The spring of 2020 has a historic before and after. Before the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and after — when the rage and pain over police violence and systemic racism erupted in powerful protests that brought us, finally, to a national moment of clarity about racist, violent policing. Americans across all demographics now acknowledge that these scourges exist and must be stopped.
However hard-won, this is a gift. It’s a moment to seize.
We know that meaningful change won’t come if we look to the Trump White House. As protests broke out, Donald Trump spent significantly more time glorifying law and order than he did police reform and creating change. You can sum up the GOP bill on police reform in 10 words: We are more afraid of police unions than police killings.
But we also know that while some governors will push through bold changes, some states — such as Texas, Florida, Georgia and Maryland — with the highest Black populations have Republican governors who, on this issue, have more closely aligned themselves with Trump.
The good news is that former President Barack Obama is right. We have great opportunity to make real change at the local level in real time. About half of Black Americans live in just 20 metropolitan areas in the United States. If we focus on changes we can make in those metro areas — changes that are attainable by mayors, councilpersons, prosecutors and police chiefs — we don’t have to wait for the next election to make life dramatically better for the majority of people of color in this country.
That’s why we need a 20-metro strategy right now, to focus the energy that has grown over the past several weeks into immediate action that will save lives and make people safer.
They need to make changes in four key areas: standards, recruiting, training and accountability. We need clear standards on the use of force, so that bullets are fired only as a last resort. We need to make sure we recruit officers who have a heart for service, not a lust for power. We need expert training in de-escalation techniques for officers. We need civilian oversight to ensure accountability, and we need to ensure that when officers are terminated for abuse, their names go into a register that makes it much more difficult for them to be hired somewhere else.
This effort calls for a multigenerational, multiracial coalition to create the templates needed and bring them to fruition. There are good ideas coming out of Congress, including the Democrats' George Floyd Justice in Policing Act drafted under the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus, that we can adapt and adopt. National organizations, like the one I lead, can and will help.
In the end, we need a campaign that brings national support to diverse local activists — veterans and those just finding their voice — and young progressive elected officials, clergy and community leaders to create the will to overwhelm politicians who tell us that holding police accountable is incompatible with the rule of law.
The lessons we learn in the first 20 metro areas we organize will become important models to apply in the next 20, and the 20 after that. We know this locally based, inclusive model can work, because it is deeply woven into the fabric of American history.
We ended the horrific reign of lynch mobs in this country without federal legislation — we still haven’t achieved that — but with a movement that relied on intense local political and moral pressure. We can end police violence the same way. When we do, we will all be safer.
Police violence is disproportionately directed at Black women and men. But in recent days, we have also seen that the victims of unjustified use of force can be any of us — police pushed a white 75-year-old peace activist to the ground and walked by him as blood pooled on the ground around his head; a New York police officer shoved a young white female protester to the ground so hard that she might have gotten a concussion; a priest was forced off the grounds of a church.
I believe this time of reckoning will ultimately transform our approach to public safety on the federal level. But we have to recognize what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now” — an urgency that is evident on the country’s sidewalks and street corners. This is the kind of energy that turns a moment into a movement.
Let’s not miss our chance to channel this movement into an achievable strategy that can save lives today.
Ben Jealous is president of People For the American Way, former president of the NAACP and a former candidate for governor of Maryland.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police reform: Don't wait for Congress. Start in 20 cities.