As Defund the Police Loses Luster Activists Assess Joe Biden's Prospects for Police Reform

The day after cable networks projected Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a staunch Biden ally, made sure to lay blame at the feet of the "defund the police" movement for Democratic losses in Congress.

He said he and the late John Lewis concluded, "it had the possibilities of doing to the Black Lives Matter movement and current movements across the country what 'Burn, baby, burn' did to us back in 1960."

Biden, and even President Barack Obama, would follow suit in pointing to the potential of the movement that arose to national prominence after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, to divide rather than bring people under its banner.

"That's how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we're talking about defunding the police. We're not," Biden said in a leaked recording of a meeting with civil rights leaders posted by The Intercept two weeks ago.

Biden went as far as to say Democrats should be cautious with police reform conversations before the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia that will decide control of the Senate, further evidence of his belief that damage has been done to previously popular police reform efforts.

That reaction by the president-elect angered activists and has put a spotlight on the form police reform efforts should take with Democrats nervous about possible political blowback moving forward.

Do they want to defund police? No. But do they want to end the police killing of unarmed Americans, with no consequences? Yeah, they do.
Jamal Simmons, Democratic strategist and political commentator

"Post-election, the upcoming administration's reactions have been very unsurprisingly disappointing," Aislinn Pulley, an organizer for Black Lives Matter Chicago, told Newsweek, before citing the response by the Democratic Party in general after the election. "The reaction toward the defund movement and comments made disparagingly about BLM, and other members of the movement, are extremely disappointing and unsurprising."

After Floyd's killing, the Black Lives Matter protests were some of the largest in American history, according to a New York Times analysis. A disjointed national movement drew its strength from local leaders young and old, and regular Americans who joined in, often fueled by what had already happened with police in their cities, even before the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery increased the urgency.

"Defund the police" itself had different meanings to different activists, but generally came to mean taking away money in the budget for policing and using it for things like housing and community programs. Nationally, however, the idea that Democrats wanted to get rid of police took hold because of Republicans and conservative media hammering that message.

Momentum in Congress because of the protests flagged when Democrats said a GOP bill didn't go far enough and Senate Republicans dismissed Democratic legislation, which included a ban on chokeholds, the end of qualified immunity that protects police from civil lawsuits, and a ban on no-knock warrants, which led to Taylor's death in Kentucky when she was shot and killed by police who stormed her apartment looking for her boyfriend.

Activists who spoke to Newsweek said the makeup of Congress and Biden's apprehension about police reform is a reminder that much can be done on the local level if the federal government will not step up.

"The most transformational change with regard to policing and criminal justice will happen at the local level," DeRay McKesson, a co-founder of Campaign Zero, which advocates policies to end police violence, told Newsweek. "The federal government can model transformative practices, notably by dramatically decreasing the federal prison population and ending the power of federalized police forces like ICE."

Pulley said both must happen—pressure for local and national reforms—but cited a controversy in Chicago as evidence of the ripple effects that can lead to national changes.

Video was recently released of a February 2019 house raid by Chicago police of 50-year-old social worker Anjanette Young. Her home was wrongly raided, and Young, who was getting ready for bed, was naked and horrified as she pleaded with police that they had the wrong home.

Because it took nearly two years for the video to be released, Pulley said the community and country will never know what a Chicago fight to end home raids could have led to nationally.

"Had this video been released two years ago, we could have organized and exposed this practice, and what would the effect have been nationally, a movement against home raids?" Pulley asked. "It could have saved Breonna Taylor's life."

Others, like Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist and CBS political commentator, said there is a "great likelihood" that some kind of police reform will get done because many middle-class Americans who watched the Floyd killing on cable news, along with the subsequent protests, want it to happen.

"Do they want to defund police? No. But do they want to end the police killing of unarmed Americans, with no consequences? Yeah, they do," he argued.

The politics and makeup of the next Congress will decide what part of Biden's agenda can move, but political considerations within the incoming White House also will play a role, Simmons said.

"It's in everybody's interest for it to happen on the Democratic side," he added. "Activists want it to happen, Biden wants it to happen, and [Vice President-elect] Kamala Harris is thinking about the administration, but needs to shore up her support among that community for the future."

biden police reform
Vendors sell Biden Harris flags during the March on Washington on August 28, 2020, in Washington, D.C. The Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network organized a march with families who lost loved ones to police brutality, calling for criminal justice reform and demanding changes to federal legislation against police misconduct. Natasha Moustache/Getty