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Democracy reform groups seize time of racial protest to press their cause

A week of escalating and violent protest against racial injustice has prompted democracy reform groups to start uniting behind a message that resonates with their own goals.

Responding to the wave of demonstrations against the deaths of black people killed by police, many of these organizations are reaching out to declare unequivocal support for the marchers. But their statements, which grew in volume Monday, are also seeking to connect the furious urgency of the moment to the pursuit of their sometimes more esoteric sounding agenda.

Achieving racial justice and fixing all that's broken with governance and politics are two sides of the same pursuit, they say. Giving all Americans an equal standing is a prerequisite to securing a democracy that works for all voters, but reducing the current imbalance in democratic power is at the same time a prerequisite for giving all voices a chance to be heard.

"Democracy is our common cause. And, we can't have a true democracy when Black and Brown people are denied their rights to justice — or victimized by abuse, racial profiling, and police brutality," Common Cause President Karen Hobart Flynn said Monday in an email to supporters of one of the country's original good-governance groups.

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To achieve a better democracy, Flynn wrote, "we must acknowledge racism that has been an integral part of this nation's past and present — and fight systemic racism wherever we find it, whether it be in our streets, at the ballot box, or in our justice system."

Roughly 1,000 people are shot and killed by police each year. Despite making up only 13 percent of the national population, black Americans are killed at a rate more than twice as high as white people.

"The numbers are disturbingly consistent from year to year," Robert Weissman, the president of another prominent progressive group, Public Citizen, told its supporters. "But they are not a fact of nature. They can change with policy."

The groups run by Flynn and Weissman, and more than 400 other good-government and civil rights organizations, unveiled a letter asking Congress to reform the country's law enforcement agencies. Their recommendations include setting a federal standard to make use of force by officers a last resort, prohibiting racial profiling and developing a national database to track police misconduct.

The manifesto issued Monday did not include any discussion of voting rights or other top items on the democracy reform agenda.

The groups magnified their voices as 140 or more cities from coast to coast prepared for a seventh consecutive night of peaceful demonstrations pockmarked by bursts of theft, vandalism and attacks on police in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police — and after President Trump threatened to send in the military to restore order if governors didn't act quickly. He turned up that pressure Tuesday, demanding New York call up the National Guard to stop the "lowlifes and losers."

The reason for the protests is not new, the groups say in the letter, but are a response to decades of violence and racism against black people and "a cry for action to public officials for structural change, writ large."

Issue One, which emphasizes its bipartisan approach to democracy reform, issued those sentiments in its own statement. (The organization operates but is journalistically independent of The Fulcrum.)

"Now more than ever, we need to be able to trust in our democratic system — and its institutions," said the group's CEO, Nick Penniman. "Yet, for many, the political system exists to keep powerless people powerless."

American Promise, which advocates almost exclusively for tighter regulation of money in politics, said in a message to supporters that it needs to get better educated on racial injustices so it can continue to pursue a more equitable and representative democracy.

"This is not a 'distraction' from our goal; this is our goal: an America where we do not abuse power to lock out, silence and destroy our fellow Americans," said the group's president, Jeff Clements.

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