Atlanta Police Training Academy, available at

86 Id.

87 Reginald Moorman, Community Policing Programs, Atlanta Police Department,

88 Atlanta Citizen Review Board, available at

89 Atlanta Police Training Academy, supra note 118.

90 Monika Evstatieva & Tim Mak, supra note 57.

91 Equipment and Supplies Policy, available at

92 Minneapolis Recruitment and Training, available at

93 Riham Feshir, Minneapolis budgets $300,000 for police bias training, MPR News (Dec. 10, 2015),

94 Minneapolis Community-Oriented Policing and Community Relations Training, available at

95 Minneapolis: Civilian Review, Human Rights Watch,

96 Duty To Intervene: Floyd Cops Spoke Up But Didn’t Step In, CBS Minnesota (June 7, 2020),

97 Governor Cuomo Signs Legislation Requiring New York State Police Officers to Wear Body Cameras and Creating the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office, Yonkers Tribune (June 16, 2020),

98 Repeal 50a and Body Cameras for the YPD, Yonkers Times (June 13, 2020),

99 Yonkers Police Department Public Opinion Survey 2017, available at

100 Oklahoma Police Department policies, available at

101 Body-Worn Cameras,,

102 Police Chief Wade Gourley,,

103 Matt Dinger, Oklahoma City officers take long look at themselves and citizens in bias training class, The Oklahoman (Dec. 27, 2016), n-bias-training-class.

104 Community Programs,,

105 OKCPD Citizens Advisory Board,,

106 Oklahoma City Police respond to nationwide “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, Oklahoma’s News 4 (June 15, 2020),

107 Ashley Luther, What you need to know about Milwaukee police body cameras, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (May 23, 2018),

108 Recommendations, City of Milwaukee,

109 Candice Wang, supra note 112.

110 Office of Community Outreach & Education, Milwaukee Police Department,

111 Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, available at

112 Amanda St. Hilaire, What Milwaukee police policies really say (and why it matters), Fox 6 Now (June 22, 2020),

113 NYC Young Men’s Initiative: Program Summary—NYC Cure Violence, City of New York, 2012

114 Sheyla Delgado, Laila Alsabahi, Kevin Wolff, Nicole Alexander, Patricia Coba, and Jeffrey Butts, The Effects of Cure Violence in the South Bronx and East New York, Brooklyn, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, October 2, 2017

115 Id.

116 Id.

117 Id.

118 Id.

119 Id.

120 Id.

121 Id.

122 Peacemaking Program, Center for Court Innovation,

123 Michael Maly, Keeping the Peace: A Study of Restorative Justice Peace Circles in Two Chicago Public Schools, Restorative School Toolkit, Spring 2014,

124 Suvi Hynynen Lambson, Peacemaking Circles: Evaluating a Native American Restorative Justice Practice in a State Criminal Court Setting in Brooklyn, Center for Court Innovation, January 2015

125 Id.

126 Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets: Media Guide 2020, White Bird Clinic, 2020

127 Id.

128 Id.

129 Id.

130 Id.

131 Kaia Sand, TAKE ACTION! Petition City Council to Increase Funding for Portland Street Response, Portland Street Response, June 7, 2020

132 Work: Community-Based Crisis Response, Denver Alliance for Street Health Response,,safety%20and%20serve%20our%20communities.

133 Devone L. Boggan, To Stop Crime, Hand Over Cash, New York Times, July 4, 2015,

134 Id.

135 Id.

136 A.M. Wolf, A. Del Prado Lippman, C. Glesmann, E. Castro, Process Evaluation for the Office of Neighborhood Safety, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, July 2015,

137 Id.

138 Cynthia G. Lee, Fred L. Cheesman, David B. Rottman, Rachel Swaner, Suvi Lambson, Mike Rempel, and Rick Curtis, A Community Court Grows in Brooklyn: A Comprehensive Evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, National Center for State Courts, November 2013,

139 Id.

140 Id.

141 Cynthia G. Lee, Fred L. Cheesman, David B. Rottman, Rachel Swaner, Suvi Lambson, Mike Rempel, and Rick Curtis, Executive Summary: A Community Court Grows in Brooklyn: A Comprehensive Evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, National Center for State Courts, November 2013,

142 Id.

143 Id.

144 Id.

145 Jeffrey Butts, Janeen Buck, Mark Coggeshall, The Impact of Teen Court on Young Offenders, National Criminal Justice Reference Service, April 2002,

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