SACRAMENTO – While visiting a state prison recently, a seasoned lawmaker reached out to shake the hand of an inmate and tell him who she was. The introduction, however, wasn’t necessary.
“We all know you,” Assemblymember Dr. Shirley N. Weber recalled the man saying.
“We watch you on television and we know what you’ve done. We keep asking each other,
‘What’s this sistah gonna do next?’” he continued.
Since taking office at the State Capitol in 2012, “this sistah” has made a name for herself taking on issues ranging from mental health to voting rights. Dr. Weber (D-San Diego) has also successfully passed legislation related to ethnic studies in public schools, racial profiling, police worn body-cameras and improvements to a flawed database that tracked alleged gang members.
Her determination to see police reform happen “by any means necessary,” has led to her selection by The Sacramento OBSERVER as its 2019 Person of the Year.
“(Assembly Bill) 392 was a movement,” Dr. Weber shared with The OBSERVER.
“It was more than just me, it was the people of California deciding that it was time for change,”
AB 392: The California Act to Save Lives is also known as the “Stephon Clark bill” as Dr. Weber and Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) first introduced it in the wake of the March 2018 shooting death of Clark, an unarmed Black man. The 22-year-old father was killed when two Sacramento police officers mistook his cell phone for a gun and shot at him 20 times in his grandmother’s Meadowview-area backyard. Dr. Weber joined the Clark family in maintaining that the young man would still be alive if the officers had used better judgement and de-escalation tactics. The police-involved shootings of Blacks and Latinos are often found to be “justified” because of the way California law had been written and with the Clark shooting, folks said ‘enough is enough.’
AB 392, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in August, changes when California police officers can use deadly force from when it is “reasonable” to when it is “necessary” to prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person. Even with concessions made to remove police union opposition, it’s still considered to be one of the country’s strongest use-of-force policies.
Dr. Weber spent more than a year travelling the state strumming up support and convincing her colleagues to vote in favor of it. It was an uphill battle, she admits.
“Legislators are sometimes hesitant to move unless they believe they’re going to have some cover. I’m a little different in that sense. I probably have as much at stake as others in a personal way, but not in a political, career-oriented way as some of the others feel they have,” she shared.
Dr. Weber, a former college professor, hesitates to call AB 392 her career’s defining moment, but its impact, and the work it took to see it to fruition, isn’t lost on her.
“My career has been a very long career that has gone in very different kinds of directions at different times,” she said. “AB 392, no question, was probably the hardest bill I’d ever done and may be the most significant for not only the state of California, but obviously for the nation.
“It was a defining moment, I think, for the community and for the legislature given the oppositions that were there. The fact that law enforcement had really staked in the ground in California that they could defeat any bill they chose to … every time there is any change, dramatic change, it occurs as a result of a tremendous effort.”
The victory, she says, wasn’t hers alone, but came as a result of the “voice of the people.” The “movement” she says brought a lot of people to political, community and social justice action, who may have been previous cynics, but came to realize the power of their voices.
“The forces you go up against to try to bring significant change are well-organized and well-funded,” she said. “Sometimes people feel overwhelmed by the fact that you can never get anything through. Yet, 392 said when you really are persistent that you can actually move the mountain and you can make a difference.
“(AB) 392 empowered communities because people said it couldn’t be done,” she said. “They had pretty much counted this out. We forget sometimes the mountains that African Americans have climbed in this country,” she continued.
While Dr. Weber says she did take “a minute” to reflect on the year she’s had, she’s already looking to the work that’s ahead in 2020. She recently ordered an audit of state school funding, arguing that the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), that is supposed to see money going to the state’s neediest students to narrow the academic achievement gap, isn’t being spent as intended.
“We see what’s happening with the money there and it’s not being adequately used for our children who are severely behind and if I’ve learned anything from 392 it’s that it’s going to take a movement in California to reform its education system,” Assemblymember Weber shared.
Education accountability can be just as contentious as police reform.
“Maybe even more,” Dr. Weber said.
“The labor groups are just as powerful to lock down decisions and people don’t think it can ever happen, that we can’t reform California’s education system, that there can’t be any accountability for our children.”
The educator-turned-lawmaker is determined to show Californians otherwise and to mobilize them for the task.
“Education is supposed to be the new civil rights, That’s what people have talked about for the last 10 years, that we’ve done a lot in the area of civil rights, but if you do not adequately reform the education system, folks will still be behind, because they’ll be lacking the skills and the knowledge to basically take care of themselves and others and they’ll still find themselves unable to really negotiate the larger society and empower themselves. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not those who believe in social justice also believe that social justice has to do with education and equity.”
Affirmative action is also among the things on Dr. Weber’s radar.
“It’s not far from my concern and my passion,” she said.
“It has had devastating effects, not so much in education, but devastating effects in business and contracting for women and people of color.”
Accountability for past bills that have been passed. Looking back to make sure “folks are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
“That’s what we did with the LCFF,” Dr. Weber said. “Oftentimes, we pass bills and then they get to the administrative and bureaucratic level and they decide to rewrite it, redo it or don’t do it at all, and now that we’re here for 12 years, legislators should be able to hold people accountable for the implementation of the laws in the State of California.”
Dr. Weber says she and other members of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which she currently chairs, will also focus on health issues in 2020.
“We led a number of workshops this past year on cancer, on heart disease, on sickle cell and HIV. In almost every area we are leading in terms of research and all those things, yet when it comes to the African American community we’re still the victim of all the ills of society in terms of not having the access to the kinds of research and access to the kinds of medication and treatment that we should have access to. The Legislative Black Caucus is going to have to do some things legislatively to begin to work on those issues,” she said.
The group is also concerned about reparations, she says.
“We’re working with UCLA and UC Berkeley around the issue of reparations with the research centers that they have. We expect an exciting year, with some good things to watch and hopefully some efforts on the part of many of the members of the Caucus, as well as myself, to author some of these bills and fight some of these battles.”
THE OBSERVER proudly salutes Assemblywoman Dr. Shirley Weber as the 2019 “Person of the Year.”
By: Genoa Barrow | Senior Staff Writer